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New Orleans Street View: bringing you the awful truth

As part of Google's ongoing mission to index all the world's information, it continues to send its camera cars around, photographing city after city for the Street View feature of its mapping application.

Included in a spate of new cities for which Google is now offering street-level imagery is New Orleans.

If ever there were a tale of two cities. Anyone who's spent any time in the Jewel of the South since August 2005 -- and wandered outside the French Quarter -- knows that negotiating the town has become very much a block-to-block proposition.

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As Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu noted in the official Google blog, New Orleans is "a city marked by extremes.

"You will see some areas spared the worst of Katrina's fury which have quickly recovered, and you will find other neighborhoods that remain flattened by the floodwaters that broke the levees. You will see that our residents call both FEMA trailers and antebellum mansions home."

Those who are there. Among the neighborhoods that Landrieu properly describes as "flattened" are those that have become ghost towns. The 3,000+ FEMA trailers that still decorate the front yards of New Orleans are an eyesore, without a doubt. And the city is trying to speed their removal.

But the people living in those trailers have made a commitment to New Orleans. For a city that has lost about two-fifths of its population, that commitment counts for something.

Google Street View gives us more of the story, but certainly not all of it. It doesn't give you the feeling that comes from driving down the roads -- the images are grainy and it's not possible to recreate how far the wasteland actually stretches. It doesn't capture the spirit of the acres and acres where no one is living, littered with the stuff that used to make houses, empty churches and abandoned playgrounds. The houses that survived, in various states of wholeness, are of course empty as well. There are no FEMA trailers. Street View doesn't tell the whole story, but it's something.

Pretty powerful, too. Thing is, a lot of those people aren't coming back. Many of the properties are in a legal limbo with the owners scattered to the winds. The state is in the process of buying some of them back, but, after three years of inaction, conservative estimates place a resolution for areas like the Lower Ninth Ward at a decade away.

But in the spirit of finding opportunity in tragedy, Landrieu describes New Orleans as something of a blank canvas, holding out hope that it will serve as a model for innovative problem solving in areas ranging from crime to levees, schools to health care. Without dwelling too morbidly on the just how steep of a climb that will be (murder capital 2006, 2007, a strong showing so far this year), we can be charitable and suggest that Rome wasn't built in a day.

That the city has been largely forgotten by the arbiters of zeitgeist doesn't help. And here Landrieu rightly suggests that Google bringing the world the unvarnished truth about where New Orleans sits today, with its crazy contradictions, can only help they city -- by bearing witness, if nothing else.

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