A Ghetto Where Figs Grew
The Ninth Ward is a notorious neighborhood in New Orleans. A Slate.com article about post-Katrina Ninth Ward characterizes it as “a historic black neighborhood, home to Fats Domino, abandoned by government, and the ‘murder capital of the murder capital.'” The author, Frank Ethridge, called the Ninth Ward an “impoverished neighborhood [that] has long suffered from isolation and neglect.” My siblings and I simply called it home.
We knew that it was impoverished. Yet every neighborhood, especially ghettos, has its own diversity—a diversity that outsiders can’t see. We lived on 1708 Tennessee Street, the first street at the foot of the Claiborne Bridge. I always felt our section of Tennessee Street was special. Unlike the rest of the Lower Nine, my street was lined with beautiful huge oak trees. Those giants of nature gave my block a certain charm. My ghetto in New York has very little to offer by way of nature, but in the Lower Nine we had acorns. The oak tree was host to huge circular fungus growths. There were flowered hedges and small purple plants next door. There was the small tree in our front lawn that seemed to sprout locust shells in the summer. After rooting themselves to the thin trunk, the locusts split themselves down the back and then escape their shells.
We weren’t people of the earth, so we didn’t garden, but it wasn’t for lack of space. In the back, we had just enough grass to call a yard. There were a variety of wild plants, including poison ivy and a flowering bush that sprouted red blooms that looked to be a cousin of the bird of paradise. These were the magical things that people couldn’t see if they didn’t live in the “impoverished neighborhood.”
My grandfather also lived in the neighborhood. He had a proper garden alongside his small brick house. He grew merliton, a fruit I’ve only encountered in New Orleans and outside of the U.S. (They’re also known as chayote, xuxu, and chocho), My cousins lived on Flood Street on the other side of Claiborne Avenue. Their two-story house had so much land around it that it seemed to be its own little nation. On Derbigny, around the corner from our house, my best friends had the branches of a huge fig tree hanging over their driveway. The Lower Ninth Ward was a ghetto where figs grew.
When I was growing up, there was also financial diversity in the hood. We were middle of the road. We weren’t hanging on by a thread, but we weren’t redecorating either. There were those homes that looked way better than ours. And, there were those that were a few steps below the rest. We knew which way to walk to feel safe and which way to walk to peek at people who were barely holding it together.
Of course it wasn’t all locusts and flowers, fungi and figs. There was the morning we woke to see a team of police in full riot gear with a battering ram running, military style, down the middle of the street. There was the lawnmower stolen from our shed, and when our grass grew unsightly our neighbors from two doors down—those we were almost certain had stolen it—came over and offered to cut our grass for pay. There was the time my parents were out of town and their little back apartment was broken into. The chaotic ransacking of their belongs told it all. “Crack,” I whispered to my sister, and we shut the door feeling too frightened to face it ourselves.
There was Ace liquor store with its drunks hanging out front and its syringes and crack pipes for sale behind the glass partition. And many was the day that a child came in to buy a grandparent some beer and cigarettes. There was my first “boyfriend” who was rumored to be so emotionally disturbed that he tied firecrackers to dogs for fun. There was my childhood crush, a pretty boy who was a wasted-away crackhead by the time I was on my way out of the city. There were the ex-friends who went to jail and those who just never went anywhere—time dragging down on their faces, weight accumulating the longer they stayed rooted on the same porches.
A Neighborhood, Not a Housing Project (A Tangent)
It’s no secret that New Orleans is—and always has been—a deeply segregated city. On top of racial segregation, the class segregation is crippling. The difference between living in an impoverished neighborhood and a housing project seemed immense to me growing up. (A huge part of that difference came from my parent’s outlook. We were ‘in’ the Ninth Ward, but not ‘of ‘ it.) We had streets to wander around, rather than courtyards to navigate. We had cars driving in front of our house. We lived in a house that had windows on all four sides, rather than a cement and brick box, closed off on three sides.
