Hard Times at the Hard Rock
And the walls came tumbling down. Mostly. And so goes the story of the very soft Hard Rock hotel.
You know the story. You probably saw the video. You might have even been there. A lot of people were.
On Saturday, while guiding a tour, I wandered out onto Rampart Street and saw for the first time the unbuilt building, slanting toward the street, looking in every way a disaster site.
Assembled in the streets below resembled a crossing between Area 51 and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – and yes, I realize that’s sort of the same thing. But it was just really disconcerting. It was flat out surreal.
There were thousands of people in the street. Just standing there. All looking in the same direction. Waiting for something. It was oddly quiet. And I’d like to say it was reverent, but that’s not what it was. I didn’t see a single person who was not holding an iPhone, cocked and ready. It was an Instagram moment. Selfie City. Implosion porn.
How many processed that this was happening because they had to get two dead guys out of the rubble? I’m no better. I was there, too. Friends and strangers gathered to witness in real life, in real time, a building being blown up. Or so they thought.
(See my blog post dated Oct. 15 for more on that.)
The plot was otherwise cast. The plan was not to bring down the whole structure, but simply to collapse the two massive yellow cranes towering over the construction site, posing a menacing danger to recovery workers, street traffic, pedestrians and nearby buildings.
In the surreal stillness of the spectacle, with nothing happening but a crowd transfixed, I admit that my mind drifted to inappropriate meanderings. Why wasn’t there a band? No taco trucks? Nobody dragging Igloo coolers through the crowd selling $3 Budweisers? None of that pop-up DIY commerce that generally attends most street gatherings around here?
I’d like to think the reason for that was due to the underlying solemnity of the occasion, that the reason for all this was the recovery of two bodies still buried the in the rubble, presumed dead.
I’d like to think the oddly reverent silence of the crowd was because of a thing gone terribly wrong, a deadly malfeasance of engineering and construction, a tragedy writ large on the city skyline; another black eye for the city, another reason for the rest of America to think that we’re stupid and not only can we not build a building right – we can’t even unbuild it.
But it was none of that. People just wanted to be there. Because.
And so they waited, first in the sun and then in the rain and then in the sun again. The explosion was scheduled for noon Saturday. French Quarter streets were closed down and nearby hotels and retail businesses were evacuated and Rampart Street became clogged with humanity, culture vultures, prurient pedestrians.
Then nothing happened. For hours, nothing happened. There was a rising murmer in the crowd. General unrest. A rising sense of communal WTF. Then word was passed that the blow-up was rescheduled for 4 p.m. Some folks stayed. Some folks left. New folks arrived to take their place.
And they stared and they waited and they stared and they waited. Still no band. But the cranes. That building. That horrific civic eyesore, people now at safe remove from the stench of death that everyone knew was in there, somewhere.
Then, in sublime New Orleans fashion, the whole thing was called off because the construction contractors had not paid the deconstruction contractors to tear down what they just built.
So it was rescheduled for Sunday at noon. The crowds went home, the crowds came back. Local network affiliates cut into their regular programming to broadcast it live. We all watched split-screen football games/demolition porn together on a Sunday morning. And Jesus wept.
And then. BOOM. And, in more and true New Orleans fashion, the much-anticipated moment provided both a thrill and a terrible anticlimax.
The earth shook, dust and rubble flew, some stuff fell down – in the wrong direction – and other stuff just tipped over, creating perhaps a more menacing threat than before the blast.
And as we speak, the cranes are still there. One pitched over onto Rampart Street. The other hovering over Canal Street. Engineers assure us that everything went just right. Nothing to see here folks. Everyone go home.
So everyone did. Or almost everyone.
Quinnyon Wimberly, age 36, is still in there. Jose Ponce Arreola, age 63, is still in there. Anthony Magrette, age 49, was pulled from the rubble, dead.
Many others were hurt. Several were apprehended by ICE officials at local hospitals and so they – it turns out in bitter irony – will indeed be going home.
Sweet home. Wherever it may find you.