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They have always loved a parade in New Orleans, and here they do it better than anywhere else.

As Mardi Gras approaches, the great, garish floats packed with masked revellers flinging beads pop up in neighbourhoods throughout the city. There are jazz funeral processions, and the brilliant brass bands, and singing, chanting carnival troupes such as the Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas.

When it comes to marching, they have pretty much seen it all in the Crescent City, but never anything quite like what transpired on Thursday afternoon. Five thousand people, a group that crossed most lines of race and class, marched on city hall to protest a crime wave that included nine slayings in the first nine days of 2007. Two of those killings especially struck home: the slaying of filmmaker Helen Hill, which received extensive coverage in this newspaper, and the shooting of Dinerral Shavers, a high-school music teacher and popular local musician.

The mood of the crowd was sad, and scared, and especially angry -- angry at the police chief and the district attorney (the felony conviction rate in New Orleans is an astounding 7 per cent) and at spotlight-loving Mayor Ray Nagin, all of them accused of being aloof and incompetent and out of touch. Behind that was obvious, continuing discontent with the Bush administration for letting the city down so profoundly after hurricane Katrina.

It was all there in the faces, in the speeches and in the signs:

"The road home is covered in blood."

"Waiting for the posse is not a plan -- didn't work last time."

"Six family/friend murdered since July and no arrests. It's personal now."

The protest was big enough to make the network national news in the United States, an image that will run rather contrary to what the country will see tonight when the New Orleans Saints meet the Philadelphia Eagles in a National Football League playoff game at the Superdome.

In terms of the star-crossed local franchise, it may well be the biggest game ever, and as was the case with the Saints' return to the stadium this season (which in the wake of Katrina was memorably transformed into a temporary home for the displaced), the game will no doubt be cast as evidence of the city's rebirth.

The Saints are a terrific, feel-good story -- homeless last season and terrible on the field, they were transformed in large part by the acquisition of quarterback Drew Brees, the drafting of running back Reggie Bush and the hiring of bright young coach Sean Payton.

They enter the game tonight as slight betting favourites and huge sentimental favourites for most anyone from outside Philadelphia.

At very least, it will be suggested in sports broadcasting shorthand that the ascension of the Saints has become a source of comfort and a rallying point for the embattled populace.

On one level -- "the thinnest layer", as Kristina Ford calls it, discussing the initial pluckiness of those who rode out the storm and its terrible aftermath -- that may well be true. (The former New Orleans city planner has come back here to live with her husband, novelist Richard Ford, to be part of the rebuilding process, "for as long as we feel like we're doing some good.")

In a downtown shopping mall, the state government of Louisiana has collected messages sent from far and wide to the Saints, thanking the team for how it has helped build morale. Most are relatively simple: "Geaux Saints!" A few are more poetic: "The blood and sweat you have shed on the field has sprouted vines of hope and appreciation throughout a city still in turmoil," wrote Milton Love of Harvey, La.But away from the NFL spotlight, touring the still broken neighbourhoods of the Lower Ninth and Lakeview and Gentilly, standing among the protesters, hearing the despair in the voices of those who so passionately love their home, Katrina is still very much the dominant reality here, a year and a half after the storm hit.

In most NFL playoff cities, you would expect to find the local paper and the local newscasts jam-packed with football coverage on pages where you'd normally find "real" news. But even on the day before the protest march, the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (which did such estimable work after the hurricane) featured one, tiny Saints story surrounded by a variety of news items, all of which in one way or another were related to Katrina.

That's a true reflection of the mood, and the reason why football, even in these the best of times for the Saints, can't be top of mind.

In a short-attention-span world, New Orleans already had its 15 minutes, but that doesn't mean that what was so profoundly broken here has been fixed.

It is as though some terrible social experiment has taken place. Start with a culturally unique but economically disadvantaged city that has always been operated with more than a hint of incompetence and corruption. Leave it at the mercy of a profound natural disaster. Compound that disaster with an inept, apparently uncaring federal government response. With great stretches of the city in ruins, watch more than half the population become refugees, the majority of them poor African Americans fleeing to Texas and Georgia and beyond.

Then, in a leadership vacuum that to some suggests a conspiracy to permanently depopulate the city of its poor, let nature and the free market take their course, so there's nowhere for those people to return.

The worst of the storm-damaged neighbourhoods remain relative ghost towns, but for the odd returning resident, often living in one of the ubiquitous white trailers supplied by the hated Federal Emergency Management Agency. Much of the debris has been cleared, but almost all of the houses remain empty and uninhabitable, the streets are unlighted at night and the city has pledged to return essential services only when there are enough people there to justify them.

Without anything like a comprehensive plan for restoring the neighbourhoods (one aborted attempt showed the Lower Ninth as an unpopulated green space), there's no certainty that the more than 200,000 residents from a city of a half-million who haven't come back, ever will. And with the continuing economic pressure, and the breakdown of law and order, all but the wealthiest of those who remain have had to at least consider the possibility of leaving.

"Because I love this city -- as so many love this city -- I can't be pessimistic," Ford said. "But I think we're in for five, tough years."

Tonight, she'll cheer and they'll cheer for their football team, and if the Saints win, there will be one heck of a party -- because that they also do here better than anywhere else.

But this is one of those times when, between the pretend world of sport and the real world in which we live, you have to draw a line.


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