Dispatches from an Imaginary Disaster
Dispatches from an Imaginary Disaster
The city in this disaster may or may not be New Orleans
. I’ve been gone so long its hard to be certain. Before the levees failed and swept away entire neighborhoods, so much had already begun to be abandoned to the elements.
Long before the catastrophe, the iconography of my childhood was slowly eroded until only the skeleton of streets remained in some places, the names evocative of a distant, gilded age and faded ambition: Melpomene, Robert. E. Lee, Desire.
The corner stores that differentiated one quarter from another—the visual anchor that placed you on one crumbling street of narrow, clapboard houses instead of one across town—were boarded up, as if in anticipation of the storm that would come, or were converted into the efficient national brands I could walk out my door and find a block over and 1,200 miles away.
The houses, the clapboard shotguns and stucco-covered cottages and newer GI Bill ranches of discolored brick, will look I think much the same, sagging slightly on their piers over the remains of streets that once were paved and curbed. Those streets, that look as if retreating Panzers had torn them up in the last desperate battle for Berlin, will be as I remember them.
Will I be able to tell the difference between the Krauss Department Store building of September 2004 and September 2005? Twenty years ago I was approved for credit by an unseen bookkeeper at the far end of a pneumatic tube, which disgorged the cardboard payment book given to me an ancient female clerk, who had perhaps witnessed the city’s first airplane. Before the storm, it was already an abandoned ruin. Will I be able to find the high water mark hidden among the graffiti?
The storm and flood that people will measure there lives by, so many memories of before and so many days toiled out after, will be remembered a century from now the way we think of the past: the great fires of the eighteenth century, that left the French Quarter a monument to Spanish architecture, or the yellow fever epidemics that gave birth to a neighborhood called Cemeteries—another in a long line of disasters that must befall a city if it is to grow ancient and wise.
Until I can return and see for myself, I offer this: a portrait of a city I have not seen since the last Mardi Gras before Katrina
, as drawn from frantic or tearful late night calls from my people on the ground, the patchwork of memories of what I knew for thirty years, and imagined portraits of what remains drawn from those studies: dispatches from an imaginary disaster.
Lakeview is a neighborhood everyone in America remembers. It’s the idyllic subdivision in which so many of us grew up. Or wish we had. Or at least pretend to.
I think I will recognize Lakeview if I get back soon. If I do not, it will live only in my memory, because Lakeview is a tear-down.
When the levee collapsed near Bucktown, it washed away everything generations living and dead would remember of Lakeview. The trees that shaded the streets are broken and leafless. No birds or squirrels live in the shattered branches. The once uniformly green lawns and rampant landscaping are a sepia study of winter in another climate, all drowned in the lake’s brackish water. Any dogs left are feral and dangerous like the packs that once roamed the north end of City Park before the golf course was built.
Everything that is not brown and dead is stained like the inside of an old tea mug, all color drowned out by the water's stain and a fine patina of dried mud. It is the picture of an old television town, a Mr. Serling asking us to imagine this disaster, a neighborhood perhaps we once saw filmed on the outskirts of Hiroshima.
The pleasure of distance in time and space is that I can turn off this particular program, or change the channel to a more pleasant view of the city, one that would fit perfectly in between episodes of Andy Griffith and Happy Days. The Lakeview of memory falls exactly into that window, somewhere in time where Opie is transformed into Richie, during the time I grew up on the edges of Lakeview.
Because the neighborhood aspired to be one of those perfect American neighborhoods, it's architecture and streets are taken not from the cities of old Europe, but from Capra and 1950s television. If I think about any particular view, it is so easy to turn down the color knob in my imagination, to see it rendered in the bright grey tones of Leave it to Beaver. Still there was just enough of New Orleans to rise above being just a rough study toward the mural of sprawl that became Metairie and Marrero.
Along Canal Boulevard—all these classic American neighborhoods had a grand boulevard--were the stately older homes, and a scattering of the churches. On the river end of Canal, toward the L&N tracks, were sunken gardens filled with crepe myrtle and lilacs. Behind these homes, the tree-shaded streets were lined by the clapboard and brick bungalows of post-war America. (If you have to ask which war, then you are—perhaps—to young to share this memory).
Down the middle of the neighborhood ran Harrison Avenue. Anchored by the twin movie palaces of my youth—the Lakeview and the lighthouse-adorned Beacon—it offered everything needed: a Winn-Dixie, a K&B, a neighborhood restaurant, and the sundry smaller businesses of any respectable neighborhood of the city. A divided boulevard, the neutral ground was covered in sun-bleached shell for parking, enclosed by low-strung chains.
There was nothing specifically New Orleans
about the neighborhood beyond the brand names of a few business, or complaining about the weather over an oyster po-boy at Drago’s. Even when I was still a child, the streetcars stopped at Cemeteries, and the vestiges of the swamp Lakeview once had been were all erased. The decrepit horse that lived for years in a vacant lot cattycorner from Hynes Elementary spoke more of the rural south than the cosmopolitan city. Only the high levees along Orleans Avenue spoke of the places water-shaped geograpy.
