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Villages in the Midst January 3, 2011

Posted by The Typist in 504, 504ever.
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Our friends over at THE RUMPUS kindly accepted this, along with pieces from several other New Orleans writers (none of whose pieces are about New Orleans but hey, I’m obsessed) for an online collection of very short pieces on Neighborhood. Thanks Susan Clements and the whole Rumpus team.

Start from the division of the city along Canal Street by a median strip called the neutral ground, one side Creole and the other American, the no man’s land where the old New Orleans of the French and Spanish reluctantly mingled with the Yankee new comers of two hundred years ago. Walk either direction from Canal more than a dozen blocks, downtown past the French Quarter or uptown through the Central Business District and things begin to blur. The grand avenues of St. Charles and Esplanade are both lined with the grand old houses of the wealthy, built when the city could call itself Queen of the South, but a few blocks behind either stand the same square cottages and long shotguns of the working class.

This is where conventional demography breaks down and neighborhood begins: where you got that po-boy or snowball, where you went to school, which church’s bells wake you at six in the morning, the store your parents sent you to as a child for liquor or cigarettes because the owner knew you. There are more than two cities here, not just the division of the old city into Creole and American but also the historic city and the post-war suburbs. Whether your boulevard is lined with grand mansions or strip malls, the back streets share an architectural homogeneity that makes the name of your corner store–not the Piggly Wiggly but the one with a family name–that much more important. This is neighborhood.

There is pride in neighborhood. Is there another city in America where a ten year old can tell you which civil ward he lives in, might even break into a sing-song chant of “1st Ward, 2nd Ward, 3rd Ward: that’s Uptown! 7th Ward 8th Ward, 9th Ward, that’s Downtown!”? The Mardi Gras Indians of either side sew in different styles, one geometrically abstract and feather-heavy, the other defined by detailed patchwork of primitive realism. These streets are where New Orleans’ iconic music is born, played not for the door but for pride; where the food is best not for Fodor’s but because your grandmother’s name is on the sign; where parades are not the lumbering floats of well-to-do Carnival but the high stepping second lines of century-old Social Aid and Pleasure clubs.

These neighborhoods are the villages we create to tame a place in the wild subtropical jungle that surrounds us.

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