Saturday, December 15, 2007

Big Easy Holiday

The St. Charles Streetcar on Canal Street near the French Quarter

Part One

This year in New Orleans, the holiday season arrived in the form of a streetcar.

A streetcar line named St. Charles, one of the oldest operating street railway systems in the world, resumed its route for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in the first weeks of November 2007.

Adorned with a red-ribbon wreath and garland on its front and rear, the St. Charles Streetcar first greeted me on my daily commute to school, a drive that takes me down Napoleon Avenue across St. Charles. It was truly startling and wonderful to see the festively dressed streetcar stopped on the St. Charles tracks for the first time since living in New Orleans, dizzying to see so many crowds crossing the street waiting to ride its historic route. I have never known St. Charles to be this way— having moved here post-Katrina, I am used to seeing joggers run on the vacant tracks, and the streets of St. Charles empty.

This sudden activity and color reminded me of how we all feel when the Christmas decorations first pop up in stores just after Halloween— we are startled the sudden flood of color and memories of past Christmases, surprised that it’s already “that time of year.”

Though I have no memories of the St. Charles Streetcar, every friend, acquaintance, and stranger in New Orleans does. The mere sight of it symbolizes recovery and return. Many New Orleanians find themselves startled to have such a symbol of Big Easy normality so suddenly back.

The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, which earns the title for the oldest continuously operating street railway line in the world, dates back to 1835. It ran continuously, without interruption until Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Newly opened, it now runs only half of its original route, from Canal Street to Napoleon Avenue. Its ride up South Carrollton is still delayed.

In addition to the St. Charles line, two other lines comprise the New Orleans streetcar system, the very system of cars that inspired Tennessee Williams' to write “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947. The Riverfront line, which has operated since 1988, is the youngest of the city’s three streetcar lines.

The Canal Street Streetcar, which runs from the French Market on Decatur Street to the New Orleans Museum of Art in Mid-City, first ran in 1861. Thought it was closed in favor of buses in the 1960s, it reopened in 2004 and its run was not interrupted by Katrina’s damage.

In our new New Orleans neighborhood dominated by above-ground cemeteries and shotgun doubles, we are close to the Canal Street Streetcar stop called “cemeteries.” The stop, located at the corner of Canal and City Park Avenue, is usually littered with tourists who have ridden the streetcar down Canal from the French Quarter to here, where they can freely wander a huge variety of dizzyingly large above-ground cemeteries with graves dating back to the 18th century. Locals find themselves among the tourists, talking about weather, the holidays, or the latest LSU or Saints game. This is the first scene we pass through, on the way to work, every morning.

Although we have called the city of New Orleans our home for a year and a half, there are many “essential” New Orleans experiences that I, as a New Orleans newbie, still haven’t had. For example, have not ridden the steamboat Natchez on the mighty Mississippi. I have not attended a single New Orleans Saints Football game. I have never eaten raw oysters.

And, until recently, I had never ridden the streetcar.

Viewing the sudden presence of the streetcar on St. Charles inspired me to finally ride the line down Canal. Two days after Thanksgiving, one day after Black Friday, Haz and I took a short walk down to City Park Ave. to the cemeteries stop. Locals looked cold and talked about Thanksgiving while tourists chatted in French, Spanish, and English while clutching cameras and waiting for the car to arrive. We couldn’t tell where we fit in— did we look like locals to the tourists, or tourists to the locals?

The wreath-wearin’ streetcar slowly pulled up with a screech at 12:30. We needed to catch it in order to view a movie downtown at 1:15. The ride was scheduled to take 30 minutes, even though a car ride of the same distance might take you as little as 10. An older African-American lady, an undeniable local, stepped nonchalantly off the car after the tourists poured out. She switched the sign around, fussed about the weather with some locals that could have been friends or strangers, and loudly and slowly tried to explain the need for exact change to a French tourist.

We grabbed a wooden bench somewhere in the middle of the car, between locals and tourists. As we pulled away, ever so slowly and lazily, the Canal Street I drive down everyday started to look very different. Buildings seemed grander, more exotic, while the decrepit houses on impoverished sidestreets looked even more shocking. The sudden presence of the homeless community, huddled under the I-10 overpass, sent a instant blast of cold through my stomach.

New Orleans looked so old, full of so many contrasts, and so unlike anywhere else. I was looking at it through the eyes of a tourist with the knowledge of home. Driving in your car, on the way to work, simply does not afford you the luxury of looking closely at a city that a 10 mph streetcar ride does.

The tourists on the car were predictably obnoxious and exaggerated. On the way downtown, Spanish-speaking children practiced English expressions while their parents talked loudly in their native tongue. College students joked about adventures on Bourbon Street. Adolescents from Baton Rouge made jokes about “Ho-bos” and “Nawlins” and yelled at each other in bad French. Locals looked annoyed but not surprised.

Once we were downtown, I felt much closer to “tourist” than local. I snapped a picture of our streetcar, and marveled at the streets which were filled with fans for the annual Bayou Classic game in the Superdome— a historic football rivalry between two traditionally African-American colleges, Southern University in Baton Rouge, and Grambling State University in Grambling, LA. Southern’s blue and yellow colors spoke almost as loudly as the red and green, and the loud hip hop blasting from souped-up cars with SU and GSU flags was almost loud enough to silence the screech of streetcars stopping on historic tracks.

The local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, tells us that the St. Charles line may soon resume its original route (to include South Carrollton Avenue)— maybe even before Christmas.

I can’t help but think that if a true Santa Claus ever visited New Orleans, he necessarily would ride a streetcar named progress powered by eight alligators across the tracks, cracks, potholes, and poverty of our city, all the while singing, “hope, hope, hope.”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Anatomy of a shotgun

In front of our new NOLA shotgun...

ne of the first things that impressed me about New Orleans was its architecture. While I found the grand, Greco-Roman mansions located in the Garden and Uptown districts to be awe-inspiring, and the antiquated, French and Spanish-feel of French Quarter residences, businesses, and cast-iron balconies to feel otherworldly, the style that truly captured my heart was the shotgun.