I don’t remember living in Lakeview, in the house on Memphis where I was brought home from Hotel Dieu. but I remember in vivid detail every detail of my grandparent’s house on the corner of Memphis and Porteous, right next door. My grandfather would never think of leaving his car and walking the few blocks up the street to Mass. (The man would rail at my mother if we ran barefoot, for fear our neighbors in Lake Vista would think us too poor to afford shoes). But I often walked or biked that distance on my own when I was older and visiting, and I can still call up an image, even if the details are fuzzy, and the rabbit hears don't help much.
Instead, I think I have ridden my bike up the shoulder of Marconi, along the remnant bayou, and can stand in front of Mr. Frank’s snowball stand as if it were 1965 again. The confections of finely shaved ice have no aroma. The smell is of leather from the shoe repair next door, a hint of shrimp heads from somewhere inside or behind the seafood shop, the vague tar aroma of blacktop parking lot baking in the summer sun.
Instead there is the sound, the pulsing belt-drive thrum of the Sno-Bliz machine, rising suddenly to a tooth gnashing agony as it transmutes block ice into pure snow; the sight of the crowded board of flavors and extras: a maraschino cherry, chocolate, condensed milk; the noisy jostling of anxious children clutching money and dreaming of a Blue Batman with a cherry.
I bought my first record in the back of this building at Studio A, from a gentleman named Harry Connick, Sr. Later the District Attorney of the Parish of Orleans, I only know him as the man who sold me a copies of The Mamas and the Papas Deliver, and Abbey Road. I never knew his son, the famous musical scion of the city. I wonder if Harry Junior ever stood next to me in Lenny’s Records, browsing the city’s largest selection of bootleg records. As I sit at my desk, I can reach down and pull out a copy of the Good Karma 2 boot of Jimi Hendrix with the famous Berkley rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, bought one aftertoon from Lenny.
At the other end of the block—past the K&B Drug Store and the Mackenzie’s Bakery—was the fantasy land of my youth. Of the two theatres on Harrison Avenue, the Lakeview and the Beacon, I loved The Beacon best, with its faux lighthouse, the corridor-narrow lobbies on either side of the concession stand that ran behind the ticket booth. Back when double features with a cartoon first were still the rule, I squandered the change from my ticket on Necco wafers and giant dill pickles, served in a paper jacket.
Across the street was the Robert E. Lee branch library. A shy and bookish child, I frequently spent my ten cents to board the Canal-Lake Vista bus at the end of my street to ride up to the library. I can see this room as clearly as the one I'm sitting in. Walking in the corner entryway, the desk at the left occupied the entire west end of the room. The science fiction stacks were straight back, with a drug-store style rotary wire rack of the cheaper paperback titles. When homework required, the periodicals were due north-by-left from the Sci-Fi aisle.
In the middle of Harrison Avenue stood St. Dominic’s. I was a Pius Pixie myself, the last class to make first communion in Latin. But we would often spend nights at my grandparent’s house on Memphis and Porteus, and that meant mass at St. Dominic. The church was an marvel of Italian immigrant grandeur, it was a church as I recognized the concept from those seen in from The Beacon and the library. It was completely unlike the sterile auditorium I first attended in Lake Vista—tucked into the first floor of the parochial school, or the modern steel tower that succeeded it. While superficially modern and practical, St. Dominic’s was still a classical chancel and nave marvel of white marble, with a tremendous stained glass window behind the nave.
I prefer to walk down the Harrison of memory, slurping at my Blue Batman as I pass all the landmarks, and not to imagine the ruin the storm left behind.
Much of the neighborhood of Lakeview will be demolished. When I return, it will be to a neighborhood of many empty lots and more ruined homes, and towering edifices of wreckage along the great neutral ground at Pontchartrain Boulevard. I will go to the corner of Memphis and Porteus and look again on my grandparents home. Perhaps the first family house I don’t remember will be there still. If it is not locked or unsafe, perhaps I will go in, to try and discover a part of my family’s life older than I am.
There is much to remember about my family, which has been in southeast Louisiana for almost 300 years. The Lakeview era isn’t old enough to merit the great family stories of another century. But if these memories are to live at all, I must capture them now, for the place itself is lost. We cannot let the threads of memory be broken, because they tie the city together more so than the intricate web of streets and streetcar lines, the network of lost bayous and low ridges that lie just below the city's skin, hidden like bones.
If the threads of memory are broken, then what is built in the place of Lakeview and the other ravaged farbourgs of the city will not be New Orleans.
Next: The Last Mardi Gras
The Last Mardi Gras
In this city, people talk incessantly of past pleasures and of those to come, even as they regard the meal or the drink or the parade in front of them. We live in a stream of memory as dark and deep and powerful as the river that fronts the city. Memory's currents clutch at us and steer our lives, must be compensated for just as the ferry pilots compensate for the river's at every crossing, must be feared less they take us down into an eddy from which no body returns.
