Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans, LA - 12th August

Like Detroit, New Orleans was always a natural place to go for abandonment. Almost all of the abandonment that I saw whilst there was directly, or indirectly as a result of Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans in 2005. The City was devastated. Nearly every levee in the New Orleans city area was breached by Katrina's storm resulting in monumental floods which eventually submerged 80% of the city. Not surprisingly most of the breaches affected the poorer areas far more than the more affluent parts of New Orleans which are located on higher grounds above sea-level. One of the most devastated areas was the Lower 9th Ward which was decimated by the breach of the Industrial Canal. The Lower 9th sits below the water mark of the canal and in addition to breaches by flooding an industrial barge was swept through the flood wall of the canal draining millions of gallons of the canal into the Lower 9th. The result is impossible to imagine - but that most of the 1,600+ deaths occurred in the Lower 9th begins to allow you to imagine the consequences.

I walked from the edge of the French Quarter through the Upper 9th Ward towards the Claiborne Av. bridge. I'd been advised to pay the $1.25 to get the bus literally from the west to the east side of the bridge as the pedestrian footpath over the industrial canal, being surrounded on all sides by wire meshing, is a hot-spot for muggings.

I arrived into the Lower 9th and wandered around for a good few hours. Abandonment was everywhere. 30% of the population who were evacuated from their homes in 2005 have yet to return, and of those who did many have still yet to rebuild their shattered lives.

The first thing that you notice when walking through the harder-hit parts of New Orleans are the ominous looking spray-painted crosses that adorn the walls of every other house or-so, reminiscent of a the marks on houses during times of plague. A local man walking his dog explained their significance.


The presence of the cross and numbers/letters combination is to show that the particular property has in fact been searched by rescue teams.

The north quadrant, with '9.6' denotes the particular house was searched by rescue teams on the 6th of September; the west quadrant's 'TX1' signifies the search group which in fact searched the premises - in this case it was the first (1) search group from Texas (TX); the south quadrant is by far the most chilling, with its number representing the number of dead found inside; finally the east-quadrant gives any other relevant information, such as whether animals were found inside, etc. - here 'NE' declares there is to be 'No Entry'.

After this explanation my eye was instantly drawn to the south quadrant, the death toll, and whilst many bore the figure 0 the occasional one hauntingly declared one, two, and even three deaths.

Incomplete data: 9.6/-/-/TX1

9.10/0/0/DEA - 10/6 - FW

The Lower 9th was a bizarre place to walk around - a patchwork of normality and the surreal. Abandoned houses lay strewn all over, interspersed between re-built houses and re-built lives. No pattern was discernible, and it was difficult to know whether the rule of the area was abandonment with habitation being the exception or the other way around.

'Scum'/'Tear Down Shit' 

House Poetry: 'No Dumping / Asshole / Scum'

Some houses, truly abandoned, lay open for anyone who dared to venture inside. I was always cautious of entering properties here, as these houses were once people's homes - people's livelihoods - and that required respect.

Previously a home #1

Previously a home #2

When in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art I saw Richard Misrach's famous 'Destroy this Memory' on exhibition which chronicles the aftermath of Katrina through the graffiti its inhabitants sprayed on their property. Albert Mobilo said this of Misrach's work:

The photos - which are entirely devoid of people - don't just provide the 
now-familiar account of ruined homes and strewn debris, but 
also give pungent, poetic voice to the absent inhabitants.

My own contribution to this pungent, poetic voice of the absent inhabitants is, however, far more modest in nature.

I must only have walked around a half square mile of the Lower 9th Ward which should hopefully convey the scale of abandonment that to this day exists as a kind of monument to Katrina. The fact almost all of the properties I photographed were residential made the small journey a moving experience.

 No one at home: front elevation

No one at home: side elevation

Katrina not only ruined homes, but also businesses - Bobwater's Cafe didn't seem to have fared well.

 Eat Eat Relax #1

 Eat Eat Relax #2

I left the Lower 9th having only scratched the surface of the scale of abandonment that exists, still nearly 7 years on, after Katrina. Katrina is still raw in the memories and lives of all those who live in New Orleans, and the swathes of abandonment that it left behind is a testament to this. Only days before I arrived into New Orleans a US Federal Jury finally convicted four NOPD police officers for the unlawful killings of two unarmed men on the Danziger Bridge, finally delivering a lame form of justice to their families 7 years after their deaths. And Katrina continues to live on in the US Court system, as citizens and interest groups continue to pursue those responsible for the gross mismanagement and maintenance of the levee system.

