As the Hurricane Katrina anniversary draws closer, you’ll hear a lot about New Orleans restaurants and what their comeback did for the city’s recovery. You’ll hear some of this for me too. It’s an important story, and a powerful one.
But first, I need to acknowledge the role played by a different sort of establishment that came back fast on the heels of Katrina, a type that may not have necessarily served food but did provide social nourishment — served up by the glass, the cup, the bottle or whichever way they could manage it.
It’s the New Orleans neighborhood bar. Not every watering hole qualifies for this category, but when you’re in one that does, you know it in an instant. These are charismatic, convivial places nestled tightly into their neighborhoods. They are not unique to New Orleans, of course, but they are an integral part of the city, part of its social landscape.
They were even where some first caught wind of the coming crisis, as the TV in the corner flashed storm tracks of this looming monster called Katrina between updates from the Saints preseason. When floodwaters rose, they too were engulfed right along with their neighbors. And yet, in many cases these neighborhood bars were among the first to return.
In the areas that were badly flooded, the neighborhoods where practically every structure was damaged and where the prospect of electricity was months away at best, the return of a neighborhood bar was often a first flicker of progress.
Of course, it didn’t take much to reopen a bar compared to reopening a restaurant or a grocery store. But sometimes the neighborhood bar was able to return on much less than anyone would have imagined beforehand. That was part of what made them invaluable after Katrina — they were social first responders.
And they were ragged. Missing windows, gutted walls, illumination by candlelight, ice chests if you were lucky, warm beer otherwise, cash only and catch-as-catch-can hours — in the beginning these places weren’t even really open in an official way. They were ad hoc and winging it, but then so was the entire city.
They were bars at their most basic, and at the same time they were neighborhood bars at their most valuable, most true to their origins and character.
During that first dark fall and winter, they were outposts, confirming the hard-to-believe hunch that other people actually had started trickling back to New Orleans. When people were still in the look-and-leave mode, the bar near their house could be a place to linger.
And then, these outposts were trading posts too, exchanging that coveted commodity of information in a city starved for it. There was no Twitter in 2005. Facebook was still just for college students. Texting was novel for most. But the neighborhood bar provided face-to-face crowd sourcing for what was happening, what people were hearing and what was in the works.
Yeah sure, these are just old neighborhood bar rooms, and some people might not see anything too heroic in returning to the business of selling drinks in the face of such monumental suffering and destruction. But the whole point of a neighborhood bar is that is it part of its neighborhood. They took Katrina hard too. But they got back open. And when the chips were down in New Orleans they became a lot more than just a place to say bottoms up.