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Dancing Madly Backwards November 4, 2009

Posted by The Typist in je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street.

The old bricks of the Lafitte Housing Project are gone, leaving just a scar of tall grass and piles of dirt, a thin stump forest of new pilings naked and brown rising up like the dead cypress trees in Bienvenue and St. Bernard, like the gray leafless forest that lines the I-10 West. The good red brick, laid half a century ago by the hands of craftsmen from the Seventh Ward, is gone. The buildings that crouched on their stoops like museum lions watching the traffic on Orleans Avenue roll by are just another fading Polaroid in a city of long memory

Soon the Tyvek-wrapped sticks will rise up overnight like toadstools to replace them; trading sheetrock for plaster, vinyl siding for masonry, cement steps for a blue-roofed porch, and the street will never be the same. The place will smell of fresh plastic like a new car, will smell like Houston or Atlanta or Charlotte instead of coffee or beans or sweet olive and something deep inside us will vanish as the old buildings vanished, replaced with a vague sadness; not just those who raised families and grew old in those bricks but all of us who have traveled Orleans Avenue as the short route from Mid-City and the Lake to downtown.

The landscape changes gradually down here, houses slowly settling and sagging between the shoulder joints like old men collapsing in a chair for a nap; swallowed by vines with old Creole roots that once strangled trees before the woods back of town were cut for lumber, before that wood turned into the rows of houses that stand in their place; the roads crumbling bit by bit as if the asphalt were trying to turn to back to oil and work its way down into the ground from whence it came.

Not much else is really changed on Orleans. From the old can factory out by my house converted to shops and condos, across the bayou to the rows of shotguns that still line the street in various states of repair and habitation. Up at the busy corner of Broad the old Ruth’s Chris building still stands across from the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club. The abandoned neighborhood clinic still hoists the Carver movie house sign, the marquee with old pre-flood messages that once listed Blackula and Super Fly still stands, an old mural of a street car carrying children into their check ups slowly fading, the small frame chapels and big brick churches still advertise services. So little is different.

As you roll up to Galvez, where the other day I saw a flock of domestic ducks escaped from someone’s yard, you reach the corner where the chain-link wrapped fields begin, not an inviting field of the sort that makes people drive slow through the park even when they’re supposed to be in a hurry but a vast absence where Lafitte once stood. Soon there will be bright new buildings in cheerful colors with carefully chosen factory accents to try to blend in but it won’t work. I hope the new tenants are happy. No more fighting the Housing Authority or the shotgun slumlords. Lights that light and water that runs and stoves that cook, no asbestos or lead but instead that new car smell to match the aroma of that new sofa on easy terms from the place on St. Claude where the guy on TV says, “let ‘em have it.”

They’re going to redo Orleans Avenue as well, strip it down to the bones and pour it new, smooth and level, but I think once the oil-spill-sheen blue and green siding starts to go on the new apartment blocks I’ll begin driving up Bienville to work. I want to be happy for the lucky few who get new homes in the old neighborhood, who can still walk to church or Willie Mae’s or up to some old, familiar bar for a beer with friends. I am happy for them, but I won’t want to look at the place. I’ve spent my time in the east and north, in towns where the settlers cabin at the county museum is not as old as bathtubs I’ve sat in here in New Orleans, places where the local natives haven’t been on that particular land as long as my family’s been in Lafourche. If I wanted Houston or Atlanta, or even the raw suburbs of the Northshore or Baton Rogue, I could move there in a minute and save a pile of money and trouble, but I don’t.

Maybe it’s just me. I know my wife would love to move out to the lake, to a nice stick built brick box plopped onto a broad green lawn but the idea repels me just as the thought of the yolk yellow and slime green apartments rising up on Orleans repels me. I think the plot of The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons is just a clever device of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, something to catch an editor’s eye back when selling stories meant money. Still, it resonates here (where the story is partly set) in a peculiar way. Remember Fitzgerald spent a month on Prytania, looking out over Lafayette Cemetery and walking those broken sidewalks of slick brick. Perhaps something planted itself in his mind over those weeks, this feeling I have that some of us are drawn here not to live out our futures but are instead arebpulled backwards by the undertow of history all around us, into a life the rest of the world has been shedding like last year’s styles since the Jazz Age, until we are those old men from my analogy sagging in our chairs, the last view through our fluttering eyelids before we nap old, comfortable and familiar, the landscape of memory spread out before us in the afternoon sun.


1. pistolette - November 5, 2009

I like recycling so I’d have preferred they cleaned up the old buildings and sold them as private homes or condos. But I guess the facility had too much baggage.

I don’t believe in “public housing” so I’d rather see open grass than dilapidated trashy buildings with concentrated crime and poverty. But yes, as melodramatic as it sounds, our buildings have such soul, and I hate when they’re replaced with shiny new ‘looks like everywhere else’ buildings.


2. mf - November 5, 2009

I’m not fan of old public housing, but to tear it down without having a Plan B is just wrong. So many of our problems could be solved if someone would aggressively unionize the service industry and force the rest of the local economy up to living wages for the local cost of living. Poof: there goes public housing, Section 8, etc.

My worry here is just what you stated: tearing down well built old buildings and replacing them with stick-built crap. Better they remediate the asbestos (tearing down is the worst thing you can do) and the lead. And I don’t see anyone hauling away the top several feet of lead-dust contaminated topsoil off that site, so remediation of the old buildings was just a smoke screen to make sure both the demolition and construction contracts got handed out.


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