I end with the words of graffiti on the fence that seems to sum up so much of New Orleans to this day: Katrina Rules.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New Orleans, LA - 10th-14th August

Wednesday, 10th August 2011
My first task on arrival into New Orleans was to make my way to the hostel I was to be staying in for the next four nights. I was originally to be staying in a hostel recommended by a friend from home only to be commanded by the Oracle by the name of Matthew Fraser to avoid the recommended hostel at all costs, cancel my reservation, stop dilly-dallying around, and place all my bets on his hostel of choice: the world-reowned, celebrity-endorsed Marquette House.

I duly arrived and checked in at my place of residence and had my bags taken to my room by a man in a white vest with a bottle of something in a brown paper bag that certainly wasn't water. Things got worse. On the way to my chambers suspicious looking characters lay slumped in deck-chairs around the communal areas nursing yet more brown paper bags in their hands. Things didn't get better when I was shown to my room: unless stained mattresses, dirty carpets, and bed bugs (yes, real, live, bed bugs) are your kind of thing. It later transpired the hostel, in addition to housing travellers, also acted as a sort of unofficial halfway-house for ex-criminals and recovering alcoholics. Great.

All in all the first thing the wonderful New Orleans taught me was simple: don't trust a word Matt Fraser tells you.

However, I was not alone in my suffering as a friendly fellow-Brit, Henry, had checked in soon after me. After preliminary introductions whilst settling into our austere dwelling we teamed up for the night and made our way to the famous French Quarter to sample some New Orleans cuisine and nightlife. We met a German chap called Chris who Henry had met previously and arranged to meet and took a walk down the infamous Bourbon Street. Bourbon St. had a distinctively Magaluf-esque feel to it (though I could hardly comment on the comparison).

Bourbon St. by Night

We were advised by a friendly chap with one eye to head to Frenchman Street where apparently the party really was getting started. We ended up in an intimate jazz bar which served decent food and beer (even to me). The music was great, and the beer flowing, so we camped out there for most of the night.

Good jazz and good beer - a winning combination

Just as we were settling in for the duration Henry appeared from a long absence at the bar with news that a local girl he had struck up conversation with was going to a bar somewhere "off the beaten track". With some hesitancy we hopped into a taxi, hot on her heels. Off the beaten track the bar certainly was: and a buzzing hub of activity it certainly wasn't. An interesting country western band played some music and I was taught the 'Louisiana two-step' by an enthusiastic local.

Country western with dress, tights and a washboard

Country-Westerned- and danced-out, we caught the quirky New Orleans' street car back to our palatial residence.

Thursday, 11th August 2011
The morning couldn't come soon enough. The whirring and spluttering and grinding of the Palace's air conditioning unit made sleeping a sport of mild to extreme difficulty, and periodically I was awoken by the non-paying inhabitants of our dormitory sinking their teeth into my delicious ankles. That morning another resident joined the family: Nestar - a friendly and excitable New Zealander who was travelling through the US on his way to a teaching post at a university in Canada.

None of us had eaten so we ventured towards the French Quarter market in search of sustenance. Having failed to find a traditional breakfast cafe we opted for breakfast New Orleans style: a generous helping of jambalaya.

Jambalayad-up the rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the French Quarter. Henry's guidebook handily suggested a tour we ought to take to see the sights of the more interesting part of New Orleans. The tour mainly consisted of winding our way through the charming side-streets of the French Quarter soaking in the local sights.

New Orleans, French Quarter 

Exotic plants and wrought-iron balustrades

One of the highlights of the tour was passing what claimed to be "the most photographed fence in the world" - being unable to disprove this unsubstantiated claim, we accepted it as good; but out of protest we broke the ultimate tour-taboo and passed on by without stopping for a photograph.

The tour ended at the St. Louis Cathedral - an impressive building, inside and out.

