Growing up, I thought ghost towns were the stuff of legend. I understood that they might have existed once, but I thought somehow that they were places specifically populated by ghosts, places where bad things had happened. I didn't understand why everyone would just leave a town, unless it was scary.
When I was a bit older (12?), my parents and I went to Buena Vista , Colorado for a weekend. We four-wheeled over a ridiculously high pass that was one-lane. We sat in hot springs. We went to a real ghost town up in the mountains. A saloon, a store, a couple of houses. No one lived there. No tourist-y stuff, just a place that you stumble upon, one that the locals talked about. My dad wouldn't let me look in the buildings because he didn't know if the structures were safe, so we left seemingly as quickly as we'd arrived. But, later that same day, headed back to the ranch where we were staying with friends, I asked about an old two-story house near the ranch gates, some mile off from the main house. The ranch owners said we could go in there, so my dad and I walked down after a storm had passed.
It was there, in that house, that I understood the meaning of ghosts. Not the phantasmic kind, but of the ghosts of lives which we leave behind. The house was easily turn of the century, a rarity in the mountains. The walls were falling down and daylight came screeching through the cracks. In one corner, I saw an old doll, and one that was surely expensive-- ceramic head, an eye cracked out, a ragdoll body with tattered clothes. I asked my dad why those people would leave, and if they left, why they would surely leave behind what had to have been one of the only toys they had. My dad didn't have an answer, but as we both thought about it, we decided to leave. I remember another storm coming in as we walked back, but maybe that just was what I was thinking in my head.
I've seen similar things in St. Louis. Old toys and pictures tucked up in attic rooms in Soulard, stuff burned in fireplaces and then left as the walls were closed up. Strange things that I don't understand. But those are ghosts to me, the evidence of lives we will not understand.
I felt the same last week reading this month's National Geographic. The issue was about hurricanes, and there was a beautiful essay and haunting photography from New Orleans. The pictures were taken in a way that they looked like miniatures at a circus, the color surreal like a dream, fuzzy around the edges. All the things that were left behind, all the lives stopped in mid-motion. The author, David Burnett, wrote about community, and repeatedly stated New Orleans would come back. The question he asked, however, was would it be his New Orleans? Would it be the New Orleans that so many had called home before, or would it be lost to the very people who had once given it life. "...I imagine stories of loss, and I wonder," he wrote.
New Orleans has become a modern ghost city, a place of longing, a place of debris, detritus of past memories. And for others, New Orleans has become a project. How do we plan to give a city life? We can build a community of structures and infrastructures, but how do we truly build, or re-build a community? How do we infuse places with character, with laughter, with dreams, with a rich history? No doubt Katrina will be a part of New Orleans, but how do we move away from the ghosts? Cleaning up is one thing. But how do we truly move on when the ghosts are always in our heads?