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When Cities Made Sense November 19, 2010

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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In spite of sidewalks that look like a museum display of plate tectonics, New Orleans has always been a city of pedestrians, a place where many working people did not (do not today) own cars. This simple fact played out tragically when the tens of thousands without a car to escape were left to fend for themselves as the city drowned. The house on Toulouse Street has no driveway and neither do half it’s neighbors, built in an era when cars were an exception in working class pre-war neighborhoods.

The neighborhood where I grew up, Lake Vista, was conceived as a pedestrian haven: with all the streets cul de sacs and the front of houses facing what were called “the lanes”, sidewalks between each block that lead to long, broad parkways which spread like spokes from a shopping center in the middle we all called “The Center”. Most people don’t know this, but Lake Vista was subdivided into narrow lots of the sort seen uptown, enough to accommodate a modest cottage or shotgun home with some lawn. The original platt maps were posted in the firehouse just over the Orleans Canal, where the firemen ignored us if we went as teenagers to buy cheap cigarettes from their vending machine.

Ultimately the original, modest frame demonstration homes called Levee Board Houses were displaced by larger and larger structures built on two or three lots, the Utopian dream for the working class converted to the more conventional expectations of the prosperous post-war generation, and post-Katrina even those Kennedy-era homes are being demolished in favor of McMansions that tower over the older homes. Their was still a shopping center you could walk to without crossing a street, where we once shopped at Dudah’s Grocery and Muranti’s Drugstore, back in a day when children could be sent to the grocery to pick up their parent’s cigarettes and liquor, and we could sign on our parents accounts for cherry Cokes served in conical cups in chrome stands in at the small soda fountain in Muranti’s. Over time, the stores of The Center were eventually strangled by the habit of climbing in the car and patronizing stores up and down Robert E. Lee Boulevard.

Even as a child in prosperous Lake Vista, my family only purchased its second car in 1964 and I usually rode the NOPSI buses all the way home from high school. When the Pontchartrain Expressway was first built, the engineers included pedestrian stairs at places like this overpass, and those at Broad Street and some other locations. You do not find these on the newer overpasses built for Interstate-10 in Metairie or New Orleans East. Many of us still walk, but we must fend for ourselves. In a city where the urban forest constantly tries to demolish the sidewalks with the offshoots of shallow rooted shade trees that flourish where the water table is a few feet below your feet, where people frequently walk in front of oncoming cars in the confident expectations that they will stop, we insist on the right to walk when we wish or we must.

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