 St. Louis - exterior

St. Louis - interior

After some more pottering around we paid a quick pit-stop back to the hostel to check on the bed bugs and spruce ourselves up for another night out on the New Orleans streets. Whilst walking up the seedy (and oddly smelling) Bourbon St. we were tempted into a nice outside bar with dirt-cheap mojitos and a leisurely-looking jazz quartet. You get what you pay for, and it turns out $4 mojitos taste like crap, so we moved on after one in search of food grabbing some beer from a street vendor as we marched onwards.

We ended up back at our old haunt from the night before enjoying more good music, food and beer. I called it a night when we reached the smaller hours and returned to my bed for to give the bed bugs their evening feast.

Friday, 12th August 2011
I had my most manly breakfast of the entire trip - alligator sausage sandwiches (I resisted asking the waiter to "make it snappy"). After lunch the Three Musketeers all made our way to one of New Orleans' most famous attractions, the National WWII Museum.

Foyer - National WII Museum 

I spent a good few hours in the WWII Museum which whilst having some very interesting exhibits puts a very American spin on the whole thing - I was saddened to see very little mention of the barbarity of the US's treatment of Japanese US citizens during the war and their mass internments in prisoner camps. However, an interesting place nonetheless and worth the visit.

The remainder of my daylight hours were spent travelling towards and through the Upper and Lower 9th Ward districts of New Orleans in search of abandoned buildings. In the meantime, some random inspirational New Orleans graffiti to keep photograph appetites satisfied.

Lve Yourself  

Be Inspired

I returned to the hostel as dark fell and teamed up with Nestar and Henry for a trip into the French Quarter for drinks and some music. We ate along the way and sampled many of Bourbon Street's (musical) bars. We ended up in a bar with a rather natty jazz band on Frenchman Street and bumped into some people we had struck up conversation with on the street car on the way in. Nestar befriended a middle-aged Canadian couple, Bill and Nancy, who were duly initiated into our troupe. After a few potent drinks, Nestar and Bill swapped shirts - my memory of the night's events after that turn a little fuzzy. We ended up being politely asked to leave a bar, in the early hours, after Nestar did something even he doesn't remember.

We crawled back to our den of iniquity before the sun began to rise - the resident alcoholics and bed bugs, once again, waiting to greet us on our return.

Saturday, 13th August 2011
Having got a decent 8 hours of sleep I didn't rise until the afternoon was underway. I had planned to go back to the Lower 9th Ward, but I scrapped that idea in favour of recuperating in a nice air-conditioned cafe and then Starbucks downtown and catching up with various things I'd been putting off since leaving Denver, but been unable to do since Matt Fraser's suggested hostel/crack-den didn't have internet. Henry had left after 2 hours of sleep earlier in the morning for his flight to DC, so Nestar and I were to fend for ourselves that night. We ventured downtown for food and a walk around, but it seems the French Quarter is even seedier and grotesque than normal on a Saturday with even more drunk people than we had hitherto experienced.

I turned in early, with the thought a 6am start looming, somewhat disappointed with the image of New Orleans I had witnessed that night.

Sunday, 14th August
I bade farewell to the bed bugs and mouldy bathroom early to catch the early Sunday morning bus to the airport. All went smoothly and I caught my flight to Washington DC.

I left New Orleans with mixed emotions. It surely ranked as one of my (if not the) favourite places I had visited on my travels - it exuded life and character of a kind that I had not experienced anywhere in the US or Canada; but perhaps that's because Louisiana really isn't the US at all (or not as we know it, anyway). But, the coin of experience has two sides, and the flip side to one of my favourite cities was a bleak one. Poverty, abandonment, and a sense of despair permeated much of the city - even in the tourist-infested French Quarter - and racial divides remain evident. Whilst much of the city has recovered from Katrina and the tourist industry has more than revived, it all comes at a price: commercialisation and a huge dose of seediness somewhat spoil this gem of the South.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Denver, CO - 9th-10th August

Tuesday, 9th August 2011
Most of the day was spent chasing abandoned buildings - though not before lunch. My first stop was the abandoned Byers Junior High School in the Washington district of Denver. Built in 1921 on the site of the house once occupied by wealthy industrialist William Byers, the school was hailed as one of the most beautiful in the country.

However, the changing local demographic and cuts in state and federal school funding meant that the school was no longer a viable institution in suburban Denver.

