Posted: Aug 30, 2006 5:58 am
For Harry Anderson, the New Orleans Magic Is Gone
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
NEW ORLEANS — In New Orleans these days, even a magician can run out of tricks.
Harry Anderson, the illusionist, comic and former star of sitcoms like "Night Court" and "Dave's World," has lived in New Orleans since 2000, when he left Hollywood with his wife, the former Elizabeth Morgan. They rode out Hurricane Katrina in the French Quarter, in the building that houses Oswald's Speakeasy, Mr. Anderson's nightclub. Their home, whose ground floor was given over to Sideshow, their magic and curiosity shop, was in another building in the Quarter.
In the weeks after the storm, even before the power was back, Mr. Anderson opened his club for what he called French Quarter Town Hall meetings. The weekly gatherings, which at first offered little more than camaraderie by candlelight and warm beer, evolved into a de facto government for a part of New Orleans that had experienced little flooding but could not begin cleanup and rebuilding because of the city's overall paralysis.
The meetings drew officials from the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers — all of whom were given an earful — and bit by bit, things improved. Many locals, in fact, gave Mr. Anderson a lot of credit for kick-starting the Quarter's recovery.
So it is especially poignant that the Andersons have now decided to leave. But their story is not unique: many in this city are suffering the same continuing loss and strain that led these two to their decision. So their departure raises the question of whether others who can afford to leave, those who have not sunk every penny into a now-moldy house or a devastated store, will also move on.
Over dinner with a journalist recently at Irene's, one of their favorite restaurants in the Quarter, the Andersons talked about their decision.
One reason they were leaving, they said, was that the tourists were few and even fewer were coming to see "Wise Guy," Mr. Anderson's engaging one-man show at Oswald's. "I had more people in my car last night," he said to his piano player during a performance in May.
More significantly, Mr. Anderson said, he and his wife had become captives of the depression that grips many in the damaged city. "Elizabeth is by nature kind of an agoraphobe," Harry said, looking across the table. After the beginning of the year, as the city's ordeal ground on, she became increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to leave the house. A bad sign, he said, was "when she had groceries delivered from a couple of blocks away."
"It was an empty time," Ms. Anderson recalled. "I was getting farther and farther away from other people, and happiness." She would go downstairs to open their shop each day, she said, "but the passion for it was gone."
This spring, the local power company, Entergy, which is in bankruptcy and has instituted rate increases that have mystified many residents, sent a $900 bill for an apartment in the club building that had no electricity. (Later a monthly electric bill for a small shop space that had been shut up with the lights off came to $7,339.)
The city tried to more than double their $17,000-a-year property taxes. A lawyer had the amount reduced, but "that just meant that the lawyer got the money instead of the city," Mr. Anderson said. Then, in May, there was a repeat of an attack that had occurred more than a year before, when a stranger had approached Mr. Anderson, slammed his face into the side of a building and cursed him, saying, "You killed the Matador." That was the name of the bar he had replaced with Oswald's.
But it was the recent mayoral election, Mr. Anderson said, "that was the nail in the coffin."
The re-election of C. Ray Nagin, whom Mr. Anderson holds largely responsible for New Orleans's drift since the hurricane, came as a shock. The Sunday after the May 20 election, he said, he walked the streets of the Quarter, angry with a result that "pulled the rug out from any hope of" change for the better.
"This city hasn't evolved," Mr. Anderson said. "I just feel this place is stuck on stupid."
A few weeks later, he sat down with his laptop and began trolling Google for cities he thought he would like. One of the places that popped up was a town he had seen and liked years before: Asheville, N.C. (elevation: 2,133 feet).
At first, the Andersons told themselves they would visit just to see if they could find an "evacuation house." They wanted, Ms. Anderson said, "some option or choice" that would give them a measure of control over their lives.
Late in April, they drove 11 hours to Asheville, looked at three houses on the same street and, the same day, bought the third one. "As soon as we had it, it was almost a given, before we expressed it, that we were leaving," Mr. Anderson said.
Almost immediately, they decided to sell their New Orleans properties, and to their surprise found that the city is in the middle of a speculative real estate boomlet.
"We had no idea anybody was going to be buying anything," Ms. Anderson said, adding that they were also ambivalent about trying to hold out for the best possible deal in a city where so many people were struggling.
They sold their home within a week for a bit more than they paid, but a deal to sell the club fell through, and it is back on the market.
With the die cast, the Andersons began to feel more strongly a doubt that had plagued them for some time: that while they had chosen New Orleans as a home, the famously insular city had never really accepted them. Even after he started the town hall meetings, Mr. Anderson recalled, people would thank him "for helping my city," never "our city."
Now, he added, they will say, "How can you do this to my city?"
Mr. Anderson said friends and relatives from out of town are happy to hear that they are moving. "It's been a universal response from people who aren't here," he said.
Their New Orleans friends, too, have been supportive, Ms. Anderson said, and no one has expressed hostility. "I feel a little bit better now because I feel something is going to happen," Ms. Anderson said. "I'm glad we tried to stay, but I don't want to be the person I will be if I stay here."
Later that night, after dinner, a quiet walk through the streets of the Quarter and a parting handshake, Mr. Anderson called to make one thing clear: being assaulted was not the trigger for the move.
"I don't want people to think somebody pushed me, so I took my marbles and I went home," he said. "We love this place."