Some of my earliest memories are of Mardi Gras
. I remember as a child of perhaps five seeing Indians dancing at the corner of Galvez and Canal as we drove do my great aunts' on Royal Street. Later that day or perhaps a year before or after, I can clearly see Rex passing down Canal from atop my father's shoulders.
Much later, my girlfriend and I slouched outside a hall in Arabi in the lost hours before dawn on the night of MoM's Ball, and a famous photographer took our picture. I've never seen the picture, but I will go to my grave easier knowing that years from now, on a wall or in a book, someone will see us in our motley glory, dissolute and unrepentant and utterly glorious in the moment. They will see us and say: this is what Mardi Gras was like back then.
Twenty years seperate those moments, and another twenty seperate that MoM's Ball from the first postdeluvian Carnival. For all that span of years and a century before, Mardi Gras has been as reliable as high water. No one really needed to tell me there would be a Mardi Gras this year, as there has been every year in my living memory, and as I am certain there will be a Mardi gras when no one remembers what it meant to sit on the lawn of the Wildlife and Fisheries building of a certain winter Tuesday. No disaster leaving behind life more complex than the cockroach could prevent it. Just as certain, at some point of a Tuesday twilight, people will begin to talk of about last Mardi Gras, and of the Mardi Gras to come with the certainty of the sanctified they are most certainly not.
The last time in living memory Carnival
was interrupted was during World War II. Frankly, I don't understand why. Certainly the soldiers and sailors on leave, wandering Perdido Street drunkly in search of women wouldn't have been harmed by the tableaux of paper maiche floats lit by the dripping oil burners of the flambeau. Carnival was probably cancelled by somebody from the wrong side of Canal Street, whose father before him decided Storyville had to be closed to protect the doughboys of World War One from dissipation. There always a Do-Good Daddy looking to tone the city down.
I don't think anyone with the city in their heart understood, but I'm sure those generations accepted those losses the way we accept the closing of a favorite restaurant, by finding a new and equally good one to sit in and eat and drink and discuss the loss of the old favorite, remembering what we ate on such a date and with whom. Until, of course, we discuss where the owner or the cook of the failed place is expected to return, and start to anticipate the day we will sit at that as yet unset table, and remember what we ate on such a date and with whom.
Of course there will be a Mardi Gras. I might need to ask which krewes would roll on what nights, to inquire of friends where the MoM's Ball might be. But no one needed to tell me that Mardi Gras would happen, especially the one hidden inside private parties in bars or in courtyards, punctuated by forays out into the streets to parade.
The year the police went on strike and the parades all fled to the suburbs and the Mardi Gras of the hoteliers and the airlines was cancelled, we dutifully assembled at the Wildlife and Fisheries Building on Fat Tuesday. Suspicious National Guardsmen and out-of-state troopers warily regarded the ragged parade of the early intoxicated, smelling of burnt leaves and breakfast screwdrivers, dressed in ways only the part-time preachers among them could have imagined, and then only in a place warmer than the city in February.
We were not about to let a simple thing like a police strike spoil the party.
Several among us dressed as the National Guard, in uniforms from the surplus stores in Gentilly, armed with perfect replica rifles by Mattel. When we went to buy wine and beer at the Walgreen's on Canal, and our friends burst into the door yelling "secure the beer cooler," clerks fell to the floor in fright, fearing perhaps that the Guard had had enough, and were about to shut down carnival.
I fled the city a few years later, and did not return for Mardi Gras once for almost two decades. The few Mardi Gras that followed the police strike were colored by my reasons for leaving the city, memories bent by heartache and drowned in drink. Those last few years did not yield the stories I would tell my children if they fed me too much wine at some holiday dinner years from now. For many years, the police strike was the Last Mardi Gras.
My children, a boy ten and a girl thirteen, grew up knowing Mardi Gras through the Disney film fairy tale filter of the stories I dared to tell them, from the magazine that came with the king cake from Ma Mere every year, in the music I played them from Twelfth Night until the day. We ate jambalaya and king cake, and donned masks and beads to dance wildly to Mardi Gras Vol. 1 in front of the large plate glass window of our home in a small Midwestern town. Neighbors across the street peered through their curtains intermittently at the scene, but no one ever worked up the courage to ask us what we were doing.
I have taken my family to New Orleans. The kids had sneezed powdered sugar all over each other at the Cafe du Monde, fondled baby alligators on flat boats out of Barataria, had learned to eat seafood and gumbo and jambalaya, had even wandered with me through Storyland in City Park. I took them to the exhibit at the Cabildo to learn about Mardi Gras. It's a wonderful set piece but, like a high school health film on sex, it is not quite the same as the actual experience.