There are no housing projects in the Lower Nine. The closest housing project to us is the Desire—one of New Orleans’ hugest public housing developments. Throughout my childhood the Desire was an immense landmark. Driving by the dark brick structures with tiny windows meant we were close to home.
All of the housing projects were probably islands of poverty, but quite a few—the Iberville, the Magnolia, the Melpomene, the St. Bernard, the Calliope, the St. Thomas—were buttressed or were a part of residential neighborhoods. It always seemed to me that the Desire was its own neighborhood, located near nothing. Perhaps on the other end it spilled into a neighborhood and was accessible by bus, but when we drove past it looked like another country.
Even before I left home fifteen years ago there were rumors that “they” were going to “do something” with the Desire. Over the years as we drove by, we started to notice empty units and boarded up windows. Soon it was obvious that whatever they were going to do to the Desire was being done all over the city. Fewer lights could be spotted in all the public housing developments around New Orleans. It was hard to argue with the removal of poor families from isolated brick structures with tiny windows. However the resounding question was, where were all the families who used to call these projects home?
Fast forward to February 2006. It had been a year since I had been home, I don’t have much reason to go to the Ninth Ward anymore. I don’t know how many years it had been since I had driven past the Desire. This time, I didn’t recognize it. Gone were the two-level dark brick buildings. The projects had been dense. What stands in their place are clusters of well-spaced out pastel-colored houses that remind me of old New Orleans, Storyville perhaps.
I saw the same transformation uptown on the land that was once the St. Thomas housing project.
A recent article by Adam Nossiter explains: the new River Gardens housing complex “planted New Orleans-style homes — Creole cottages, for example, and camelbacks, a local version of a split-level — on the site of one of the city’s worst housing projects, St. Thomas, now demolished. The new development was completed not long before the storm, but hardly shows wear. Though derided by some critics outside New Orleans as a tasteless pastiche, River Gardens replaced a sprawling, dangerous complex that was a deathtrap to many of its residents. Gunfire could be heard nightly in the project’s environs, which had one of the highest murder rates in the city.”
These new complexes are now mixed income, meaning a number of low-income families must seek housing elsewhere. Ironically, Katrina helped with the relocation process. Many of the people who lived there may not find their way back to the city any time soon—if ever. And those who have found their way back to their old stomping grounds have found that the rules have changed. Nossiter states: “Officials later said some residents had had difficulty adapting to the new development’s requirements, and indeed one woman, Sharese Jones, complained that she was ‘being evicted from here because of a TV’ that she had kept on all night. ‘Everybody who’s back here, who’s low income,’ Ms. Jones said, ‘is being picked on.'”
Three Ways In, One Way Out
Frank Ethridge’s Slate.com article notes that the Lower Nine is “bounded by water on three sides—the Industrial Canal to the west, Bayou Bienvenue to the east and the Mississippi River to the south.” Consequently getting to the Lower Nine means crossing one of three bridges—each of which has its own character.
The Florida Bridge is the smallest bridge used to access the Lower Ninth Ward. In my childhood, crossing over the Florida might yield a view of a horse or two as the cowboys who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward sometimes left their horses to graze on the land near Florida Avenue. I’m sure Katrina was not kind to the Florida Bridge. The bridge was an old-style steel bridge that hinged up when river traffic came by. Because the bridge sits close to the water, it was very vulnerable to the swelling waters of the Industrial Canal.
About 20 blocks south of the Florida Bridge is the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. The St. Claude Bridge is like the big brother of the Florida. The St. Claude Bridge was exactly the same style, but it had two lanes instead of one and was built on higher ground. On the “upper” side of the St. Claude Bridge was the Post Office, a seafood store where we sometimes bought bags of boiled shrimp and crawfish for dinner and the Heartbeats Life Center. Heartbeats was my uncle Keith Ferdinand’s cardiology clinic for low-income (often elderly) residents of the Ninth Ward. My uncle ran the clinic from my childhood up until Katrina hit. Inside the clinic, millions of dollars in medical equipment—expensive machinery that makes life-saving diagnoses—were lost. The clinic, like most of the Lower Ninth Ward sits quiet and stilled.