Here in New Orleans, a shotgun is a style of house—not a type of a weapon or way of riding in a car.

Shotgun shacks, shotgun cottages, single and double shotgun houses are littered all over New Orleans, in every single neighborhood. Some say these narrow, long structures received their namesake largely due to the idea that if you were to fire a shotgun through the front door, the bullet would go straight out the backdoor.

Others say both the name and architectural style of the shotgun house traces back to Haiti and Africa, where shotgun-style houses are still prevalent in many areas. Shotgun architecture was probably brought to New Orleans by Afro-Haitian slaves whose name for the style (“to-gun”) may have been misunderstood and mistakenly renamed “shotgun.”

Shotgun architecture in New Orleans is, without a doubt, inextricably linked to the history of this city and Afro-Haitian civil rights, which started to take shape in the beginning of the 19th century.

In 1803, there were just over 1300 free blacks in New Orleans; just seven years later, that number grew to more than 10,000. By 1810, the population of free blacks in New Orleans outnumbered whites in the city nearly 3:1. The ensuing housing boom employed many Haitian builders who were building houses for a majority of Haitian dwellers. The builders constructed a style that was natural to them, a style that felt like home.

Shotguns in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince closely resemble those of New Orleans today. In the United States, shotgun architecture originated in New Orleans and eventually spread to many different cities, including Memphis, Louisville, Chicago, and Atlanta. Construction typically started in the early 19th century and lasted until the 1940s, though many “new” shotguns are being built and rebuilt in New Orleans today.

So what exactly does a shotgun look like? Across New Orleans, there are many different variations of shotguns within the shotgun classification. The specific style of shotgun often depends on the neighborhood. Typically, a single shotgun will feature a front door, window, and front porch. The first room you walk into is the living room, followed by a bedroom, kitchen, and a back entrance. There are usually no hallways. The city’s first shotguns had no bathrooms (outhouses were usually used). Today, bathrooms are often added on in the kitchen or bedroom space. Shotguns are usually no more than 12 feet wide, though they often boast lengths of 35 feet or more.

Two single shotguns are often housed in a single structure known as a double shotgun. A single wall separates the two single dwellings. The two dwellings usually share a porch. Each half has its own entrance with its own stairs. Depending on the neighborhood in New Orleans, you may find more single shotgun structures, more double shotguns, or a variation called the “camel back shotgun,” where an upstairs “hump” is added on to the back of the house. Some neighborhoods include all of these styles.

In a city where livable land is scarce, the shotgun provides a convenient, practical solution to real estate, since several narrow shotguns can fit on lots normally meant for one structure. As a result, shotguns are very economically viable. The narrow width of both single and double shotgun styles allows them to be built on narrow lots that were traditionally exempt from property taxes. Double shotguns were most heavily constructed in poorer areas, while single shotguns comprised middle class areas.

Shotguns are also traditionally flood and heat proof. Historic shotguns are raised several feet off the ground on wide stilts so a light breeze naturally flows through the houses. This sometimes eliminates the need for fans and air conditioning in New Orleans’ steamy climate. The stilted style also protects the houses from flooding in New Orleans’ frequent sudden downpours and storms.

* * *

I have always wanted to live in a colorful, quirky shotgun. For me, the shotguns resemble shoe boxes, colorfully and individually painted to reflect a unique style of living. The roofs look like they can easily be lifted up to reveal a pair of long, slender shoes inside. Shotguns are quirky, functional, and very New Orleans. No two shotguns are exactly alike. Some have bright colors (pinks, blues, greens) others are more muted (cream, white, beige) and some are in between (pine green, yellow). Shutters and steps are usually painted in a way that complements the predominant color of the house.

Hazim and I stumbled upon a darling shotgun for rent in late August. We moved in a few weeks later, leaving our smaller apartment in a predominantly vacant, devastated area of Lakeview behind. Our shotgun is a traditional double in the Navarre neighborhood on the edge of Lakeview, a neighborhood comprised of shotguns. When we stand on our porch and look to the left or the right, we can see our neighbor’s shotgun porches, perfectly aligned. Our shotgun is taupe and blue, while our immediate neighbor’s is a loud pink and black. Shotguns across the street featured stucco beige and green facades, and the porches showcase cast or wrought iron trim that is very New Orleans.

Our particular shotgun has a very Alice in Wonderland feel about it. Though it is a double shotgun, the divider wall has been eliminated so that halves of the house perfectly mirror each other. There are two front doors, two back-to-back fireplaces, two matching bathrooms (in the same exact spot on opposite sides of the house), and two matching bedrooms. The divider wall was left in tact in the kitchen, creating an extra bedroom on one side. The two back-to-back fireplaces in the kitchen and bedroom don’t function, but they give a special antiquated feel to the house. Also, unlike most shotgun dwellers, we have no back entrance, as it is part of the back apartment, rented out to a local seamstress. Double shotguns can sometimes house as many as three or four different apartments, though ours has only two.

The whole house has pine floors, which managed to survive the storm* and the 3-5 feet of water it brought to this area. During the day, light pokes through tiny cracks between some of the floorboards, revealing the dusty, cluttered underbelly below. At night, light drips through the floorboards into this dark, exposed area of the house, home to the structure’s support beams (its sturdy stilts).

Hazim and I spend a lot of time on our front porch, with it’s two matching doors and two matching front steps. On weekends we can hear the marching brass bands play at the area high school football games in Tad Gormley stadium in City Park, just a short walk away. Because this is New Orleans, the bands are good, really good— we’ve heard B.B. King, Rebirth Brass Band, Erykah Badu, and Roots covers played by some of the area’s best high school brass groups, groups which dominate the soundtracks to various Mardi Gras parades every February. Tubas bellow and trumpets ricochet rhythms through the breeze that gathers on our porch as we sit and sip coffee, wait for pizza delivery, or chat with neighbors.

