We abruptly turn down the radio as we cross back into Orleans Parish and make our way into the Lower Ninth Ward. Children should be coming back from school about now, but the streets are nearly empty. The only sounds are those of distant construction -- work continues on higher levees here and all over town -- and chained-up dogs barking. The roads here are the worst we've seen in the city. The Camaro's independent rear suspension and stiff structure take the bumps and divots in stride, but this is nevertheless no place for a convertible. The raison d'être for top-down cruising is to take in the sights and sounds of the outside world. Here, the sights and sounds overwhelmingly are those of abandonment and misery. Most of the homes remain as the water left them, with caved-in walls, blue tarp roofs, and rubble-filled yards. Next to each door, faded spray-paint Xs -- the rushed written language of rescue workers -- tell the human tragedy. No one found in this house, two bodies in another. Every other block or so, one finds a rebuilt house -- the population stands at about twenty percent of pre-Katrina levels and is slowly growing -- but these homes, usually fenced off and patrolled by one of those dogs, hardly have the feel of a happy homecoming. A woman leaning out of her window as we idle on her lonely street describes life in the Lower Ninth as "OK." "What could be better?" we ask her. "A whole lot could be better," she replies resignedly.
Even here one can find signs of rebuilding among the devastation. There's a whole division of environmentally sound, modern homes built with help from actor Brad Pitt and charitable organizations. At present, none of these homes would realistically sell for market value. The hope is that, eventually, they'll stimulate natural redevelopment, but when we pass through, there seem to be more people shooting photos and videos of the bizarre-looking houses than there are actual residents. On the north side, by the infamous levee, University of Colorado students have built a viewing platform looking out on the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, the marsh that once afforded this area storm protection and perhaps will again if wetland-restoration efforts succeed. Sixty-three-year-old native John Taylor, lifelong resident of an address that technically no longer exists, stands vigil over the platform. He nearly chases us away, but once he's convinced we're not "hoodlums," he philosophizes on where his city went wrong. "We forgot what was most important -- each other."