So we piled onto an airplane bound for New Orleans
the year before the storm, and went to Mardi Gras. I took them to St. Charles and Napoleon, and my son's waved his deftly caught spear with complete abandon. My daughter was bashful about begging trinkets from strangers in a strange land, until I flung myself stone cold sober on my knees in the middle of the Avenue and begged as loudly as I could for a female horse posse rider to give me a purple, green and gold flower for my daughter on her first Mardi Gras. After that, she got the idea. No pretty girl on St. Charles Avenue should go home without her weight in beads. She only needed to ask. We stood for hours all weekend, parade after parade, never tiring of it, interrupted only by a friend's party Endymion party on Saturday night.
After Endymion, I left them with Ma Mere and set out after midnight to return to the MoM's ball for the first time in two decades. MoM's had always been one of my favorite things about Mardi Gras, a gathering of all who chose to live in the fabric of Mardi Gras and not just inhabit a costume for a few hours, a party only the resolutely dissolute can enjoy, or survive. MoM's is what I hope Saturday night in Hell will be like, should I find myself stuck there between planes. But thousands in a shed did not hold up to the memories of hundreds in a hall in Arabi decades before. I don't know if I will return to MoM's, preferring this one true memory of carnival's past. And them I can say well, I don't go anymore
, you know, but back when...
I agonized for weeks and months before we went: should I take the children to the Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, or back to St. Charles? As I child, I spent most Mardi Gras at my great aunt's apartment on Royal Street, now the Hove' Parfunier. I decided they had had enough of St. Charles, and should have a glimpse of the secret heart of Mardi Gras, or as least as much as they could handle.
So we rose up early on the day, donned our costumes, and boarded a cab bound for Frenchman Street. We waited endlessly across from the R-Bar for St. Anne's, not knowing those marchers had chosen another route. Facing a rebellion, we took off and made our own way up Royal, stopping to sit a moment on Tante Gert and Sadie's stoop, making Canal just in time for Zulu.
After Rex, I left them in my sister's care for the endless truck floats, and retired to friend's places in the Quarter. I stopped briefly in the Abbey, a place that had never been the same since Betz sold it. Instead of a motley crew of bikers or transvesties or other folk I had often encountered on past trips home, I found it full of drunken twenty somethings who looked frighteningly like the crowd I remember from my own days, as if the Abbey were haunted for the night by the spirits of the place of my memories. Then the currents swept me back to Frenchman Street, a mad Green Man second lining with a huge palm tree totem given to me be someone who knew just how to complete my costume.
Now I have a new last Mardi Gras.
We are coming back to the city to stay, to march again and again, so that there is no longer a Last Mardi Gras, just the last Mardi Gras. I will march until my time is done, and then I will borrow a ritual from St. Anne's, in this city of borrowed rituals. I will have my children scatter what remains of me into the river. For me, it will be the Last Mardi Gras. For them, it will simply be a moment from last Mardi Gras. They will say a few words, shed a tear, and then all of us will be swept away by the currents. They will turn away from the river, while nearby a drunken trumpeter will perhaps blow a few bars of Oh Didn't He Ramble, and I will march in their hearts back into the Quarter once more.
Next: The Parish
I worked for a number of years for a weekly newspaper in St. Bernard Parish
, a narrow strip of land running along the east bank of the river south of the city. The main community of Chalmette flourished after desegregation, a haven for white flight. This bothered me when I first came out there; but the more time I spent there, the less I noticed. This was not Mississippi, some place people raged against their neighbors.
After desegregation, some of us in both communities chose to try to live among each other. Some in both communities retreated, and chose to live among themselves.
St. Bernard was one of those latter places.
The parish was also a perfect diorama of life between the river and the gulf. From the clap board shotguns and Creole cottages of Arabi, past the brick-clad suburban panorama off Judge Perez Drive and the shining and noisome refineries of Chalmette and Meraux, down to the hard scrabble fishing villages that perched on listing stilts along the coastal bayous, St. Bernard was Louisiana in miniature.
True, it lacked real Cajuns, except the odd fellow whose grandparents came up from those bayous and, finding New Orleans unsettling, found themselves back in much the same place they left. While the people of the eastern end of St. Bernard were not refugees from Acadiana, they were not much different from their Gallic cousins from across the river. Everyone down here is a refugee from somewhere. Those who settled in St. Bernard were no different.
There were Isleños, who came from the Canary Islands and were among the first to settle the ends of the earth to truck farm and fish. Others were central Europeans, their long and ethnic names looked to the northern census takers like a spoonful of alphabet soup. In a few communities African-Americans—descendents of the slaves who worked the grande plantations that once lined the river—toiled at the same simple labors allotted to them as it was to their parents and grandparents.
Out in the easternmost wards of the parish, these people lived on houses raised on stilts above the periodic floods, built boats by hand from the cypress stands that filled the back swamp of the parish, and wrestled nets and oyster rakes to make a precarious living on the water.
All of them took what they could from the marsh--fishing, trapping, hunting--and respected the marsh for the life it gave them.