Entrance - Byers Junior High School 

The school looked more Stately Home than State School

Rumour has it that on the day the school closed in 1982 the staff and students staged a mock funeral for the school complete with a ruler, notebook, and other common school items inside a miniature coffin to complete the mourning of the school's closure.

Since the 80s there have been numerous re-development plans for Byers Junior High, but none have come to fruition - despite huge local pressures for the city to do something with the massive site. Unfortunately for me, however, so far as abandoned buildings go, Byers Junior High has weathered well and has been well-maintained and protected against the inevitable decay of abandonment and damage of vandals. Finding nowhere to gain access inside, I stuck to admiring the exterior.

Blacked-out and Boarded-up Windows 

The playground, with its basket ball hoops and fading painted lines conveyed an eery sense of emptiness.



With the blazing Denver sun doing its best to defeat me, time wearing on, and my next building a half-hour walk away, I left Byers Junior High in the sad state of emptiness as I found it.

My next building, the Gates Factory, was once the largest non-tire producing rubber factories in the world - I'd heard and read great things about the abandoned structure in south Denver which apparently retains most, if not all, of its original machinery, fixtures and fittings since it was abandoned many years ago. However, it turned out to be another of the 'duds' I'd come to know well on my travels. Whilst a portion of the building is currently being re-developed for commercial and residential use, the vast proportion of it remains abandoned and disused. But, when I arrived at the site I was confronted with new, high, sturdy fences; builders mulling around the grounds; and 24hr security who keep a look out for people just like me.

I tried to walk through an open drive-way in the fence, but a security guard popped his head out of his car to warn me off. We got chatting. It turned out that since a teenage girl fell the full 45ft from the roof of the factory to the ground (obviously) seriously injuring herself, though (remarkably) surviving, 24hr security had been in place and was to remain so until the builders secured the site for redevelopment. I was told I Shall Not Pass. So, once again, I stuck to some un-gratifying exterior shots.

Gates Factory - Santa Fe on Mississippi  

Rear Shot 

Some interesting original features remained on the exterior of the building.

Changing Times

Under re-development

Peter was returning from Atalanta that night and had planned to take me out for dinner, so I returned back to the loft - but not before another visit to the Tattered Cover to further laden my suitcase with yet more impulse-bought books.

I arrived back to the loft just in time for Peter's return and soon afterwards we made our way to one of Peter's favourite restaurants in Denver: the Vesta Dipping Grill. What is a 'dipping grill?' I hear you cry? Well, turns out it's pretty much just a normal restaurant, but with the addition on the menu of over 30 dipping sauces which you can mix and match with your dishes to add extra flavour, spice and excitement to an otherwise run-of-the-mill dish. We started with a shared starter of pitta dipping bread with a handpicked selection of sweet and spicy sauces and I then moved on to a surprisingly delicious tuna steak (I say surprising since Denver's hardly the natural place one would think of for good fish restaurants) the highlight of which had to be the wasabi dipping cream that was served along side it. A bottle of Malbec completed the meal, and all too soon my last night in Denver was over.

Wednesday, 10th August 2011
An early start to the airport provided a sharp-shock to my system after three consecutive days of glorious lie-ins. The plane lifted off from Colorado soil and two hours later I touched down in New Orleans, Louisiana, for my 4-day trip to the hot, sweaty, sticky, South.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Denver, CO - 8th August

Peter had left early for Atalanta for a one-day business trip (bringing his life-time air-miles with Frontier to just short of 1.5m) leaving me to fend for myself in Denver. Taking the liberty of another long lie-in I skipped breakfast and headed straight for lunch, with a japanese restaurant along the vibrant 16th St. Mall serving itself well. After lunch I took a leisurely walk up along 16th St., central Denver's main street, up towards the Capitol and City Hall. Artist-decorated pianos lie dotted along 16th St. - hoping to draw a crowd and find my fortune as a street entertainer, my rendition of Chopsticks unfortunately drew little more than shifty glances from passers-by.

16th St. Pianos, Denver, CO

Further up I passed a herd of buffalo.

Crouching tiger, Grazing buffalo

A tour of the Denver Capitol was sure to lighten my musical-failure-induced, downtrodden spirits - and indeed it did. The Capitol is quite a remarkably building, standing proudly on top of the East elevation of Civic Park. It's glamorous interior makes for an interesting wander

Main Atrium, Capitol

View through circular balcony

The Senate Chamber

Of particular interest is the circular hall of Presidents, and the 91-step climb up to the top of the dome with spectacular views all over downtown Denver.

