NEW ORLEANS -- The Superdome is scrubbed and painted a shiny champagne gold, glowing with nightly light shows and emblazoned with the name Mercedes-Benz -- a dazzling image of luxury on a landmark that once symbolized squalor and despair.
This city has come a long way since August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees broke and the world predicted the city was finished. Eighty percent of the city flooded, leaving people stranded on rooftops, dying in attics, and sweltering in the chaos and swill of the Superdome.
Food rotted. The music stopped.
But now, seven years later, with the San Francisco 49ers facing the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's Super Bowl here, city leaders and locals are welcoming legions of football fans and 5,000 members of the media to take a close look at the refurbished surface and revitalized soul of the city.
"The story is much, much bigger than the Super Bowl," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said this week. "This is a story about the resurrection and the redemption of a great American city."
New Orleans still is, after all, the Big Easy. And this is Mardi Gras season -- beads, Bourbon Street, gumbo and all. This is the place where cooks are musicians on the side and musicians are cooks on the side, where jambalaya and jazz were born.
The place where shopkeepers in the French Quarter close their doors to join a parade. The place that adopted son Brad Pitt calls "the most authentic of all American cities."
"We were going to party whether the Super Bowl was here or not," said Elray "Boom Boom" Holmes, a cook at Kermit's Treme Speakeasy who came out of the kitchen to join the band onstage -- still wearing his red chef's jacket with a meat thermometer poking out of the pocket.
The way Holmes considers Katrina now -- and it's taken him a long time to feel this way -- reflects a monumental mood shift from the city's darkest days.
"Katrina kind of washed New Orleans,'' he said, "gave it a bath."
The "cleansing" included the $300 million spent to repair the holes in the Superdome roof and upgrade the building. Billions of dollars and thousands of volunteers flowed into the rest of the city to clean up and start over. Levees were rebuilt. Hospitals and schools reopened. A musicians colony was erected to lure back the rhythms of the city.
In the hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward, Pitt, who made vampire movies in New Orleans and owns a home in the French Quarter, led an effort to build dozens of internationally acclaimed, mold-resistant homes with escape hatches on the roofs.
Although the population is still 20 percent below pre-Katrina levels, New Orleans in 2011 was named the fastest-growing city in the nation. More restaurants are open now than ever. People who lost their homes -- scattering to Houston, Atlanta and Baton Rouge -- are finding reasons to come back.
They might not live in the same house or know their mail carrier's birthday or sit next to the same family in church anymore. But, they're proud to say, muddy water runs through their veins. And fried oysters and the Neville Brothers feed their souls.
In the years since the hurricane, though, the forces of human nature have also dealt strong blows to the city. Just two weeks ago, former Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted on federal corruption charges after being accused of awarding post-Katrina projects to contractors in return for thousands of dollars in kickbacks. And last year, the New Orleans Saints were plagued by a scandal alleging the players paid bounties for injuring opponents.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended the coach and several players, has been turned into a voodoo doll at the Jazzie NOLA boutique in the French Quarter. Shaped like chickens, the Goodell dolls have pins stuck through their fleur-de-lis hearts.
Most tourists this week will see the parts of the city that fared the best during the hurricane -- the French Quarter and the Garden District, built on the highest ground near the Mississippi River. But many neighborhoods still bear Katrina's scars, from the brown stains of high-water marks on buildings to piles of rubble on lots overgrown with weeds. Unemployment and crime rates are still high.
"It's hard when you walk out the door and don't see a house across the street," said Nevles Brown, 46, who lost his home in the Lower Ninth, but now rents a refurbished one nearby.
His uncle, Ronnie Brown, lives down the block in a house that shouldn't be standing. Still visible on the bright blue siding are spray-painted X's -- symbols drawn by rescuers who checked the houses for survivors in the early days. The front corner of the roof is sheered and splintered.
"I got nowhere else to go," Brown said, sitting in a chair on the remains of his front porch. Still, he said, "it's better than it used to be. I feel good every day."
Brian Childs, 66, was born in New Orleans, spent much of his life in Maryland and bought a second home here last year. During Katrina, he volunteered with the Red Cross as a therapist, consoling survivors who lost family members and 911 operators who had listened to people dying on the other end of the phone.
Still, he keeps coming back. New Orleans is in his blood.
"Every time I come in from the airport and see that Superdome," he said, "I think, 'There's going to be a Super Bowl there, and New Orleans is going to be OK.' "
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.