St. Bernard had known tragedy before. Hurricanes have come and gone. Many in the eastern parish still lived in government-grant trailers dating back to Hurricane Betsy. Why should they rebuild knowing the next big one might sweep it all away again? Better to get used to living in this trailer, so as to be ready for the next.
People from the parish would proudly show off the great crevasse, a long thin lagoon of great depth just behind the river levee, scoured out when those levees failed and millions of tons of the Mississippi gushed through the breech. These things have hapened before. They can happen again.
The people of St. Bernard, sandwiched one of the narrowest strips of land between river and lake, always knew the levees could fail, and that those outside the levee had no real chance. They had watched for decades as the new ship channel to the north let in the salty waters of the gulf and killed the cypress swamps and grass marshes which once slowed the flood waters. In Hurricane Betsy, everyone on the east side of New Orleans
learned that the channel was a superhighway for the floodwaters that one day those waters would come and drown their world.
They were right. The storm came and the waters of the Gulf raged up the ship channel, and easily overtopped the Parish’s levees. A picture taken at the height of the storm shows not the quiet marshes, but an ocean of storm tossed swells easily mistaken for the high latitudes of the Pacific, and a cascade of water over the levees like a great breaker on a surfer’s beach.
When the storm was gone, the marsh had reclaimed the parish, as if in revenge for the indignities of the ship channel and the levees, insults from people who did not understand the place. What still stood in the Parish stood deep in water, up to the eaves of the one story homes, drowning those who could not get to higher shelter. By the refinery in Meraux, an oily sheen spread over the flood.
The St. Bernard of memory—the old Creole homes of Arabi, the last bits of the de la Ronde plantation, the American sprawl of Chalmette, the precarious villages to the east—was erased from the face of the earth.
Most of those who stayed, hoping to save a little of the life they had made for themselves, lost that life in the confusion of wind and waters. Far from the city and the attention of ambitious cameramen, the survivors captured drifting boats and huddled on a riverfront wharf, waiting for rescue, forgotten.
Once I knew these people. I know this place. They will come back.
I know that, however great the devastation, I will someday take my children to Rocky and Carlos, and we will eat macaroni and cheese. We will go the battlefield, and I will tell them of the Pirates Lafitte and the Creoles and flat-boatmen who beat the British.
And I will drive them down Highway 300 to Shell Beach, and show them on each side of that narrow road the swamp these people wrested their homes from.
We will watch the shrimpers unload, and buy some fresh. I will take them down the road to The End of the World Marina in Delacroix, and show them the beauty of these waters, so they will not think them cruel.
I want to show my children the beauty in a place they don't understand, growing up in the Midwest. I want them to see people who live with the water the way people in Fargo live with air; people who shrimp and crew towboats and work on rigs in the Gulf; people who, when the refinery lets out for the day, go fishing or boil shrimp to celebrate; people who chose to live on an island in the middle of a swamp, and not in Kenner or Fargo, ND; people who worked hard and set aside a little and built a place for themselves out of a swamp, a place they would not willingly let go.
I want them to know why I am crying as I write this for people whose views on issues of race I could never understand, and teach my children to abhor; people who took me into their homes and fed me sweet tea and told me stories until the stars and the mosquitoes came out; people from scattered backgrounds who chose to live apart, surrounded by capricious waters, an island; people who would not willingly surrender their island back to the waters.
I want them to understand why some people stayed—gambling against death and losing--and why the survivors would come back and start over again.
After a twenty year absence, some parts of the city are a blur in my memory. Then, suddenly, I read a line in the newspaper, and I am transported back in time, can clearly see the view out my car window as I drive down a street I haven’t traveled in over two decades.
Today, I read this about the Ninth Ward: “The city plans to finally reopen the lake side of North Claiborne on Dec. 1, allowing residents to freely walk or drive around their neighborhood.”
Until I read that line, I couldn't match the terrible newspaper or television pictures of devastation with a neighborhood, could not place it in my own experience because, frankly, I never knew Bywater or the Ninth Ward.
In the early 1980s, it was a routine part of my daily commute to follow Claiborne Avenue out from Esplanade until it became Judge Perez Drive. The places I traveled on that daily traverse had not crossed my mind in years. Suddenly, after reading one line in a single story in a distant newspaper, I am driving along east bound along North Robertson, a block south from Claiborne, which here is a one-way street running west. Claiborne and Robertson are both narrow two-lane streets, made into thoroughfares in a part of the city that did not anticipate the automobile. There is a stoplight somewhere along here, but I can no longer recall if it’s at Alvar or another corner.
I can dimly see boxy modern duplexes—almost identical to the ones I lived in, built decades earlier as off-base housing for the Naval air stations that became the ruined university on the lakefront--and a few apartment complexes. I see many more of the narrow shotguns with rotting ironwork fences enclosing tiny front yards and newer iron work barricading the doors and windows.
