Flood Street

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 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

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All postings Copyright 2005 Mark A. Folse.