Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In the Bywater

Our front porch
 Our new neighborhood in New Orleans is called the Bywater. In New Orleans, you don't talk about north, east, south, or west; your directional references are the two bodies of water that exert their tidal and cultural pull on the city that nestles between them - Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

So instead of saying something is west of the French Quarter, you say it's "uptown." And instead of saying something is north of the French Quarter, you say it's to the "lakeside."

This morning's train
 Here in the Bywater, we are downtown from the French Quarter, and we are definitely riverside. The Mississippi River runs just beyond our street, beyond the levee. Railroad tracks run between us and the river, and the music of trains' horns, the shriek and sizzle of wheels on tracks, and the rumble of moving cars are a part of our daily soundscape.

The tracks take a turn through the neighborhood at Press Street, and this is the uptown boundary of the Bywater. Its downtown boundary is the Industrial Canal. The neighborhood used to be known simply as the Upper Ninth Ward, but in the 1940s, to distinguish it from new housing being developed lakeside, it was dubbed "Bywater" after the telephone exchange prevalent in the area (remember named telephone exchanges?).

It's not a fancy place. Its rows of Creole cottages and shotgun houses were built for working class people, who worked on the Mississippi docks and in the industrial and service businesses in the neighborhood. During the '70s and '80s, as the economy worsened, the neighborhood declined and became a dangerous slum. In the '90s and early 2000s, artists and a more bohemian element moved in, but even in 1996 when I first started coming here, tourists were warned to stay out of the Bywater.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bywater remained mostly dry, like the French Quarter, being on ground marginally higher than the rest of the city. It wasn't until after Katrina, that the gentrification of the Bywater really began.

Today, it's kind of a mixed bag. When I take my morning walk with Jack, I'm sometimes astonished at how bad the streets and sidewalks are - cracked and bulging, broken or simply not there at all, and weeds overgrowing anyplace they can take hold.

And sometimes they're not weeds, but beautiful flowers - yet still overgrown.

Beautifully restored houses sit side-by-side with ruins - although most of these ruins have building permits tacked up on their siding, fortelling improvements to come. On one block, a graffiti-smeared warehouse is ringed with razor wire, while on the next block, a similar warehouse has been transformed by real estate developers into "artists' lofts." There are rusty old heaps parked at the curbs, and respectable new compact cars (no luxury cars, though, not yet anyway.)

Artist loft real estate development
On my morning walk, I encounter a lot of different people, who all greet me. There's an elderly lady who sweeps her doorstep and waters her plants; an eccentric old gentleman who sits on a cluttered stoop with his cat, reading the paper, I say good morning to young black men or boys riding their bikes to work or school; to a jogger running with his pit bull; to a young woman dressed in business attire, leaving for work.

At the coffee shop, the other morning, we saw two men at another table eat their breakfast and tend to a toddler in an elaborate stroller. Down the street, a dad and his three kids rode by on fat-tired bikes. Our next door neighbor drives a vintage black hearse, emblazoned with slogans, and around the corner yesterday evening, a man sitting on the curb drinking a beer joked about how the neighborhood has changed. "You can't find a good crack whore anywhere these days," he says. He lives in a three-story mansion, enclosed by a fenced garden of lush banana trees and palms.

Out of the corner of your eye, you'll see quirky things - painted signs with proclamations, or odd artifacts and tokens.

It's a strange place; a place with a shabby beauty. It's a place people feel conflicted about. It's changed a lot - certainly if it hadn't changed, we couldn't safely be here -  but our very presence here as outsiders is changing it, too.

Yet even living here one week, I am already feeling a kind of irrational nostalgia. This is a common phenomenon with gentrification. It's an ironic joke - the hipster who came here two years ago deploring the "new people" moving in.

This will be a year rich in experience and inspiration.


smalltownme said...

I like your porch.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Wow, what a place rich with color and stories!
I'm really behind on my reading but am excited to read what you will be serving up from NOLA.

David Duff said...

It all looks and sounds ghastly to me. Any chance you could buy back your lovely house in California?

Ellen Bloom said...

Bywater is a very cool neighborhood. When I first visited in 1990 it was, indeed, sketchy. There are some great music clubs in the area. The last time we visited, 2014, we were amazed at the improvements. Enjoy this wonderfully interesting neighborhood, Glennis!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I love Bywater and other similarly funky neighborhoods. We always take a walk through there when we're in New Orleans. It's one of the neighborhoods where I like to pick out houses, "I could live there...or there...or there." More realistic that doing that in the Garden District. Love that pink house!

Sean said...

Just remember: "When the Levee breaks, mama, you got to move..."