Though our street is live with activity, streets immediately surrounding us are quieter, and more devastated. We’re not sure why, but our street, named after a 170-year-old above-ground cemetery, breathes with the confidence of New Orleans pre-Katrina. There are no vacant lots, no advertisements for demolition, and no debris piles or random patches of broken glass (one such patch occupied the front lawn of our former apartment for well over a year). People here sit on porches currently home to pumpkins and Halloween lights, laugh out loud into late hours of the night with no apology, and unabashedly support their Saints and LSU Tigers (Saints banners and and LSU flags hang proudly on several shotguns here).

From our shotgun, we can walk to a local bar on Canal Boulevard, spook ourselves in one of three above ground cemeteries (curiously surrounding the bar), or walk to where the Canal Street streetcar line starts and take historic transportation down to the French Quarter. We could bike or walk to City Park, or just saunter over to Café Navarre, a small eatery specializing in po-boys (New Orleans style subs). It’s housed in a shotgun.

No matter how you look at it, living in New Orleans is never dull, and neither is living in a shotgun. Hazim and I are very happy here, and would be jazzed if you joined us on our porch sometime.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow

It’s early June and our bus just crossed the Mississippi state line, where a sign proudly declares: “Mississippi: it’s like coming home.”

What a bizarre way to welcome visitors into a state. It’s
like coming home, but not quite home. Mississippi: you might want to visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay.

I am confused and humored by these words, and so I write them down in my journal. An hour later, as we drive into Louisiana, I record the words of our state’s welcome sign, which reads: “Bienvenue en Louisiane” as if to remind us that this place is not really part of America— at least not the America George W. Bush thinks of when he says God Bless.

As our bus heads towards Lake Ponchartrain, the large and usually benign buffer between New Orleans and all points north, I begin to ponder what the Big Easy’s welcome sign would read if she were to ever have one.

“New Orleans: City of Hope”

“New Orleans: Birthplace of Jazz”

“Welcome to New Orleans. Ain’t no place like it.”

Ain’t no place like it.
Yeah, you right— as Harry Connick, Jr., one of the city’s many musical sons might say in that trademark local “yat” accent. Ain’t no other place where the thought of car-eating potholes, smoky jazz, French courtyards, outdoor parades, football, hurricanes, food, quirky architecture and a truly unique way of speaking can fill you with incredible nostalgia— a nostalgia and indelible charm that has been known to overwhelm New Orleanians who depart from the realm of the Crescent city for a day or more.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

I find these words written in an earlier entry of my journal, where I wrote the phrase after reading it on the back of a Washington D.C. bus. I noticed the words as I looked out the window of our bus, which had driven all the way from New Orleans to the nation’s capitol with 35 female high school students from the Priestley Charter School and several teachers and administrators in tow. Another bus, which carried about 40 male students and staff members, including my husband Hazim, followed close behind.

The words appeared on the back of that bus as part of an advertisement for a local performance of Romeo and Juliet. When Romeo and Juliet confess their love for one another in Shakespeare’s famous play, Juliet says, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” The painful departure is their sorrow, while anticipation of their next meeting is sweet.

I didn’t think about the words again until I looked at my camera, admiring the digital photos I had snapped that day. As I clicked backwards through the smiling faces of Priestley students in front of Capitol Hill and the White House, I arrived at the first shot I had taken. It was a practice shot, aimed randomly out the bus window, to see if my camera was working. The shot unintentionally captured the back of that bus decorated with Shakespeare’s words just as it had started to rain.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. It sounds cliché, like a Hallmark card message, like a phrase I have heard far too often. Somehow it perfectly captures how I felt as our bus pulled away from downtown New Orleans at the start of our trip, when the sunset was barely visible through the many oaks lining South Carrollton, and the Superdome was straight ahead of us as we exited onto the highway. I felt excited, nervous to be leaving our city at the start of hurricane season, but also somewhat sad.

Several days later, as our bus crossed Lake Ponchartrain, I felt some of that sweetness that Juliet spoke about— not the let down that usually accompanies a return trip home after a vacation. There was a distinct uplifting, a sense of privilege… to be returning to this improbable city perched on the edge of the Mississippi, near the imposing mouth of the Gulf.

* * *

Hazim and I parted from New Orleans a total of three times this summer. First there was the bus field trip to DC in June, a road trip to Dallas in July, and an extended road trip to the northern reaches of New York and back in August. Each time our “sweet sorrow” and separation anxiety from New Orleans grew stronger.

The Priestley students first made me aware of the deep difference of this city while we were in DC. Many students had never before left Louisiana and some had never left New Orleans. Only a few had seen another part of the country before, but most did so while evacuating hurricanes.
I immediately noticed how different the students seemed in DC. Not only were they one of the only large groups of African-American around— they were also loud, full of laughter, loud gestures, and colorfully dressed in a way that no one else was. These children, who acted and looked much older than other high school students around, seemed to wear New Orleans on their sleeves.

While sitting in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum with a few of the students, a group of young African-American members from the United States Air Force strolled by.

“Wanna join?” A proud female in uniform asked the students, unaware that I was with their group.

“The air force?” a Priestley girl answered. “No thanks.” The students laughed at her sassy answer.

“It ain’t that bad,” said the woman in uniform. “Where you from?”

“New Orleans,” the students said proudly.

The air force recruits laughed and walked off.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this exchange, but the Priestley student’s disinterest in the armed forces seemed to be matched by the Air Force members disrespect for New Orleans. None of the students seemed surprised when their city's namesake was met with laughter.

In a similar manner, no one was surprised that New Orleans made the front-page headlines of USA today twice while we were in DC. One story lamented the recent spike in crime, the other discussed the perils of the New Orleans education system.

Still, nothing could stop these students from feeling proud about their hometown—especially when it came to music and food.

