I don’t remember whose grandmother it was I went with Graydon to help fix a leaky tap. It might have been his or Wanda’s but that’s not important. That she was the last white woman living in her Ninth Ward neighborhood somewhere far up St. Claude in the late 1970s is what I remember.
They urged her to move out of the ramshackle single not because of that but because the place was falling apart. The Ninth Ward was where working class New Orleans lived, often in houses built and always maintained by the man of the house, and a widow didn’t have someone around to keep the place up properly. Her neighbors had fled but she was having none of that. This was the house she and her husband had spent their whole lives, raised a family. She wasn’t moving.
In the early 1960s the first attempts were made to desegregate New Orleans schools in the Ninth Ward. I don’t know why they chose McDonogh 19 in the Lower Nine and William Frantz on N. Galvez in the Upper Nine. Perhaps it was more palatable to start in a politically disempowered working class neighborhood. Perhaps they thought the working class parents would provide just the sort of reaction the situation called for, the self-appointed “cheerleaders” described in the Encyclopedia of Louisiana’s chapter on The New Orleans School Crisis, the women who gathered in screaming mobs to curse and spit poor Ruby Bridges as she walked alone to first grade flanked by federal marshals.
I don’t remember. In 1960 I was three years old, living in Lakeview next to my mother’s parents, and in love with my pedal firetruck. It was not until the early 1970s, when upper middle class Blacks first bought homes along St. Bernard Avenue, north of Harrison Avenue, that I witnessed this mindset firsthand. This was no working class neighborhood. Owens Boulevard is a serpentine street lined with impressive homes that would not look out of place north of Robert E. Lee, would dwarf many of the levee board houses and modest ranches that still dotted Lake Vista. When someone traitorous buckled and sold to the first Black invaders, people who could afford such homes, the panic began. They would move in their entire extended family, everyone said, and park their cars on the lawns. It was then the retreat began, the white burghers falling back down St. Bernard like the retreating Confederate Army.
Times have changed. My oldest friend and his mother still live in their modest brick ranch on Dove Street in Lake Vista, sandwiched between monstrous houses that block the sunlight. On one side lives a Black dentist who built to the property line and then up to the sky. And I am a child of Lake Vista seriously considering a half double on Bartholomew, second block north of St. Claude, just a few blocks from Poland Avenue and the Industrial Canal.
The owner has outgrown her half of the double. She and four children are squeezed into the two bedrooms between the front parlor and the kitchen, the baby happily kicking in the middle of her bed and it as time for something larger. I asked about the neighborhood and she launched into a description of the people living there, stressing it was becoming a mixed block: the carnival float artist who lived two doors down, the lesbian couple who had just bought one of the houses. The rest were “mostly settled people”, by which she meant to delicately say that the Black families were upright folk.
I’m looking in the Ninth to rent cheap, to stretch out my severance long enough to get at least one semester of my abandoned B.A. completed at UNO, maybe two. The rents in my current neighborhood, Faubourg St. John, are outrageously high. I could get a two bedroom in the old complex on Wren Street in Lake Vista much cheaper, but I don’t want to move back to suburbia.
I am an urban creature by long habit, since leaving the quiet confines of Lake Vista, and I have lived all over town–Gentilly, Treme, Carrollton. In Washington, D.C. I lived for several years on 4th St. N.E. behind Union Station, at the very edge of respectable. I would just as soon live downtown or as close as I can, where I spend my free time, in the bars and restaurants and theaters of that booming bohemia.
That booming bohemia: the words are like the diagnosis of a coming illness. Once the artists and musicians and hangers on have settled in and fixed up the old neighborhood, a better class of people start to move in for the atmosphere; not the artists but the gallery owners, and young professionals looking for a short commute and just a bit of funk to give their neighborhood character. Up go the rents, and out go the first settlers, in the long repeated pattern of gentrification. I would love to live in those places but the rents in the Marigny and now much of Bywater have gone through the roof, and places in my budget are often taken the same day they appear on Craigslist.
Bartholomew is not in the center of all that. It is a good mile past the Press Street tracks. After years in Mid-City, not more than 20 minutes from anywhere, I would be moving to the edge of town, would probably start shopping for what I cannot find in the city in Chalmette instead of Metairie. Riding my bike instead of driving to go out would be a much more athletic exercise if I had taken the place I looked at Marigny Street, an up and coming corner of Treme just up the block from the sign announcing a Tuba Fats memorial park in a so far empty lot. The prospect of painting the ugly beige-brown walls of a large place with 12 foot ceilings was too daunting.
I haven’t made up my mind about Bartholomew yet. I told Miss Kelly I wanted to pass by at night, and she understood. I had looked at other cheap apartments and come back at night to find characters on the corner I would rather not have as neighbors. That night I drove not just Bartholomew but quartered the streets all around, was struck by how much it looked like Mid-City or south Lakeview. There are a few abandoned houses and some uncut lots as there are all through the city, but there are more Christmas lights illuminating the well cared for yards than in fashionable Faubourg St. John, bright new paint on the cottages and shotguns. It looks like a pretty nice neighborhood.
For all of the strife in this town, the racism we all carry just beneath out skin–white and black, imbibed with our mother’s milk–the city seems to have turned a corner. We are not comfortable with sudden change, and the proximity of Bartholomew to the history of William Frantz remind me of that. Gradual change is more our style. While the residents of Audubon Place plotted a new New Orleans in their own image from behind their guarded gates and the Black politicians railed on WBOK-AM against them, something quieter was happening. My mother lives in Park Esplanade, once the last stop for elderly whites. It filled with the Black middle class from New Orleans East waiting endlessly for their Road Home check. My mother missed her old friends who didn’t come back, but nothing else changed much. The dentist built his grand house on Dove Street and no one panicked. People like me started looking north of St. Claude for places to live, and none of the neighbors I talked to (I always try to chat up the neighbors if they’re out) seem concerned. A quiet block is a quiet block, and if you’re going to fit into that pattern, well, that’s fine by everybody.
While the grand plans for a new postdiluvian New New Orleans were mostly abandoned, the upheaval and displacement of the Flood accelerated a gradual process already under way, a redistribution of the population of New Orleans in which people are judged by the content of their character (and the contents of their bank account) rather than by the old standards Once that was only a dream but my search for an apartment has taught me otherwise. Langston Hughes A Dream Deferred has not exploded, for all the crime and frightening statistics about incarcerated Black men. A Black man with an Islamic middle name sits in the White House, and the once bitterly divided people of New Orleans are settling into new patterns. The dream has waited patiently just beneath the surface, waiting for a change of seasons, the most famous dream of our generation peeking through the soil washed by the Flood, waiting for its moment to blossom. Perhaps that time has come, and we’ve hardly noticed.