The photos projected onto the wall of The Cannery on Toulouse Street once again retold the familiar Katrina story — building after building with floodwater nearly ceiling high, what could have easily been the end for the multi-generational New Orleans businesses inside.
Against the backdrop of a devastation that even in retrospect still looks insurmountable, however, the triumphant faces of the Mid-City business owners on Thursday night told the inspiring second chapter of that ongoing story, about how their determination and love for their neighborhood allowed them to succeed and now thrive against those impossible odds.
Tim Levy, president of the Greater Mid-City Business Association and vice-president of The Pel Hughes Companies, said he understands the feelings of those New Orleanians who question celebrating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But in Mid-City, Levy said, where the destruction was so severe and the recovery was so driven by families, there was a need to recognize the businesses who were “catalysts” for bringing the neighborhood back and telling the world that it was so.
“I know they didn’t need a market study to decide whether to come back,” Levy said.
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said she too recognizes that residents are becoming “Katrina 10 weary,” but agreed that the recovery of Mid-City deserved celebration.
“When I look around the room at all the people who worked so hard, there are so many people to say ‘thank you’ to,” Guidry said.
Among the businesses honored Thursday:
- First were the first responders, the New Orleans Police Department members who helped Mid-City residents and the firefighters known for the search-and-rescue efforts.
- Everyone who picked up nails in their tires driving around quickly became grateful for Mark’s Mid-City Service Station, Levy said.
- Jesuit High School had 1,200 students enrolled for the 2005-06 school year, but managed to reopen in January of 2006 with 500 of them, Levy said.
- The Pel Hughes Companies were gutted in the fall, reopened in December 2005, and then opened a flooring business soon afterward, Levy said.
- Finn McCool’s, known as a little place for patrons to “discuss the finer points of soccer,” Levy joked, reopened to neighborhood acclaim by St. Patrick’s Day of 2006.
- Parkway Bakery and Tavern had to struggle not only with cleaning, but also getting reliable gas and power to cook with, Levy said, but after reopening in December 2005 became a “favorite stop for Presidential motorcades.”
- Katie’s Restaurant took eight feet of water and had “we will be back” spray-painted on the wall, but became a great success with national publicity after reopening, Levy said.
- Mandina’s Restaurant and Venezia Restaurant are two of the neighborhood’s beloved Italian restaurants, Levy said, remarking on his particular fondness for a pork-chop lunch special at Venezia.
- Likewise, the reopening of Angelo Brocato’s was such a major milestone for the city that it was immortalized in HBO’s Treme, Levy noted.
- Rock n’ Bowl and Mid-City Lanes, Levy said, were the result of an epiphany by the Blanchard family.
- The Krewe of Endymion not only returned after Hurricane Katrina, but also persevered as one of the sole Mardi Gras parades to resist consolidation onto the Uptown route.
Guidry and City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell were the only city officials to speak at Thursday’s celebration, but even after meeting with President Obama earlier in the day, they both said it was an event they would not have missed. As former neighborhood leaders — Cantrell in Broadmoor, and Guidry in Bayou St. John’s Parkview area — who were both activists on the ground after the storm, the two city officials perhaps spoke with more in common with the business owners in the room than most politicians do with their constituents.
Guidry recalled Parkway Po-Boys giving free sandwiches to pump employees, and early neighborhood planning meetings held there. In those dire times immediately after the storm, the businesses of Mid-City were not only where residents got needed food or supplies, but also where they often discovered more neighbors who had come back.
“These family businesses that opened early on are where we all congregated,” Guidry said. “These businesses were like our second dining room.”
As she struggled to help Broadmoor rebuild, Cantrell said she was surprised to find herself pregnant for the first time at age 36 shortly after the storm, and after being born her baby daughter was given a bib with the Mid-City logo — a symbol of the neighborhood’s recovery and strong organization even then.
“Always and foremost at those meetings were the business owners,” Cantrell said. For them, she said, recovery was the same as survival, and failure wasn’t an option. “The choice was, build yourselves up based on what you know.”