Our large group of New Orleans high school students, teachers, and administrators gathered at the Golden Corral one night for dinner after a long day of sightseeing. I sat with a female student who looked a little upset as she sipped her sprite.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.

The girl looked at me with a straight face.

“Yeah, but man, they don’t even have gumbo here."

"Yeah, this sure isn't New Orleans."

"Nope. I want soul food. I want gumbo and red beans and rice. Even the grits here is wrong.”
“What’s wrong with the grits?”
“It’s all watery.”

I could only get her to eat strawberries and ice cream that night.

As our group walked down the mall to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art the next day, a street musician paused to ask our group where we were from. “NEW ORLEANS!” the students yelled. The man smiled and started to play Louis Armstrong’s famous “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” very off key. A male student muttered, “Man, he sucks.” “Yeah, that’s no way to play a trumpet.” Our group giggled in a hushed, proud way. None of those students were musicians themselves, but they knew how the song and trumpet should be played.

Armstrong’s “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” captures the same sentiment of Shakespeare’s “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Either would be an excellent slogan for a city welcome sign.

That message on the back of a DC bus came back to me as Haz and I drove away from New Orleans in early July, taking a different, northwesterly route through Louisiana that avoided Mississippi altogether. Beautiful bayous and swamps blanketed with a layers of neon algae followed us away from the old grittiness of New Orleans and eventually turned into rolling hills, plains and the wide open cattle country of north Texas: home to Dallas, America’s ninth largest city.

Dallas covers an extremely wide area with plenty of room to continue spreading. Everything is clean, new, and highly modern. The roads are smooth, without potholes, and the medians are without litter. The air is hot and dry and trees are very sparse. Buildings and pastures that look close-by are often ten miles away.
Haz’s brother and his family live in Dallas, as do an Aunt, Uncle, and cousins of mine. Those facts are among the city’s most positive traits. The only tourist attraction in the city itself is the Texas Book Depository where John F. Kennedy was shot in 1967. An “x” still eerily marks the spot where a bullet made its historical impact on the road that swings past the depository.

I was studying for the Graduate Entrance Exam (GRE) while visiting Dallas. One of the words on my vocabulary study list was a perfect synonym for Dallas: Insipid. By definition it means: “dullness due to lack of character and lively qualities; bland and without flavor.”

Dallas sure has a lot of conveniences, and it is definitely very culturally diverse, but there is little to no history, flavor, or quintessential quirkiness that distinguishes it as a city of more than 1 million people, the ninth largest in the nation. Can you name a Dallas cuisine, style of architecture, music, or way of speaking? Dallas is famous for being the namesake of a 1980s TV sitcom and the site of JFK’s assassination…. but what else?

In Dallas, Haz and I enjoyed shopping in huge malls complete with skating rinks and in designer stores largely lacking in New Orleans. Still, we couldn’t wait to return to our city, where we can drink locally brewed coffee under oak trees and shrug about pot holes, politics, termites, and thick humidity—a unique experience that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

I didn’t expect to feel the same way after leaving New York, the city we both grew up around, a city normally followed by an exclamation point when uttered in any conversation. Haz and I drove more than 1300 miles to get to the New York State and New Jersey, where we visited family and friends for a few weeks. In New York City, in Manhattan, we did touristy things. We took the ferry across the Hudson River as New York’s brilliant skyline daunted us, ate incredible Thai and Italian food, walked with incredible power down Fifth Avenue, and even saw a Broadway show for half price.

At night, as the ferry took us away from the spectacular island of lights, a mild, almost cool wind lapped against our faces. It was an experience you could make a movie out of, but not a film you could watch everyday.

No, we could never live in New York City, be we sure love to visit.

In New York, traffic is so bad that highways become parking lots of slow motion well before rush hour and on-the-spot entrepreneurs walk car-to-car selling cordless phones and bottled water without being hit.

In New York, at pedestrian lights, no one talks or laughs unless they are on a cell phone. In New Orleans, there are no pedestrian lights, and strangers chat, wave, and laugh together all the time. A New Orleanian once told me that when she was in New York, New Yorkers knew instantly that she was from the South, or at least from “somewhere else” because she regularly greeted strangers.

Indeed, this is what first baffled me about New Orleans. In our hotel, where we stayed during my inaugural visit two years ago, just days before Hurricane Katrina, a fellow guest—a stranger—greeted us in the elevator.

“How are y’all doin’?”

I thought Haz must know this man, but he didn’t. He also didn’t know the women behind the front desk who called him “baby” and “sweetie.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare New Orleans, a city of just under 300,000 people, to the great metropolises of Washington DC, Dallas, and New York City. After all, the population in the Crescent city could easily fit into a Manhattan neighborhood. Still, these three road trips to other parts of the country, to areas far less devastated, less impoverished and less burdened by crime, really gave me than undeniable feel of knowing what it means. Those areas might have a lot less problems, or different problems, but they sure don’t have all the positive, vivacious qualities of New Orleans, where Armstrong and Shakespeare’s words hold true.

Welcome to New Orleans, where parting is such sweet sorrow.

Monday, July 30, 2007

When Starbucks is a good thing

This Starbucks comes with flood lines

If you frequently watch CNN, read USA Today, or pay attention to just about any American national mainstream media source, you might be surprised to hear that good things are actually happening in New Orleans— good things that have nothing to do with the regularly reported crime, mired education system, or supposedly stable levees.

Good things here just aren’t newsworth— it’s far more compelling to hear about yet another police beating, drug-related murder, or under-funded school than to receive news about:


progress. No, progress is not a profanity in the city that care forgot. Progress is a real, widespread condition far more prevalent than crime and tears.

Here’s a fact: It’s been two years since Hurricane Katrina hit this city and two-thirds of the original population is back. Why is national media not focusing on that? Several new schools are opening this fall to help the
current schools cope with the population boom. Many of these schools are sponsored by national and multinational organizations that exist outside of New Orleans— places that dare to invest in what can happen here.