With the afternoon wearing on I paid a quick visit to the Cathedral Basilica, just east of the Capitol, for a quick prayer and made my way to the Denver Art Museum. However, on the way there I paid a quick visit into the Denver Public Library, all the way up to the top floor to have a look at a famous table I'd been told about. I usually don't go out my way, especially up 7 floors, to see what I eat my breakfast on every day, but this table was different. It was the table the members of the G8 sat around when the 23rd G8 Summit was held in Denever in 1997 - I can now say I've sat in Bill Clinton's G8 chair: a paltry claim to fame; but a claim to fame nonetheless.

The Denver Art Museum is closed on Mondays, meaning I was restricted to admiring it from the outside.  For those who have visited this particular building, I'd draw your attention to what I saw as a striking similarity between the Libeskind-designed Frederic Hamilton building of the Denver Art Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum's Lee-Chin-designed Crystal.

With the afternoon drawing to a close I made my way back through the downtown district back to the loft, passing as I walked the Denver Convention Centre with its famous Blue Bear Sculpture.

Big Blue Bear

Having escaped, unscathed, near death by blue bear I stopped by the locally revered Tattered Cover Bookstore. This little gem, located just a few blocks away from Peter and Paula's loft acts as a coffee-shop-come-bookstore-come-library. Readers are invited to enter, grab a drink, relax in the comfortable chairs dotted throughout the store and grab a book of the shelves with no pressure to buy, and no social condemnation for spending an hour reading (even finishing) a book, replacing it on the shelf, and walking away. The Tattered Cover is also well known for another reason: namely that the owner, Joyce Meskis, who also lives in Peter & Paula's building, fought a legal case against the Government all the way to the Supreme Court when being forced to disclose customer records to the CIA (turns out the individual record they wanted proved only that the chap was a keen horticulturist and not the home-made drug-baron they had suspected).

I returned to the Wynkoop after an hour or so of Tattered Booking and met Paula for some supper. We took the easy (though nourishing) option of another buffalo burger at the Wynkoop Brewery three floors below. Some beer back in the loft completed my first day-proper in Denver.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mount Evans, CO - 7th August

After a buffalo-burger and Rail-Yard induced lie-in Peter and I made our way out to a favourite taco bar of his for some lunch. Along the way he pointed out some local points of interest that I might want to explore over the next few days. Today, however, we had other things planned: namely, scaling Denver's local Mount Evans - a 14,000ft. mountain in the front range of the Rockies. However, crampons and carabiners wouldn't be necessary, as Mount Evans' most famous boast is its highest road in North America, meaning that all but the last few hundred feet can be ascended in the comfort of a car.

After luncheon we set off towards and up the Mountain which is one of the 54 mountains over 14,000ft in Colorado, and one of only two of such 'Fourteeners' which has a road to the top.

Along the way we stopped at Summit Lake to give Peter's eco-friendly, hybrid, bamboo-eating Prius a rest and to exercise our hitherto unexercised legs.

 Summit Lake

Mount Evans

As we ascended up the mountain road some of Mount Evans' famous wildlife showed itself.


Mountain Sheep!

Soon after we reached the point where the Prius could go no further. At the parking site we were also confronted with an abandoned building. The ruins of Crest House, which once contained a restaurant, shop and visitor centre, sit at the top of the road up the Mountain. After a fire in the 1980s the structure was never rebuilt, and abandoned leaving a middle-eastern-looking ruin at the top of Mountain.

Crest House, Mount Evans 

The trek to the summit was completed by a treacherous ascent along a conveniently made path which took us to the vera tapmost tow'ring height O' the mountain's bonnet.

Peter and I post at the summit of Mount Evans

Chillin' at 14,000ft

On the way back to Denver we stopped off at the famous Beau Jo's pizza parlour in Idaho Springs, where they serve traditional 'Colorado style' pizza. Characterised by their exotic toppings and thick bread crusts, the traditional way of devouring the outer-edges is by drizzling honey of the gnawed remains for a sweet end to the slice.

On return to Denver we ended the night with some beer and whiskey on Peter and Paula's private roof-terrace overlooking the night-lit mile-high city.