The St. Claude Avenue Bridge is situated right before the Industrial Canal bends into the Mississippi River. The levee on the south side of the St. Claude Bridge is almost picturesque. The wide expanse of grass on the dry side of the levee drew many runners, families, pets, and couples. The profile of residents was a little different near the St. Claude Bridge. Sprinkled among the working class African American residents of the Lower Ninth Ward are the offspring of the Ninth Ward’s first residents. As noted in the Salon.com “Populated for its first century with working-class Irish, Italian and German immigrants, the racial makeup of the Lower Ninth Ward changed dramatically following the failed integration of Frantz Elementary. Rather than send their children to school with little Ruby, white families responded in droves to St. Bernard Parish president and land baron Leander Perez’s invitation to white Lower Ninth Ward residents to move to the neighboring parish on the promise of all-white schools and neighborhoods.”
Those white residents who did not leave the Lower Ninth Ward called their neighborhood Holy Cross. This is a prideful distinction to clarify that they (like us, I suppose) were ‘in’ it, but not ‘of’ it. The draw of Holy Cross was a handful of large, beautiful picturesque houses that excited preservationists and a majority white private high school in the middle of a black neighborhood.
We used to joke that if anybody wanted to trap us in the Lower Ninth Ward all they’d have to do is raise the bridges. In that case, we’d only have one exit: St. Bernard Parish. St. Bernard Parish lies to the East of the Lower Ninth Ward. We frequently went to St. Bernard Parish for pizza, to go to the movies, shop at WalMart or to have frozen yogurt. We went there for the services that weren’t available in our neighborhood and then we left. We weren’t welcome there. They tolerated us and took our money, but they weren’t offering any permanent invitations.
It was not suggested that young black boys go into Chalmette alone. The residents may not like it, nor would the police. Sometime after I left the city, my young cousin didn’t heed the warnings. He and his friends walked over to Chalmette. A police car drifted by once or twice keeping surveillance. Then the car stopped and demanded to know what the boys were doing. My cousin, unfamiliar with the police, gulped in fear thereby swallowing his gum. One of the police officers—convinced he was swallowing crack or some other incriminating evidence—grabbed him by the neck and wrestled him to the ground. He and his friends were taken to the police station to be locked up. Either my grandmother or my uncle’s connections got them out. In New Orleans it’s all about who you know.
The last bridge—our bridge—is the Claiborne Bridge. Our bridge rests between the Florida Bridge and the St. Claude Bridge. A wonder of engineering, the Claiborne Bridge towers over the other two. The tall, industrial structure of the Claiborne Bridge allows it to coolly stay put while river traffic passes beneath it. The Claiborne Bridge only has to disturb its peaceful existence when truly massive boats need to pass through. Even then, the Claiborne Bridge doesn’t deign to hinge one side up into the sky. Instead, the whole bridge lifts horizontally, refusing to disturb its equilibrium.
The levee on our side of the Lower Nine was not picturesque. It was not a place to relax and meditate on the motion of the water. It was a place to pass through on your way to somewhere better. The nonexistent human traffic on the levee near our house made it the perfect breeding place for nutria rats—huge swamp rats. Neighborhood boys would go sport with the nutria rats for fun and sometimes, laughingly deliver them to the front gate of a girl’s house to watch her face contort in disgust.
“Neighborhood? What Neighborhood? It’s Gone Man.”
Driving into the Ninth Ward across the Claiborne Bridge affords a nice panorama of my neighborhood. From the middle of the bridge, you can see the spread of houses from Tennessee Street all the way back to the levee. Before Katrina, it was only possible to see the Florida Avenue Bridge from the heights of the Claiborne Bridge. Once you came down from the bridge, all you would normally be able to see around you was houses. Since Katrina trampled through the Lower Ninth Ward, however, the landscape is decidedly different.
