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Walking in August August 18, 2012

Posted by The Typist in Fortin Street, History, je me souviens, Louisiana, memoir, Mid-City, New Orleans, Remember, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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By August we’re done like long basting turkeys in the oven, well-browned and in danger of drying out. The wasps proliferate in the back yard, nesting in the neighbors wild vines behind their shed. The mushroom cloud rising out of the line of cumulonimbus is all the weather forecast that you need, convection foretelling the afternoon’s thunderstorms which coax the grass into miraculous growth the landlord never tends to properly. The pigeons come up to my stoop like hobos although I never feed them. Still, my neighbors walk up toward the grocery on Gentilly or on Esplanade, a subtle racial divide on my quiet street. The feral parrots complete the tropical scene.

We still walk the sunny side up sidewalks not to prove a point but out of habit. Bicycles are almost as frequent as cars on my street not to make some fashionable statement like a car plastered in stickers but out of necessity. Pedestians converge from the fashionable bayou Faubourg and edge-of-Gentilly Fortin Street toward Cansecos and Terranovas groceries, Dr. Bob’s drug store–where you can put your prescription on account or have it delivered–to the democratic coffee shop and the fashionable wine bar and salon.

If I walk up at noon the pavement is brighter than the sky and a hat is advisable. Even the pigeons have sensibly retreated to the shade. I don’t pass as many people on their porches as I would in the evening but air conditioning has driven people inside in the Faubourg unlike black, working class Orleans Avenue ten blocks away where neighbors still gather on shady side stoops and old men drag kitchen chairs beneath the trees of neutral ground trees. Still I am almost certain to converge with or pass someone with a shopping bag when the only others out are tradesmen with their heads bound in bandanas working a saw table, pausing to wipe the sweat and sawdust from their brows with the crook of their elbows.

I sit writing this beneath a whirring air conditioner in South Lakeview. The nearest grocery is on Harrison Avenue a good 25 blocks away around the railroad tracks and a car is a necessity. Lakeview is where the city meets its suburbs, just over the 17th Street drainage canal from the typical American sprawl of Metairie. To the north is the lakefront: Lake Shore, Lake Vista, Lake Terrace and Lake Oaks, the desirable addresses of doctors, lawyers and other men and women of educated industry and the luck of the draw. I grew up in Lake Vista, designed as a paradise of cul-de-sac street divided not by alleys as in Lakeview but by pedestrian lanes named for flowers as the streets we named for birds, shaded paths converging on broad parkways that radiate from the center. Once there was Dudah’s Grocery and Miranti’s Drug Store with its nickle-plated conical cup cherry Cokes a nickle at the soda fountain, a cleaners and a post office. Some idealistic planner once hoped the residents would walk there but in the Fifties and Sixties the automobile ruled. Over time people found it just as convenient to drive up and down Robert E. Lee Boulevard to the new strip malls and the stores of the Center faded into memories.

Across City Park Avenue from South Lakeview in Mid City only stalwarts and holdouts walk to the stores of Carrolton Avenue. When I lived on Toulouse one couple always engagaed in caffinated morning conversation would walk down the street to make their daily groceries in the big greocery up on Carrollton Avenue. The corner doors in that neighborhood are all converted to houses, the shop windows drapped or shuttered. The houses of Mid City are narrow, nestled Craftsmen relics of another era, most with no parking, but even there its hop in the car for the identical aisles of Rouses Grocery and Walgreens, indistinguishable from the stores of Metairie.

You have to journey further into the city or across the bayou to my neighborhood off Esplanade to find where the folk and the houses still match, where the corner store still prevails, and in the evening the closer you get to Mystery Street the walkers proliferate on their evening errands. At six o’clock the sun is hidden by the trees along Esplanade but in August the 90s don’t abate until much later and still they come slowly up the shady side or coast on their bicycles in their after work tanks and shorts and sandals, old habits persistent or forgotten ways rediscovered, a neighborhood that lives in its history like a worn and comfortable pair of shoes.

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.