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