When my father drove me over the Claiborne Bridge and I looked over the spread of land that previously displayed a plethora of roofs, trees, and yards, the wind left my lungs. I did not see any roofs. I did not see any houses. I saw nothing—nothing, but rubble. Everything as far as the Florida Bridge had been flattened. What I was seeing put a picture to Michael Knight’s comment as quoted in Salon.com: “Neighborhood? What neighborhood?” Knight asks incredulously about the future of the Lower Ninth Ward. “It’s gone, man.”
To say that the neighborhood—at least between Florida Avenue and Claiborne Avenue—is gone is no exaggeration, it is in fact an understatement. When we got to the bottom of the bridge, I looked left down Tennessee Street, my eyes popping at the lack of houses to obstruct my view. I looked right and there was no Tennessee Street. The houses on the right side of Claiborne Avenue had been shifted by the water and were now blocking off the right side of Tennessee Street.
When my father turned left onto Tennessee Street I had trouble making sense of what I was seeing. Random houses were standing at precarious angles, some shifted awkwardly onto the sidewalk, others rammed backwards onto someone else’s property. Then my father drove onto the second block of Tennessee Street—our block. On our block, everything was down. The brick house that stood across the street from ours for all my childhood was gone. No foundations, no pile of bricks, just random, unidentifiable debris. Every structure for as far as the eye could see was down. I could see clear across my neighborhood to the Florida Bridge.
The levee breach was about three blocks from our house. The force of furious floodwaters swept through and took everything out. Due to some strange combination of construction and location, there were two houses standing on our block. One was the house on the corner of Tennessee and Derbigny. The other was the house second from the corner of Tennessee and Derbigny—our house. The corner house was twisted at an odd angle and 1708 Tennessee Street was off its foundations, nestled against the neighboring house.
Standing in a sea of debris, looking at the only two erect houses on the entire block gave new meaning to the Red Danger List. Yes, the house was in imminent danger of collapse. It is only pure chance that Katrina did not demolish it. The rest of the tour of the Lower 9th Ward yielded similar visuals with varying degrees of damage. Tourists were wandering around on foot, residents and curious onlookers were cruising through in cars. The neighborhood that had never been on anyone’s must-see list was finally being seen, but only after it had been violently and abruptly strangled to death. Sort of like the posthumous fame of a misunderstood and deranged artist, the Ninth Ward is suddenly sordidly and magnetically attractive.
On a second visit to the Lower Nine, I saw a young black man sitting on a pile of debris while being professionally photographed. I saw a well-coiffed older white woman cruising by in a luxury car. I saw a press conference or community meeting of Common Ground, a volunteer organization that has been gutting houses, providing primary health care, relief supplies, and recently a mass action when they broke into Martin Luther King Elementary School and did clean up work. We ran into Spike Lee’s crew being escorted by police. We watched reporters and journalists of every stripe take notes, shoot, film, interview, and document Katrina’s aftermath.
I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I was by the whole scene until a group with cameras told me I couldn’t drive through a street on my way to see a family member’s home. I swallowed my protest, drove onto someone’s bulldozed property and turned around. When I approached the house from another angle, the same group tried to stop me from passing. Anger bubbled in my throat. I refused to stop. I inched the car forward little by little deciding I wouldn’t stop until I was right upon the man with the outstretched hands. Suddenly, he stepped to the side and motioned me through. I don’t know if it was my insistence or if his press moment had ended, but I was shaken by the time I drove past.
I felt somehow, that I belonged there. That I had a right to visit these homes because they had been part of the fabric of my childhood. Yet, none of my family currently lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. Through death, mobility, and the coming-of-age of children, we all had left at one point or another. (I just thought of one person—a cousin’s grandmother—who was, in all probability, still living down there). I had not only left the Lower Ninth Ward, I had left the entire city in 1990 when I graduated from high school. With the exception of a five-month stint, I have not lived in the city since. I had no more right to be touring the Lower Ninth Ward than anyone else, and yet my anger was there. I was angry at being barred from my memories, blocked from communing with the remnants of my childhood.
Here’s Four Months, Now Save Yourself
In January, thousands of people were angered by an announcement that a mayoral panel was advising the mayor to create a policy that would shrink the “city’s footprint.” The panel suggested making New Orleans residents in the “hardest hit areas … prove viability.” Meaning if you want your part of the city to survive, get your ass down here and save it.