In other widely unreported news: A branch of the New Orleans public library just opened near our Lakeview neighborhood. It’s opening is exclusively due to a $25,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Hazim and I went to the library this weekend, got cards, checked out books, and saw countless others—
old, young, black, white—doing the same. No one got shot, no one mentioned the word Katrina, and no one lamented the lack of books— we were all too busy beaming with a sense of progress.

Progress slapped us in the face a few days later while driving down Harrison Avenue, Lakeview’s main thoroughfare, once a pocket of commercial prosperity in the form of bars, restaurants, banks, churches, and offices before “the storm.”

The Chase bank was no longer in a trailer.

A furniture shop, boat shop, and shoe store had opened.

A spa was being built.


“Oh my God, Haz, Starbucks!”


Starbucks has arrived—in Lakeview, just a few blocks from our apartment, in the middle of a recovering street once under ten feet of levee breech flood water. We pulled into the parking lot. There were benches and tables outside, a familiar mass-produced feel inside from what we could see through the door. The smell of over roasted beans crept into our car.

A painted, purposeful brown line traced the orange, stucco exterior of the building. KATRINA, th
e line read, in capital letters, in its middle. We got out of the car and stood under it: this was the building’s floodline— no doubt still visible as the building got its Starbucks makeover. The line is at least 10 feet high.

I’m not at all a Starbucks fan under normal situations. I hate the taste of the coffee, hate
the manufactured feel of their cafe interiors, don’t like their history of bad labor conditions and lack of support for free trade coffee. But Starbucks is slowly trying to change their tune just as New Orleans is trying to change hers.

Having a Starbucks in our neighborhood doesn’t make me a fan—but it does make me happy. Haz and I did have some coffee there— once. It wasn’t very good, but it was coffee, in our neighborhood. Yes, we would be happier if we got a CC’s, Café du Monde, or a PJ’s—three local chains with tasty brews—instead. But we got Starbucks and that’s a lot. This little coffee shop is bringing life to the other buildings for lease on the street and showing potential investors that it can be done: yes, you can believe in New Orleans, it’s ok. Progress can happen here, Anderson Cooper, it’s not all bad.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Finding Fats' house

Fats Domino's house as it looks now

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Fats Domino. At age 79, Fats is one of America’s few living rock and roll legends— and he lives here, in New Orleans.

Despite his fame and fortune, Fats has always chosen to live where he was raised, in the Lower Ninth ward of the city, a traditionally low-income, working-class neighborhood. Devoted to his house and his city, and concerned about his ailing wife, Fats and family decided to stay in their one-of-a-kind shotgun mansion during hurricane Katrina. They were rescued from their rooftop by a rescue boat as the floodwaters rapidly rose.

Since the storm, Fats has lived on the West bank of the Mississippi, outside of city limits. Until recently, it looked like Fats may never return to his own home, which, like most homes in the devastated Lower Ninth, was in need of a costly total renovation.

Haz and I were recently driving through the Lower Ninth ward on our way to St. Bernard Parish, another hurricane devastated area where several of his sisters, cousins, and their families have recently returned to their rebuilt homes. We crossed the Industrial Canal bridge and were driving down one of the Ninth ward’s main thoroughfares, North Claiborne Ave.. In order to connect to St. Bernard Highway, we needed to get to St. Claude Ave., the other main road which runs parallel to Claiborne. We turned right off of Claiborne, down an unmarked street, past many overgrown lawns and abandoned homes still marked by graffiti left by Katrina search and rescue teams. As St. Claude emerged perpendicular to us, all of a sudden a burst of yellow appeared in my passenger window.

“Fats’ house! It’s Fats Domino’s house! Oh my God! Turn around!” I yell at Haz.
“Oh! Wow! Ok!”

Haz turns onto St. Claude, does a U-turn, and turns right onto Caffin Avenue, which just so happens to be the street that Fats Domino once lived on.

News articles later tell us he will soon reside there again soon.

We slow down and look out the window. A large sign tells us that the house is being repaired by the Tipitina’s Foundation. We already know this because Haz and I were fortune enough to see Fats sing and play piano at Tipitina’s in May, a performance rumored to be his last. Despite his age and lifelong stage fright, Fats grinned ear-to-ear while singing lyrics we all know; his fingers jumped all over the piano keys as if automatically programmed to do so.

I have been an even greater fan of Fats Domino since seeing that show, where we were told that some of the proceeds from Fats’ new CD and historic last show would go towards the rebuilding of his home.

Fat’s house is yellow and black, labeled by large black “F D” initials and a neon sign that reads “Fats Domino publishing.” A painted black and yellow iron fence stands in front of the large shotgun home that extends back like a shoebox. The house is, quite literally, a sudden burst of bright light on a vacant, flood-ravaged street.

I have been trying to figure out where Fats lives ever since we saw him perform his probable last live show at Tipitina’s in May. I searched on the Internet, looked on maps, but couldn’t find an address for Fats anywhere. The only thing I knew was that he lived in the Lower Ninth ward.

I was able to find pictures of his house, however, so when it suddenly burst into view that Sunday afternoon, I knew exactly where we were. Like Fats, his house just doesn’t seem real— it looks like it belongs on a movie set or in a museum. Instead, it’s smack in the middle of Katrina ground zero, a simple turn down St. Claude or Claiborne. The house is incredibly unassuming (it’s no Graceland), makes no exceptions for what it is (you know that no aristocrat or scholar lives here), and visions of it just stick in your mind with happy, brilliant energy— just like the man who calls it home.

Renovations on Fats’ house include restoring the back end of a 1959 pink Cadillac (see photo) that once served as a couch in the living area of the home; Fats shared the stage with this restored couch when he performed at Tipitina’s in May. The room where the couch used to lie may be painted its original pink in order to match the Cadillac couch.