I remember the seafood restaurant on North Claiborne west of the Canal, and I can find an advertisement for it today on my computer. But I cannot, to save my own life, remember where precisely was the seafood place that loudly announced cowan could be had fresh, ready for those intrepid enough to prepare their own turtle soup. Was that at Poland and North Robertson? Or was that on St. Claude? I took both routes out to the Parish, and now I am uncertain. I am afraid that the painted plaster sign will be gone. How can I record memories that begin to fade in early middle age, from the distance of twenty years and 1,200 miles?
After crossing the Industrial Canal, the road opens out again to a broad median, and I am in the Ninth Ward. I pass a once famous nightclub on the river side, a building of no real account except for a sign bearing a famous name. I don’t know if the building is still there. The current city directories are no help. There is something called the Chicken Box in about the same spot, and the famous name that comes to mind now belongs to a business in another part of town. There was also, I vaguely recall, a fenced-in brick school building, surrounding by a crumbling blacktop yard, and a modern-looking health clinic built by a famous mayor during the height of the war on poverty. And even twenty five years ago there were already lots on this main drag surrendered back to nature, slowly reverting to the scrub forest that once had been. Beyond this one famous corner, were no landmarks of note here in the middle of the Ninth Ward.
The fact is I never really knew the Ninth Ward. I only skimmed its surface between here and there, peering into side streets as I waited for a stoplight, venturing into Holy Cross to see Fats Domino’s or the steamboat houses. But I had never ventured between St. Claude and Claiborne, or back between Claiborne and Florida. As a boy the Ninth Ward was always terra incognita to us, a place older boys—the ones with cars and cigarettes and girls hanging on their arm—threatened to take us and dump us if we didn’t scram, a place of terrible reputation, frightful because it was the unknown.
A rambling urge had carried me through most of New Orleans
. First I travled by bicycle, until I discovered that a thin dime and a transfer would transport my anywhere I dared to go. After that, I roamed everywhere. Days after I had a car, lacking any real purpose I would just drive off with a pack of cigarettes and drive aimlessly about the city. I restlessly explored so many odd corners of the town.
For a son of Robert E. Lee, a boy from the idyllic neighborhoods along the lakefront, the ancient and the decrepit corners of the city held a tremendous charm, promised a life wildly different from that I was raised to. Boys from the Midwest might dream of running away to Paris or Spain or North Africa. For a boy from New Orleans, all that was required was just to turn an unexpected corner, to find a European café or roam the local Kasbah.
But the Ninth Ward, seen from North Claiborne, seemed to offer no secrets worth testing the warnings of my childhood, and so I never roamed those streets that thousands called home, that neighborhood that became the focus of a catastrophe that will rival any this city of great fires and floods and epidemics has known in 300 years.
So I cannot tell you anything of note about the Ninth Ward. I can only describe the main streets I traveled as I passed it by. And even those memories are dim, even as the newspaper sends me wandering back to a time I drove those few streets. What I have carry in my head not the vivid diorama I have of so much of the city, but merely an impression, as much sense as I have of rural landscapes I traveled across bound for somewhere else.
It is difficult enough to map out in words the parts I know well, parts of a confusing place where the streets named North run east and those named South run west; a city where the cross streets all start out perpendicular to the curving riverfront, spreading away from each other in a mockery of the lines of perspective so jumbled the tourists must all get drunk just to keep their equilibrium; a town where as recently as August people sat in rhomboid parlors above isosceles corner bars, under the eaves of which new streets erupted to fill in the space between those which spread so far apart the depth of lots was measured in arpents; a crazy confusion of a city that grew with the random, fractal grace of things left to their own nature.
I can trace in ink so many of this city’s places, but not all. The Ninth Ward I will leave to others.
Still, before the bulldozers begin to clear the Ninth Ward I must once again make that drive, down North Robertson and out to Judge Perez Drive, and back down north Claiborne. This time, I will turn into the side streets, and see the Creole cottages and shotguns just like those of every neighborhood I knew, and imagine the lives of these people, not so different from those I knew better in the Irish Channel or other working class black neighborhoods.
I will have to see the devastation myself before there is only blank space and wild weeds and rip rap bits of ruined concrete and rebar left. I will need to stop in neighborhoods a small voice of my childhood tells to drive on through, and stand on the street, to find someone to ask--not a fireman from Shreveport or a policeman from Atlanta, but someone walking down the street with the swagger of a son or daughter of the Ninth Ward. I will stop them and ask, wasn’t that where the Dew Drop Inn once stood?
Next, The Avenues
is habitable, in spite of the sub-tropic swelter, by the grace of its trees. All of the best places are cooled by the filtering of the unrelenting sun through the canopy that overhangs the main avenues, all the best spots in to stop and sit, and any house worth living in.
Step out of the airport and into your limo or taxi, then wander for a week between your downtown hotel and every notable spot in the French Quarter, and you may never see a notable oak or other tree. I’ve walked through or around Jackson Square countless times, and can’t recall a single exceptional specimen.