As Frank Donze and Gordon Russell reported:
“Residents of New Orleans areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters would have four months to prove they can bring their neighborhoods back to life or face the prospect of having to sell out to a new and powerful redevelopment authority under a plan to be released today by a key panel of Mayor Ray Nagin’s rebuilding commission.”
Apparently a storm blowing through your neighborhood, destroying your life, swallowing up your mementos, and drowning your home is not enough to prove you need help from your government. In light of four-month notices, the Red Danger List’s statement that no timeline has been set for removal of properties in imminent danger of collapse becomes cruel. The government is dragging their feet in deciding what parts of the city will be saved and which won’t. The statement that no timeline has been set for removal of debris suggests that there will be nothing done in the Lower Ninth Ward for a long, long, long time.
The insane four-month plan was a catch-22 of the worst proportions. If there will be no removal of debris, how can people prove viability of their neighborhoods? In a neighborhood overrun with debris, there is no way even the boldest self-starter could raise their house up from the demolition. It’s going to take massive amounts of capital to restore the city’s architecture and infrastructure.
Days after my tour, I watched an episode of Oprah in which she was giving away residences to displaced New Orleanians. She filmed them going home to view their destroyed homes and finding one or two mementoes they could save. Then she filmed them walking into their beautiful new homes in a complex she built especially for Katrina survivors. Oprah has been extremely generous. She continues her support of the city by providing shelter to people who are bewildered as to how to begin again. Yet I couldn’t quell a niggling though that kept worming its way around my brain. Why build a complex in Texas? I thought. Why not rebuild in New Orleans?
I began to wonder about the celebrities. Those who had put so much into search and rescue and donated millions to the Red Cross. Those who continue to provide housing all over the country. I wondered if any of them were putting money into the city. When I look at the scope of the destruction it seems that only someone like Oprah could raise these neighborhoods again. Who else could fund the clean up of debris, clean out of houses, demolition and/or gutting, and rebuilding? Who is going to decide that New Orleans is worth a new breath of life? Is this the end?
My older brother assured me that it only makes sense to help survivors outside of the city. When it comes to pouring money into the city, the watchwords are “be conservative.” There are too many questionable variables. The next hurricane season is upon us. Will the city escape unscathed? The candidates for the mayoral race have just been selected. Mayor Nagin faces a fierce battle with Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Who will win? And the government is dragging their feet in deciding who they are going to help and who they aren’t. So many New Orleanians want to come back but they don’t know if their neighborhoods will be among those selected for renewal. What if they rebuild their houses and then get the announcement that their neighborhood won’t be rebuilt?
Survive, Or Die Trying
At various houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, some homeowners have put up signs proclaiming that they intend to rebuild, lobbying against demolishing the neighborhood. For many who survived the floodwaters, the fight to survive continues. Organizations like Acorn have been circulating around the Lower Ninth Ward gutting houses, but also organizing to put pressure on the government to save the neighborhood.
Close to the St. Claude Bridge, in the bend of the levee, many houses fared much better than those on Tennessee Street. But one house stands out, because it (unlike its neighbors) is just a pile of wood and personal belongings lying flat on the ground. It is the home of Chandra and Keith McCormick—a couple who have been photographing New Orleans, as well as rural Louisiana, since I was a baby. They’re in Texas wondering if they will move to Los Angeles or New York. Neither is quite right for them. Meanwhile, Keith is devoting himself to saving his and his wife’s pictographic history of New Orleans people and culture. As soon as they could get to their archives, the McCormicks froze their negatives. Now Keith is restoring those negatives one by one. It is a massively expensive undertaking, he explains. It takes a whole day to restore one negative. But he is doggedly working through their archives. Their work was important before the storm. But now, their work is a precious document of pre-Katrina New Orleans. While officials dither around discussing the future of so many people’s lives, New Orleanians across the nation are remembering their past—a unique manifestation of human culture that they may never see again.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam