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Spared history might be Big Easy's salvation

French Quarter, Garden District appear largely intact


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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Art Museums
French Quarter
Garden District

(CNN) -- Soon after, "Why did it take so long to help?" comes the question: "Can New Orleans recover?"

In a town steeped in history and soused with a raucous reputation, bloated corpses float on flooded streets where shade-tree trumpeters blew tunes in exchange for dollars dropped in hats.

The scrawny teenagers pounding out tap dances with bottle caps tacked to their sneakers on the French Quarter's Royal Street are gone. There's no smell of hot grease wafting out of fried oyster po-boy shops.

There is no music. Boys don't dance. Stench fills the air.

Thousands are gone and thousands more are trying to escape the city's sewage-filled floodwaters, but some centuries-old landmarks still stand. And those structures signal hope for the future.

"New Orleans routinely has hosted conventions of 20, 30, 40, 60,000 people," said CNN correspondent Tom Foreman, who has strong ties to the city. "This is a convention town unlike anything you've ever seen. So they've got to get that back. That fuels the economy."

"One of the things that many people have been watching in this whole great human tragedy ... is what's happening to this extraordinary cultural and historic landmark of America and how much of its going to be there to help the city recover -- because this is what draws a lot of people there," Foreman said .

Aerial shots indicate the city jewel -- the French Quarter -- remains intact and relatively dry, he said. ( See the video of what monuments missed Katrina's rage -- 5:20)

Café du Monde, the home of sugar-dusted beignets -- puffy, rectangular doughnuts -- is still there. Just across the street behind Jackson Square, the Cabildo and Presbytre museums still squat beside St. Louis Cathedral.

"By and large, the French Quarter seems to be dry," Foreman noted. "That's important. That's home to Preservation Hall.

"It's home to the streetcar named Desire. In the historic New Orleans museum, the Cabildo, they have the original maps that the Spanish drew of this nation. They have Napoleon's death mask. They have one of the last existing complete collections of [John James] Audubon's "Birds of America," the original collection.

"These are invaluable treasures to this nation and to the city," Foreman said. "That's what drew all these tourists here over all these years.... The French Quarter clearly has a lot of damage to it from wind and some from water, but it may be that it is largely intact at least in terms of the structures."

Sporadic fires and explosions jeopardize the city's waterfront and that imperils a decade and a half of tourism-related development. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas sits on the river at the base of Canal Street, just yards from the ferry that crosses visitors to historic Algiers and its sherbet-colored shotgun houses.

Along that strip -- just six blocks from where thousands are living among the decaying dead in the city's convention center -- art galleries, sandwich shops, nightclubs, Saks department store and Brooks Brothers beckoned money-laden visitors.

"The riverfront, that's a big deal because the riverfront has truly been revitalized enormously over the past 15 years," Foreman said. [There's been] "a huge amount of investment in shops and attractions. Obviously no tourists are going to be rushing to New Orleans right away but this is what this town is about, and that has to recover over time."

But downtown isn't the only draw. Expansive wedding-cake mansions with Corinthian columns and wrap-around porches are the city's uptown sirens. And swaying green streetcars with wooden seats cart tourists who answer their call along oak-lined and moss-draped St. Charles Avenue.

"That's part of the great beauty of New Orleans," Foreman said. "That's where Ann Rice sets the scene for her vampire books." The famed Tipitina's where the Neville Brothers start sets at midnight and jam till 5 a.m. doesn't seem to be underwater, he reported.

But not far from there, Reuters reported that a woman's swollen corpse wearing one shoe lay on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street. Someone had covered her with a plaid blanket, anonymously offering dignity.

A woman across the street, the report continued, shouted at photographers taking pictures of the body: "She's been there for five days, since Monday." Then she begged for bottled water.

Those images might forever change the city's allure. But New Orleans' tourist backbone -- its buildings, its culinary creativity, its reputation -- might be the salvation for "sin city."

"The good news of all this," Foreman said, "may be that a lot of the important landmarks of New Orleans ... have survived. They may be recoverable in a reasonable amount of time and start getting some dollars flowing and some people coming back in."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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