New Orleans is the kind of town where you can stumble on the unexpected.
If you take a walk on Rampart Street in the Bywater, and go downriver past Poland Avenue, you'll come upon a scene that's almost rural - a gravel lot, a grassy field, a stand of mature trees. The train tracks cross the end of the road, and beyond the tracks - skirting round the end of a chainlink fence topped with razor wire - a vast, green-grass hill looms before you.
This is the levee facing the Industrial Canal. There are no signs, no "Keep Out" or "Authorized Persons Only;" equally, there are no helpful municipal park signs, no trash cans or path markers. It's just the levee, and you and other dog-walkers, fishermen, homeless people, partying teenagers and urban campers are free to enter.
The path slants gently up the rise, and when you crest the top, the Canal lies before you, the approach to the locks at St. Claude to your left. Before the bridge is lifted, a whistle gives a cheerful toot-toot!
The day I went, there were clusters of small, yellow flowers blooming in the green, green grass. These are Zephyranthes citrina, the yellow rain lily. A plant native to the southern US, it pops up almost overnight in late summer, especially after a rain. So our week of rain brought us this little bit of sunshine!
Below on the rocks, a man was fishing. We watched as he held out a large silver fish, then tucked it into a backpack. When we called to him, he said he'd already caught four catfish. "They'll taste good with red beans and rice," he said.
As we walked, we were reminded this is no-man's land; we are behind the vast abandoned Naval Support Facility, whose fences enclose the looming, graffiti-splashed main building plus out-buildings and fueling stations. This building, some 1.5 million square feet in size, was turned over to the City of New Orleans by the U.S. Navy in 2011, and the city is still trying to figure out what to do with it.
Soon we came to the point, where the Canal meets the Mississippi River. Just before we arrived there, we glimpsed through the trees the paddlewheel steamboat Creole Queen passing the point.
|Looking across the Canal to the Holy Cross neighborhood|
|Click to "embiggen"|
As we watched, one incredibly long barge emerged from the Industrial Canal and swung slowly around to head upriver, pushed by its brave and mighty tug.
My friend Tori, who introduced me to this place, tells me in the morning there's all kinds of boat traffic to watch.
It's a wild place, a place of beauty, a place beyond the railroad tracks of everyday life. It's the kind of place you don't expect in a big American city. Except maybe in a city like New Orleans.