NEW ORLEANS—A year ago the eastside New Orleans neighborhoods of Seabrook and Kenilworth were frozen in time, their streets, homes and churches suddenly submerged in murky floodwaters, revealing only the tops of signs and billboards that showed what would have been—a wedding, a ball game, a meal deal at McDonald's—if Hurricane Katrina hadn't come.
As in so many other places, the scene was ghostly: forsaken toys bobbing in the water, pet dogs trapped and yelping on high porches, a person's body found in a flooded bank.
Green street signs emerged from the brown water, marking the intersections of people's lives, where they worked, played and raised their children.
A year later, the elementary school is still closed, weeds have overtaken a kids' baseball park and there's nothing to suggest that the nearby McDonald's will ever return, its deteriorating billboard still reading, "Try our McGriddle Meal," a sign of better days before Katrina shut everything down, beginning Aug. 29.
Most homes remain abandoned, their insides dark with mold, and many of the businesses are still boarded up on Downman Road, the area's once-bustling main thoroughfare.
But there's one shop with a fresh redo, its parking lot full of cars, where business is taking off.
It's a strip joint.
Managers have hired 225 full-time dancers at Visions Men's Club since it reopened Jan. 30, up from the 180 who entertained before Katrina made its mark.
One dancer, who identified herself only as "Tender," said she'd seen a change in the mood of the men who walked into the dark bar. "You can tell they're worried, stressed out," she said.
Another dancer, "Angela," said one of her regular customers, a New Orleans cabdriver, seemed happy-go-lucky before the hurricane, and angry afterward. "He's got a very short fuse," she said.
Manager Melanie Thompson said the business offered a brief respite for her storm-weary customers.
"This function we have here is as old as time," she said. "It serves a need."
There's also a need for building supplies and tools, and that's why business has tripled at Eddie's Ace Hardware, also on Downman Road.
Manager and co-owner Larry Giroir said small mom-and-pop businesses such as his were trying hard to return to the devastated New Orleans East neighborhoods, but that the chain businesses, such as McDonald's and Burger King, had yet to venture back, their corporate owners apparently waiting to see whether Seabrook and Kenilworth could regain their vitality.
"They're boarding them up, cleaning them up, but they're not opening up," Giroir said.
The brisk business at Eddie's and Visions, however, isn't an indication that life is coming back strong in their immediate neighborhoods.
Giroir said most of his customers came from across the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, near the more prominent Lakeshore area.
Thompson said the majority of the patrons at Visions traveled from other parts of the city, primarily so they could put some distance between themselves and their wives as they took in the attractions.
A few blocks away, "For Sale" signs, roofing advertisements and trailers donated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency dotted the yards of gutted, boarded-up homes.
At one forgotten home, the windows were broken out and the front door torn from its hinges, revealing a bar still stocked with liquor. Family portraits, a calendar turned to the August 2005 page and a plaque that says "The Best Boss Ever" hung from water-stained walls.
A molding fur coat dangled from a doorknob, a rusting metal cross sat on a desktop and Mardi Gras coins lay on the garage floor.
But not every house was lifeless.
At first, Henry and Flora Hamilton swore never to come back after they saw what Katrina had done to their home and their neighborhood. It was the silence, Henry Hamilton said, and the lack of life that affected him the most. "You didn't see no birds. You didn't see no dogs. You didn't see an ant," he said.
Flora Hamilton said she was struck by how her couch had been shredded to pieces and how black muck covered her floors and walls. "When I first walked in I thought, this is not the house God blessed us with 16 years ago," she said.
But for some reason, the Hamiltons said, they kept coming back. During each visit they noticed more signs of life: a patch of grass turning green, a dog barking, the sounds of a few neighbors sawing and hammering their way back into their own homes.
Flora Hamilton predicted that the area will forever be "downsized," and will never return to the "Leave it to Beaver neighborhood" of the past. Still, standing in her recently rebuilt home, she said, "We're back. And we're excited."
Her husband added a sobering note: "God forbid, if it ever happens again. ..."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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