As we drive down St. Claude, which quickly turns into St. Bernard Highway, I am filled with awe and a huge, unabashed love for this city of New Orleans, a city where the people raise funds so that musicians can return to their colorful homes filled with quirky furniture and a million unforgettable, non-floodable memories. New Orleanians sure can’t count on the State and Federal government to help them out, but they sure can help each other. The Tipitina’s Foundation, with its projects to restore Fats’ house, build a musician’s village, and start a fund to bring musical instruments to city public schools, is doing just that.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On a sudden island

Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans
Photo by

Heavy rains saturate a shaken city

By the time I leave school around 3:15 on Wednesday, May 23, the rain had almost completely stopped. Heavy rain and wind pounded the roof of the modular trailer where I teach preschool in St. Bernard Parish for hours. The severe weather was loud enough to wake-up some of the young children napping, children who have a reason to fear storms. Rain flooded the sidewalks surrounding the trailers, turned the outside play area into the swamp it once was, and led most of the teachers to believe that bus departure would once again, be late.

But everything at the end of the school day happens on time, including my departure. I expect roads around the school to be flooded with as much as a few inches, but as I drive I see nothing. I definitely anticipate having trouble getting out of St. Bernard, which borders the Lower Ninth ward of Orleans Parish, connected to the rest of the city by the rusted, disturbingly bouncy Industrial Canal bridge, but all I see are some deep puddles lining the sides of Judge Perez Drive, which turns into North Claiborne at the Parish line.

I am surprised, then, by the sudden traffic jam on the bridge. Maybe there is an accident or some construction ahead? Maybe the National Guard, which patrols the area, is attempting to make an arrest or deal with a threat? There are certainly no ships attempting to cross the Canal, a situation in which the drawbridge opens its mouth wide in an extended yawn, backing up automobile traffic forced to wait at the edge of its lips for extended periods of time.

As the wheels of my white 2002 Saturn SL2 slither across the corrugated metal mouth of the bridge, I look around me at what was once Hurricane Katrina Ground Zero, the Canal where a barge famously slammed into the flimsy levee wall of the Lower Ninth ward, inundating the area with flood waters and waves not unlike a tsunami. In my rear view mirror, I can see the western part of the levee where the barge hit, and the former neighborhood next it, now a flattened green space, comprised of empty lots, foundations with stairs to nowhere, and the crumbling remains of former homes. Everyday, in my commute to and from St. Bernard, I pass through the Katrina flood zone— first through the Parish towns of Chalmette and Arabic, then through the New Orleans neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Lakeview, all in different stages of recovery almost two years after what locals call "the storm."

Ground Zero slowly leaves my rear view mirror as my car crosses the mouth of the bridge, which curves over the Canal like a giant frown. The rain returns. Suddenly I see something completely unexpected in front of me.

Flood waters and waves— lapping against the outer lips of the bridge where it meets Poland Avenue, running parallel to the east side of the levee. Water consumes sidewalks, the median New Orleanians call "neutral ground," and all of Poland Ave. The current runs against cars struggling to cross this sudden unwanted river.

The scene rivals what I saw in videos and photographs of the Katrina levee breeches, which happened right here, and though those breeches brought unfathomable heights of water into these neighborhoods, this flood water, which looks to be just short of a foot, is quite unlike anything I’ve ever had to drive through.

I am suddenly very aware of my car’s close proximity to the ground. SUVs, vans, and even a tour bus—which no doubt came to the area to show tourists the Katrina damage—are struggling to navigate this Poland River. There are no shoulders to pull up on, no higher ground anywhere in sight. I have little choice but to try to cross the water or come to a complete stop on the narrow bridge and risk an accident.

I call Hazim in a mild panic. It’s now 3:40pm, and I know he still has classes at his school, located Uptown, on higher ground, much closer to the Mississippi. I leave a voice mail telling him that I don’t know if my car is going to make it across the sudden river ahead. Just as I hang up, the water comes.

I expect the water to come into the car, to make my wheels spin out, to have trouble steering, to float away with the current, but none of this happens. I press my foot lightly on the gas, clutch the steering wheel tightly, and follow the car ahead of me in a slow passage through the waves. Once I pass Poland, I’m back on North Claiborne, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, which is also very flooded on this side of the bridge. Water laps against the front steps of the Katrina-devastated homes which line the road, houses still marked by spray-painted body counts on their facades. Parked cars along the narrow road make it impossible to pull over, and the flooding is actually worse along the sides. I follow traffic down the middle of the one-way road, through several inches of floodwater. Suddenly everything is pretty much dry as we reach a street called Desire.

Desire is a cross street which runs parallel to Poland, a few blocks closer to the center of New Orleans, away from the levee. Here, traffic resumes to a pretty normal state. I feel relief, turn up the volume on my stereo (which happens to be playing Arcade Fire’s melancholic “Neon Bible” album) and contemplate which way I should take to get on the highway home, unsure if there is flooding elsewhere.

I take a right on Franklin Ave., thinking that in my experience, this road to the highway tends to retain less rain in sudden storms. I’m right for awhile. Even as the rain starts to really slam down on my car, this road, which takes me through the neighborhood of Gentilly, is nothing like North Claiborne or the Poland River I just passed. I smile and think about the panicked message Haz is going to hear on his phone. All is well until I creep closer to the I-610 ramp in the left turn lane.

A small lake, full of lapping waves sits at the bottom of the ramp I’m poised to turn left into. I see a Ford Explorer struggle to drive through the lake and up the ramp; this water is at least as deep as the Poland River. I do a U-turn instead of driving into baby Pontchartrain and pull over on the side of the road.

Suddenly I'm keenly aware of how most of the city is below sea level, and how hard it is to find so-called higher ground. How the hell am I going to get on the highway without a boat?

I call Haz repeatedly. It’s now 4:00. He should be done with school by now. I breathe quickly and feel my hands, still clutching the wheel, get a little shaky. I turn off Arcade Fire.