The closest most tourists get to touching this urban forest is riding the streetcar to Audubon Park and back. They fan themselves furiously with a street map and complain that the cars aren't air-conditioned, they gawk at the houses and squeal should they see the Roman Candy man stopped at a corner. The trees are such an integral part of the scene they are lost among the mansions.
The true tourists, those who line up on the shadeless pavement outside their hotels to fill the Greyline buses, will certainly make it to City Park, and see the Dueling and the Suicide, the 600-year-old McDonough, all the ancient live oaks preserved there. They ride along Dreyfous and City Park Avenues and marvel at the stands of grandfather trees bearded with moss, whose branches descend almost to the ground as if reaching down to steady themselves. They see the cypress that populates the margins and islands of the lagoons, the knees like the accidentally exposed bones of something long buried, the frightful specimen on the small island where Wisner meets Carrolton and City Park, its twisted branches in winter haunting.
When the visitor abandons the bus and ventures on foot along the lagoon, or steps down from the streetcar and walks down St. Charles, only then do the trees become a central element in the picture: the stout trunks and wandering roots erupting through the upended pavement in a violent attempt to reclaim the city for the forest primeval, the great canopy of branches that filters the light into a wavering and indirect illumination akin to candlelight, the ideal illumination for Faulkner’s aging courtesan.
If they are uptown, they might see the flowering rows of crepe myrtles that line the boulevard between sidewalk and street. Were they to tour the lakefront, they might see the stand of evergreens just north of the levee we called Pinecone Forest when I played or idled beneath them as a child. In almost any neighborhood, they would find the towering trees that mark a mature city, one where generations have passed since saplings were planted on newly platted lots.
If this same visitor steps out of their vehicle today, they will see this: great piles of broken wood heaped in the sun, naked and shattered branches traced against the unrelieved blue of the sky. Everywhere, the canopy is torn away, limbs broken, trunks reduced to tall stumps. Many trees survived, but many more were lost, leaving the streets exposed to the unrelenting sun and the driving rain.
Esplanade is one of these denuded avenues, it’s great trees broken and battered by Katrina
. The painter Degas lived here once, and it is easy to imagine he would choose a house where there is infinite variation and change in the light, where the world is already softened in a way that the painters of the late nineteenth century understood. Today, the historic plaque that marks his nineteenth century home in the city would stand exposed to the sun all hours of the day.
The great historic avenues of oak—St. Charles, Esplanade—suffered, but these trees will come back. All the great oaks have surrendered branches and leaves to past storms, and come back. In a place where hurricanes and powerful subtropical thunderstorms are as regular as Carnival, these trees have grown to heroic proportions only because they are well adapted to the place. So, too, the flexible cypress around the lagoons of City Park, naturally suited to sit in the water and bend before the wind. The modest neighborhoods trees faired poorly. Many lots in the older residential sections are too small for the great oaks. Smaller trees—water oaks, pecans, loquats, sweet olive—were more common. In the sandy fill of the reclaimed lakefront, pines were as frequent as lamp and telephone posts.
One of my clearest memories of Hurricane Betsy thirty years ago is of a large water oak upended by the storm, it’s root ball seemed as large as a car. The tree was largely intact; it’s thick branches themselves stronger than the great wind. And that was its undoing. Before I left the city, I could easily recall the hurricanes of my childhood by walking past a tree’s truncated branch, and remember the name of the storm or the school grade I was in when it was brought crashing down.
The floodwaters killed all of the low vegetation. The St. Augustine grass is all brown, the azaleas are all dead. These things, however, are easily replanted. A lawn can be brought back in a year. New shrubbery can be back before its time to trade the car. Trees, especially the great trees of a city centuries old, are not quickly replaced. They are planted not for the next season, but for the next generation.
The once reliable shade made outdoors just bearable on all but the worst days. It was an essential element in a city where mail carriers wear pith helmets to survive in the sun. Now those porches and patios, barbecues and swings will sit in the sun, the metal parts untouchable in summer. In the older neighborhoods, where every house was built right up to the sidewalk, sitting on a shaded stoop will not be the most sociable way to deal with the heat.
More likely, people will retreat back into the air conditioning or the unnatural, fan-blown shade of a darkened indoors, will no longer stroll in the late afternoon or early evening through their urban forest. Instead, they will begin to live like the residents of some desert city of the southwest, where sidewalks are superfluous and pedestrians as rare as open water.
The trees will not be all that is lost.
Next, The River.
The river is our defining place, the soul of our geography. People ask, why build a city here? The answer is now what it was almost three hundred years ago, when my ancestor debarked a ship and left for the Cote des Allemandes: the River.
I grew up as far from the river as one can get and still be in the city, in a lakefront reclaimed from the lake’s shore in living memory. For me the Lake and Bayou St. John and the great drainage canals were the defining waterways of my youth. These were accessible, and mysterious in small ways.
