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.

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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 CafĂ© 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.