I go back down Franklin, away from the highway, and turn back on Claiborne, this time turning right on Elysian Fields Ave., which I expect to see flooded. It's not. Once again, it’s fine until the highway ramp, where a miniature lake at least as deep as Franklin’s baby Pontchartrain has formed. This time, instead of turning around, I plow straight ahead, past Humanity Street and towards the University of New Orleans (UNO) on the real Lake Ponchartrain.

UNO isn’t far from our apartment in Lakeview, so I figure I can potentially get around the floodwaters, avoid the highway, and take local roads home. Traffic is moving slow. So far there is no flooding on my side of the road, but a river with a steady current is forming on the other side of the neutral ground.

New Orleanians never refer to neutral grounds as medians. The term "neutral ground" is just as historic as jazz, Mardi Gras, and good food. The phrase was coined on Canal Street, with the median that marked the "neutral ground" (safe zone)
between the historic French and American parts of the city, where Rue Royal in the French Quarter turned into Camp Street, for example. Neutral grounds are actually less divisive today; they tend to be very wide, well-manicured patches of grass, often big enough to function as yards or parks.

I contemplate pulling onto the neutral ground to get out of the water, which suddenly surges at me and the other crawling cars around the Gentilly Boulevard intersection. The rain is rapidly tap dancing on the car again, just as Haz calls me. He can hardly hear me in the rain. My voice is shaking. I scream as a large truck passes, dunking my car in water for a few brief seconds. On the side of the road, water rises above the tires of a parked Land Cruiser.

Pull over, Haz says. You’re going to damage the car. Calm down, pull over.

Stubbornly I try to proceed past Gentilly, but the water is getting higher, the current stronger, and as the Filmore intersection approaches, I decide I have had my fill of flash flooding. I pull up on the curb of the neutral ground, which might as well be the sandy banks of an island oasis. There are one or two other cars here on this sudden island; the drivers talking on their cell phones, looking anything but frazzled. I park next to these cars, facing the opposite side of the road, where water has swallowed half of a fire hydrant.

I keep talking to Haz in the tap dancing rain, suddenly relieved and a little giddy. I turn on WWOZ, New Orleans’ publicly funded jazz radio station, and feel like I’ve somehow survived yet another New Orleanian initiation ritual. This experience brings new meaning to those bumper stickers everyone has on their cars post-Katrina: New Orleans. Proud to Swim Home.

Haz and I swim home through much shallower waters about an hour later, when he meets me on my island in the middle of Gentilly with our much higher Saturn SUV. By the time he reaches me, much of the water on what was the worst side of Elysian Fields Ave. has drained. I follow him home in my little white boat of a car through dry roads of City Park. The rains start to stampede on us just as we reach our apartment.

The news later tells us that 8 inches of rain fell on Gentilly and the Lower Ninth ward that day. The flash flooding wasn’t an issue with faulty pumps, clogged drains, or bad levees (though those certainly exist) so much as it was an issue with a dark rain cloud that hung over the area for hours, lacking the initiative or know-how to move elsewhere.

I can’t really blame that cloud. I don’t want to leave here either, even if I do occasionally have convert my car into a makeshift boat and swim home.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yours for $79,000

A reflection on skyrocketing cost of living in New Orleans

It’s a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work, and I’m driving home along the familiar pothole ridden roads of Lakeview, a neighborhood in the city of New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina some 21 months ago. As usual, there is no traffic, though many cars are parked along the sides of streets. My eyes dart around, eager to notice how the appearance of the neighborhood has changed during my 9 hour absence. Change— in the form of house demolitions, dead tree and debris removal, the arrival of new residents, house reconstruction, and the sight of prospective buyers— is evident everyday.

Today a small white house a few blocks away from the apartment we have been renting for the past nine months has been demolished. The deconstruction team started spraying the house with water (to prevent fires) as the jaws of the Caterpillar excavator started its feast early this morning when I left for work; now, as I return, the house is gone. A muddy lot remains.

I’m driving along the familiar pothole ridden roads of Lakeview, on my way home after a long day at work. As usual, there is no traffic, in fact, I am the only car on the road. My eyes dart around, eager to notice if anything has changed in the appearance of the neighborhood during my nine hour absence. Today, the small white house with a fallen tree on top of it has been demolished. Directly across from it, a bright red For Sale sign draws attention to a newly renovated one-level blue house, raised on old-fashioned stilts to aid air circulation and prevent flood damage.

I pull over on the side of the road, step out and look at the For Sale sign. There are fliers attached in a small plastic container. I take one out. House for sale by owner, it reads, listing all the renovations: 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, steel appliances, two-car garage… yours only for: $345,000.

My jaw dropped. The house looks nice, but not that nice— not nearly half a million dollars nice. This is a one-level ranch-style house in a neighborhood that took as much as twelve feet of water in Katrina, and we all know that could happen again. There is little to no yard. It sits next to a rotting shell of a house not yet demolished, and across the street from a muddy lot created just today. Moreover, it’s raised on small platforms (traditionally used to guard against flooding and to ventilate homes) which gives it a less than modern look. Still, I suppose some would consider this place a bargain.

For me, it perfectly illustrates the Post-Katrina real estate dilemma. There are still more unlivable houses in the city than livable ones; demand is much larger than supply. Add to that reality the mantra, “Location, location, location.” Post-Katrina, buyers and homeowners are more concerned than ever with living on “higher ground,” in crime-free neighborhoods. Lakeview is one of the lowest points in the city (it was largely swampland until the mid-1940s) but also one of the safest. And… it is conveniently located to downtown and suburbia.

So let’s say you owned a house in Lakeview before the storm. In the levee breech following Katrina, it was flooded with as much as 8-12 feet of water. Devastated, you wait a little while after the storm and weigh your homeowner options. You can: a) demolish it for several thousand dollars and sell the lot for $120,000 minimum; b) “gut” the damaged part for several thousand dollars and sell the house for much more than you bought it for; c)completely renovate the house and sell it brand-new at an even more exaggerated price; d)you can demolish the house and rebuild a new, grander structure, worth the most of all.

