Little children: Let them revitalize the city

I've been caught up in the daily toil of work and travel, but after a while it finally dawned on me that there is something critical missing in New Orleans– some essential part of life. There are almost no children down here.

That's both a blessing and a curse. I'm glad that children aren't seeing a grim, shadowy ghost of a city known for its sparkles and smiles. But the city cannot be rebuilt without families returning to create new memories and traditions.

The playgrounds are all empty; there are no childish voices laughing from the parks and schoolyards. There's not much laughter at all. There are only six schools open (of 125), but none in the worst-hit areas. In those six schools, fewer than 30 percent of the children are in their original schoolhouse. There are no school buses navigating the city streets, no guards with signs and reflective vests mothering their charges through crosswalks, no impromptu games of hopscotch or stickball filling the evenings with joyful sounds.

I recently got a couple of e-mails from a Hook reader who was born and raised in the Big Easy and moved to Charlottesville in 1999. Married in New Orleans in 2003, she moved back after the wedding to care for her mother. She returned to the same house where she was raised with her three older brothers and sister. Then, sadly, Katrina destroyed her childhood home.

"It took two months before we could go back after the storm and see the damage first-hand," she wrote. "We lost everything. Our home was submerged in toxic water, and we ourselves feel like we're drowning and are about to lose the last of what we do have. We have had to count on the kindness of strangers just so we have a place to lay our heads.

"It was like nothing we could have imagined. Not only the house was gone, but the parks I played in as a child. The elementary school I went to was gone. The streets that my brothers taught me to ride my bike in were dead and covered in dry mud.

"When I read about you running on the levee and watching the sunrise over the Mississippi, it brought tears to my eyes. To know where you were and picturing the Mighty Muddy in front of you made me realize what it means to truly miss New Orleans, to miss the smell of chicory coffee in the morning, fresh baked bread at La Spiga Bakery, and sitting on the sidewalk across the street with our best friends as we spoke to neighbors who happened to pass by.

"We'll miss sitting in our backyard and listening to some big name band play on a Saturday afternoon at Jazz Fest, and the high school marching band practicing for Mardi Gras. We'll miss the walks into the Quarter to go dance to the music. We'll miss caroling in the park on the corner of Elysian Fields and Charter this holiday. We'll miss the walk though the Botanical Gardens for Celebration in the Oaks at city park for our anniversary.

"We'll miss po' boys and crawfish and the Crescent City Farmers Market where we always got green onion sausage. We'll also miss the smell after a hot summer afternoon shower comes and cools us down even just for a moment. You see, it's not just the stuff we lost; it's the memories that will all too soon be forgotten. We have no pictures to show our grandchildren. We won't be able to bring our kids down and show them where we lived, where we laughed, or where we fell in love a million times over."

Is the next generation going to have happy childhood memories of New Orleans? Will they see the dirty, grim desperate version of the city as it slowly rebuilds itself, or can the children bring life back to the city? The city needs children running through piles of leaves, falling off the merry-go-rounds, swinging the swings higher and higher until their toes touch the sun. The city needs the sparkle and joy and innocence that children have in their souls.

And the children need the City's streets and neighborhoods to hold their childhood memories.

Peter Drenan, a Charlottesville-based home inspector, went on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. This is his sixth and final dispatch.