New Orleans seems to be recovering well from Hurricane Katrina, at least in all its outward appearances.
Population is growing, construction is finally booming and empty lots are being filled in with new houses.
But there are some things that will never come back. So many communities were torn asunder by the flood, and even as those neighborhoods return, they’re doing so with different people, new faces.
Many small business communities — serendipitous groupings of stores, offices and restaurants that came to operate symbiotically with each other — were washed away by the flood and have not been recreated.
There’s a line in the old jazz standard, “West End Blues,” that goes, “On my way to the West End, and there’s where troubles will begin.” The patch of seafood restaurants out on the western edge of the New Orleans lakefront is one of those communities where troubles arrived in August 2005 and left a permanent scar.
Before Hurricane Georges in 1998, West End was a popular destination for diners looking for seafood. But even then, the area was past its heyday.
Fitzgerald’s Restaurant, occupying probably the most familiar building out there, had closed right before the storm, and the damage caused by Georges put an end to hopes of it reopening one day.
Bruning’s Restaurant also was heavily damaged, and the institution took over another building nearby. The move was supposed to be temporary, but Katrina wiped out that building, too.
Today, West End is devoted largely to upgrading storm protection. Instead of dining spots and outdoor tables, you’ll see the entire area is bounded by a chain-link fence enclosing building materials and construction equipment.
The old Fitzgerald’s building was finally completely wiped out by Katrina, but the pilings it sat on still stand in Lake Pontchartrain, silent monuments to another time.
By the 1950s, the area had taken on the character that most of us were familiar with before Georges and Katrina did their damage — as home to a string of seafood restaurants. The first restaurant I remember ever going to as a kid was Swanson’s, a West End institution in the 1950s and 1960s.
Not many people realize that the seafood restaurants they recall were actually in the far eastern end of Jefferson Parish. I’ve seen old menus for Swanson’s that list it as “East End” and in Jefferson.
In the 1980s, that geographical quirk made for a pretty bold power grab by the city of New Orleans. The city erected automatic crossing gates on the semi-circular drive that led to all of the restaurants and the parking lot that served them. And at the beginning of the drive, it set up a booth, where drivers had to pay for parking before entering.
So, though the city couldn’t get any tax money from the restaurants because they were in Jefferson, it could at least try to get a few bucks from the customers who had to park their cars to get to the restaurants. But sometimes even bureaucrats are shamed by their own cheekiness, and the parking tolls quickly came to an end.
Today, the popular boathouses that people lease at West End and redecorate in various levels of luxury and extravagance seem to be coming back well. The harbor out there is full of expensive boats again.
But the restaurants, a source of pleasure for people of modest means and modest tastes, are gone forever.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.