The old Spanish Fort on the bayou, the antique pedestrian bridge that crossed the Bayou just there, the ribs of a long sunken boat visible just beneath the surface beneath the crumbling brick walls: behind the levees one entered another world. Even the Orleans Canal seemed a bucolic waterway in it’s last stretch before the lake, reached on the east side by crossing a vast park filled with trees and climbing a tall levee, which seemed mountainous to a boy used to an apparent flatness in the world.
In those days before the Moonwalk or the Riverwalk, the river was a distant and mystical presence, often spoken of but rarely glimpsed up close. It hid behind floodwalls and levees; behind the warehouses that lined Tchoupitoulas Street, themselves fortified by ramparts of railroad tracks. The riverside neighborhoods were alien and dangerous, like the Loup Garou, waiting to swallow naughty little boys. The River had at once as much and as little reality as the godhead I was told resided in a tiny wafer of glutinous bread.
The immensity of the River was inflated when revealed from the heights of the bridges that spanned it, the Huey P. Long and the Greater New Orleans Bridge. It was, to a small boy, like a snapshot of a pre-Cambrian world; from something so huge and remote, one expected great monsters to suddenly break the surface, and swallow the toy ships.
When I was much older, and had seen the river up close from the decks of the ferries or from high atop the Trade Mart building, I remember riding the Canal Street Ferry to Algiers with my father, to walk the streets he knew as a child new to New Orleans. His family came up from Thibodaux in the early 1930s, leaving a house where French was the first language, on another Canal Street facing a different bayou than the one I knew growing up.
We strolled through the streets and looked for the house of his early boy hood, and he told us of days when they would swim in the river. Swim in it! I had only heard tales of sucking quick sands along the shore, and of whirlpools that would swallow anyone unlucky enough to fall in, taking their bodes down to great depths peopled by mythically giant catfish, never to be see again. And my father swam in those waters.
On that day, the River entered my life as a force, as something to which I had a connection. It lost none of its mythic proportion. Instead, my father was raised up into a figure out of Bullfinch’s or a character from Twain.
Before that day, my father made the river an indelible part of his history. He had joined the Second Battle of New Orleans, and help lead the fight to save the River from plans to further sever it from the city by building an expressway between the Quarter and the River. He was president of the American Institute of Architects in New Orleans, and had challenged the head of the downtown business establishment pushing for the expressway to debate him on citywide television. The publisher of the newspaper had threatened to without my older sister’s wedding announcement in retaliation, in words that a hundred years earlier would have ended not on WWL-TV, but beneath the Dueling Oak.
My father became the man I think of when I look at the self portrait he painted that hangs in my office, a figure who moved across and not just through the landscape of history, when I learned those tales.
When I came to work for the small newspapers in Gretna and St. Bernard, I became a frequent passenger of the ferries. For a time, my only vehicle was a small motorbike, and I came to rely on the ferries almost exclusively. My working days often began and ended standing at the railing of the lower deck, watching the deck hands hand lines as big as my arm, as the pilot let out a blast on his whistle to announce our crossing.
That was when the river really entered my life, when I began to feel myself a citizen of a river city, at the mercy of the currents and the skills of a pilot, planning my day in part by the schedule of the boats, mindful of its floods and the debris that swept past the ferry rail, bound for the sea.
Now, when I take my children back to New Orleans, we inevitably travel to the zoo, and return from Uptown on the riverboat Audubon that travels from the foot of Canal to the Park and back. I point out the bright new container ships and the rusting banana boats, explain the mysteries of the Plimsoll mark, and name the wharves as we pass them like a list of the boats on the shores of Troy.
Now that I hope to come home to stay, I think often of the river. A famous author once wrote of memory and home and a river, and told us that we can’t go home again. The ancient aphorism tells us that we cannot step twice into the same river. I know that they are right. I believe that they are wrong.
The city I return to will not be the city I left. Too much was lost in the flood, swept away by the waters of my childhood, the waters of the lake and the canals I once thought idyllic. But before I had crossed the Parish line twenty years ago, the city in my rear view mirror was not the city I grew up in. Time and commerce had done more to erode the city of my childhood than even the greatest river on the continent could.
What will I find then, when I return to the river and it’s city? I know that when I return, I will go back to the Moonwalk. I will climb the steps that my father helped to build, that are in my mind his great monument, and the river will be there. It will not be the same river he knew and swam in as a boy or fought for as a man; it will not be the river I first saw from high atop the Huey P. Long Bridge or the one I watched from the levee at Riverbend as a youth; it will not even be the river I took my children down just last year.
It will be as much a river of memory, and a river of dreams, as a physical river,. But that, in the end, is the river it has always been, from the time of LaSalle and Bienville until today. I will find that river there, just where I left it, up and across those steps. I will take my children and climb them, and there I will tell them the story of their grandfather and the river.
And I will be home.
All postings Copyright 2005 Mark A. Folse.