New Orleans has been challenging the limits of taste for over a century now. It is the city of Mardi Gras, of decadence, romance, stylish bohemianism, and, on Bourbon Street, unadulterated raunchiness. One might think that nothing could offend the residents of New Orleans. But many are offended by the spate of disaster tours currently available from local tour companies. You’ll find brochures for them in the lobbies of upscale motels in the French Quarter and the Central Business District. Alongside flyers for the ubiquitous jazz and voodoo tours, there are foldouts blazoned with such headings as “Katrina: America’s Worst Disaster.” Open one of these, and the ad copy invites you to reexperience the tragedy, to share the pain.
The very concept of a “disaster tour” is carnivalesque and slightly criminal; it may strike outsiders as capturing the peculiar charisma of New Orleans—a city of macabre dualities. “All you needed to live the good life in New Orleans was a lawn chair and a cooler,” recalls a former resident for whom New Orleans was a relatively inexpensive city that encouraged culture, provided neighborliness, and was tolerant of individualism and extravagance. New Orleans pre-Katrina was also a city of entrenched poverty and crime statistics so high that many residents remain scarred by memories of murders committed in their own backyards. Only in New Orleans could a tragedy responsible for over one thousand deaths in Louisiana become a vaudeville show; but in this case, the local residents aren’t laughing.
“Tours by Isabelle” promises to bring you “up close” to the disaster. This tour has a noticeable advantage over the others—you’re escorted in a relatively intimate and compact van rather than a bus. Isabelle’s Web site features a section entitled “testimonials,” where you can read impressions from previous riders. “I cannot begin to express the impact of this tour. This will not only make a difference in my life, but also my students. Thank you. I will not forget.” “Very informative. While I was initially concerned about being a tourist in these devastated areas, I now have a firsthand perspective on what happened.” The testimonials address, in a somewhat wide-eyed, simple-minded way, the issue of voyeurism. They’re aimed to ease the moral qualms of potential patrons.
I boarded the van with skepticism and antipathy, in order to study “up close” an example of crass commercialism (but yes, I did board the van). I wanted to immerse myself in a city where I was—like it or not—a visiting journalist. It was early June, the beginning of hurricane season. Prejudiced against the tour, I took it to study the anxiety of life in New Orleans nine months after Katrina and to figure out how—given that anxiety—such a tour was possible.
The van circled the Central Business District, picking up ten of us. The driver was Stanley, a short, mustached, talkative New Or...
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