Alone on Union Street July 12, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: CBD, Eagle Saloon, Jazz, Union Street
Union Street is one of those forgotten thoroughfares hidden in every downtown, four narrow blocks of windblown trash and fetid puddles and a handful of cars parked in front of headless meters. It feels like an alley, at once constricted and yet yawning with emptiness, abandoned. You see few people in the normally busy downtown of rush hour morning. Most of the surrounding buildings do not open onto Union Street and many of those that do are boarded or chained shut, windows so grimy with abandonment it is impossible to tell if there are lights on inside, but I suspect not.
The street begins in a checkerboard of unattended parking lots facing a row of forgotten pawn shops and abandoned restaurants faced in plywood. Across from my lot stands the old Eagle Saloon building. If not for the 10-story tall mural of a Selmer clarinet on the side of the Holiday Inn you would not know you stood where Jazz was born in the bars and bordellos that once lined Basin and Perdido Streets in the old “back of town”. Today it is just another bit of urban wasteland, mute testament to the evacuation of businesses out of downtown and into the dull suburbs.
Only a handful of other solitary commuters walk up Union Street from these cheap lots at the back of downtown toward the business district. For some reason the few people I see are mostly women. I pass the slow ones, carefully placing heels on the stable slabs of the broken sidewalks, as intent as Eskimos crossing the ice. I follow along behind the others, plodding just a bit quicker in their commuter shoes and burdened like mules—a purse, a work bag, another for the gym or lunch—haunches working pleasantly as they march to work. In these dreary blocks the women stand out like flowers forced up through the cracked concrete.
When I am alone I study the interesting bits of garbage, which vary by season like the flowers or birds of greener places. By June the last of the beads and parade cups are gone. The sports seasons are behind us and the go cups of the stadium and arena, the lost foam fingers and crumpled programs have vanished as well. Today I mostly I see white plastic bags, the sort every store uses today; the fluttering white flags of civilization that seem to be everywhere: bunched up on the beach like stranded jellyfish or flagging themselves into ribbons on a lonesome fence line in Empty, North Dakota.
Once I leave behind the open asphalt and concrete of the parking lots I notice the old Dryades Savings building, a tall work structure of brick and barred windows. I don’t know the history but from its appearance I imagine it was once a processing center, back in the days when all of the checks written in town passed in and out of the Federal Reserve Bank up on Poydras. The tall windows hint at a high ceiling and I picture sweaty men hefting trays and humping carts full of checks in the glutinous atmosphere of New Orleans summer pre-A/C. I can almost hear the big sorters working, the thawping and thrumping of tensioned belts and the hissing of compressed air flapping the gates, paper racing down the line, sorting and pocketing into bundles and Ican see the names of all the old local banks where those bales of paper would have gone, the names faded and forgotten like the sign on this building.
Because I work in just such a back of the bank world I am often prompted by the sight to pull out the Blackberry and check my work calendar, but I usually stop myself. My saunter down Union servers a purpose: to avoid the co-worker chatter about nothing sports or the weather or whatever I might fall into walking along Gravier. Union Street is a hiding place for me, an escape from unwanted company as it must be for the homeless men huddled there at night over a bottle. The cheap wine empties and puddles of vomit they leave behind tell me their story, and I sometimes find them huddled in corners still asleep.
Union Street in the morning is also an escape from the now, a little window into a past when buildings were another character on the street, before the measure of prominence was to climb into the sky. The old Dryades building is simple brick but I admire its tall ring arch windows of the same dark brick and the sooty concrete stringcourse that runs above. The end of the Dryades building runs into the back of the old New Orleans Public Service office its narrow basement windows protected by iron balustrades while the main floor openings are hidden behind corrugated metal storm screens, their age and neglect measured like geologic strata by the way the lines sag and warp. At the top of the first floor runs a stringline more baroque than the Dryades’, covered with curlicue figures suggestive of waves, running in from the left and right piers toward an indistinct central figure vaguely suggesting a fleur de lis.
Across the street stand the typical brick row buildings of the older corners of downtown. One backing into a hotel parking lot still bears the shadow marks of the neighboring building long removed where the darker or lighter brick of the demolished adjoining wall still cling. These row houses do not look neglected but there is not so much as a brass plate to tell me who or what is housed there. Many of the old offices and warehouses downtown are being converted to residences, but I never see a telltale garbage can or other sign of life here. Union is a bit too far from the its fashionable cousin Lafayette Street across Poydras, where condos frame the office of architects and the Humanities Council. Lafayette has been artificially narrowed to give it the feel of a street in an old European city while Union is a standard width street where the old buildings and their history press in and narrow it into an alley.
At Baronne Street the traffic picks up, and the buildings on my left across from the old NOPSI headquarters have the polished stone and broad windows facades of newer construction. There is a walk in clinic where early arrivals loiter outside and behind that a barge company. This is the only business on Union where, in the hour before the start of the work day, I routinely see people come and go. Across the street the old row houses continue dark and silent. A little closer to the city center, I can make out the glow of row of doorbells in one recessed doorway, the first hint that the buildings are not abandoned.
I come up on the old Hibernia Building with ornamental white wedding cake peristyle high above but to my eyes fixed at street level it is just another parking lot. Across the street stands the New Orleans Reproduction Company, missing many of the letters in the old blue name above the door. I know this place, would go there sometimes with my father to pick up fresh blue prints with their sweet solvent smell. I rarely seen any activity inside but it has the comfortably cluttered look of old printing shops, work piled precariously on tables and shelves, the apparent disorder of a business run by people long at the same trade with a set of regular customers, workers who recognize you and can find your order in those piles before you reach the counter.
As I come up on Carondelet street I hear the rumble and whine of an approaching street car, a minor chord played on an odd set of stops on an organ. There is the loud clack as the motorman stops the throttle, the hiss of the air brakes and the thrump thrump thrump of the compressor as the air tanks recharge. He comes to a stop in the traffic that piles up at Carondelet and Common, here in the center of the busy downtown where my dull office building stands. I crush out my cigarette and merge into the busier pedestrian traffic here, march toward another day of dull work buoyed by the sound of lost coronets and the aroma memory of blueprints.