Prospective buyers all over the city are faced with similar predicaments; do you buy a house that needs (major) renovation? Do you buy a house ready-to-move-in? Do you buy a lot and hire contractors to build your house?

Hazim and I just don’t know. With average ranch houses on stilts going for $345,000, we’re just fine waiting and seeing how it all goes (and how the hurricane season flows) from our second floor apartment (well above the Katrina floodlines), which rents for $1000 a month. That’s right, $1000 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in a deserted post-Katrina neighborhood, where there’s a rotting purple house with the trademark Katrina spray-painted “X” across the street.

Our street is scenic, all things considering. A few blocks away, not far from the new $365,000 ranch, a two-story modern house is currently being built on the lot next to the crumbling shack featured in the photo. Every time we drive past this shack, with the offering “79,000” spray-painted on its front and sides, we grimace and shake our heads. That house is actually worth $79,000, with the assumption that if you buy it, you’ll knock it down (for several thousand dollars) and then have a lot worth about $120,000. In essence, it’s a good deal for anyone except the neighbors, filled with optimism about their new home until they look out the window and are reminded of the power of flood water and the lack of initiative on the part of the city to remove such structures. Afterall, it’s been almost two years!

With situations and prices like these, it’s easy to fathom just how few are financially and mentally able to come back to this cultural gem of a city, and worse yet, how few newcomers are encouraged to relocate here. After all, the rent is comparable to New York City and the crime is actually worse.

Still, those that are here feel an almost instant communion with each other. You tend to meet a lot of die-hard NOLA pride people, people with bumper stickers like “New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home,” “ReNew Orleans,” and “Eracism” plastered all over their car; people who wouldn’t dare live anywhere else.

I feel like we are becoming those people. We are now connected to the plight here—even as locals who didn’t weather any part of “the storm.” We chose to move here, we choose to teach here, we catch beads and dance to jazz here, and we encourage people to come here, please. We don’t want to leave. But the cost of housing is making that decision pretty darn expensive—especially when you consider other factors, like the cost of flood insurance (doubled), and the fact that the electric and gas company, Entergy, has a monopoly across the area; it cost us $350 to heat our small apartment in February.

We’ve been here since September 2006 and keep waiting for the prices to go down, but they just keep going up. Still, we are doing our best to be optimistic. After all, these inflated prices have to come down at some point, right? Sure, they will— just as soon as more livable housing comes available and more people decide to take the chance and call NOLA home.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

We found our thrill

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press (AP)

We found our thrill

Fats Domino wooed a crowd for the first time in three years at Tipitina's last Saturday

My knees went all weak and wobbly when I saw Fats nonchalantly saunter onstage. Tears welled up in Haz’s eyes, and then mine. This was not something we were supposed to experience, and yet here we were, in the presence of one of the greatest musicians of all time, a man born in former slave quarters on Laura Plantation in 1928, a man second only to Elvis Presley in numbers of albums sold in the 1950s and early 1960s. A man whose songs we both grew up singing and hearing, whose songs our parents and their parents know; songs that have been covered by hundreds of bands around the world. Though he looked so real, so with us, and so happy on that stage, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a 1960s broadcast or a movie made about the real thing.

Fats did not address the sold-out crowd of hundreds directly, but he did start playing the piano and singing “I’m walkin’” immediately. His face, consumed by an enormous grin and large, luminous eyes, turned towards the crowd and melted into the mike. His voice sounded as fresh as when he first recorded the song, more than fifty years ago, and he did not miss a beat. He was joined by his longtime musical partner Herbert Hardesty, who held a tenor sax in one hand and a trumpet in the other for much of the performance, a man Fats has worked with since the mid 1940s.

Fats sang his famous hits, “Blueberry Hill,” “My Girl Josephine,” “Blue Monday,” “Jambalaya,” “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Lovin’,” “Valley of Tears,” and “So Long” one after another for half an hour, with one brief interruption. After just three songs, Fats stood up suddenly, turned his back to the crowd, and started to walk away; brother-in-law and keyboardist Reggie Hall and Tiptina’s Foundation Executive Director Bill Taylor hugged him and coaxed him back out onto his piano bench. It is unclear as to whether Fats suddenly got scared, tired, or confused or all three— nonetheless he looked completely unphased as he started to sing “Blue Monday.”

Maybe singing and playing music is dreaming for Fats. Maybe he suddenly woke up after three songs, suddenly consumed by stage fright, possibly reminded of the city he grew up in and no longer knows.

Fats and his family were rumored dead in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. They had stayed behind in Fats’ Lower Ninth Ward home, where flood waters surged up to the roof. No one heard from the family until they were rescued by boat.

Fats proved rumors false again on Saturday. Many, including organizers of Tipitina’s and members of the band, had no idea whether or not Fats would actually perform his much anticipated concert. At age 79, Fats’ health isn’t what it used to be, and he frequently suffers from a lifelong case of stage fright.

Proceeds from the night’s concert, and from merchandise sold, including limited edition posters and post-Katrina Fats Domino CDs, will benefit public school music programs in the city and the rebuilding of Fats Domino’s house in his Lower Ninth ward neighborhood. Fats’ treasured pink Cadillac sofa, made out of the car’s bumper, sat onstage during his performance, evidence of the recovery that is happening.

* * *
Fats’ last song was “So Long,” a song he changed the lyrics for at the end. “So long,” he sang, his face and grin turned towards us, “I’m tired, I’m going home.” With that, he stood up, without a bow or any acknowledgment of any kind, and humbly left the stage. Taylor put Fats’ characteristic captain’s hat on the legend’s head. A State Senator presented Fats with a plaque and Taylor declared that May 19 would from now on be known as “Fats Domino day” in New Orleans.

And now that Fats has finally performed, probably for the last time ever, the city has nothing left to do but follow in his footsteps, cast all past hesitations aside, and fully recover.