The Chain Catches Hold

{from Issue 31.2}

Fall 2003. High on one wall of Markey’s Bar, on the corner of Louisa and Royal, behind beer signs and framed pictures of ballplayers, is a mural of the old Banana Walk. Against a gold, nicotine-softened sky, fades a row of gray-green towers, from which longshoremen used to slide conveyors into the cargo holds of South American ships, unloading ton after ton of bananas. The Banana Walk itself, once lining the docks a block away, is gone, along with much of the river industry, which for almost two hundred years supplied the Bywater with its vitality and identity. Among the half-empty wharves, collapsing warehouses and railroads tracks, a more subdued commerce still circulates and at night, you’re especially aware of the heavy, rolling creak and muted blare of freight and industry reaching through the narrow streets.

At Markey’s, one of a handful of corner establishments that anchor the neighborhood with their elegantly carved oak bars and unpredictable jukeboxes, the dark, solid accumulation of texture and low-hanging light fixtures belie any airiness the tall ceilings may afford. Any given night the place collects laborers, artists, professionals, younger folks in search of cheap rent and decadent realism, and drunks, many of those categories overlapping. Here, the mystery and challenge of possibility fall naturally into place, maybe best represented by its two borders, the Mississippi River and St. Claude Avenue, one powerful and oblivious, the other loosely clutching its past. The neighborhood has emptied out of many long-time residents but there are enough holdouts to infuse the newcomers with a sense of murky authenticity through their barstool stories of ward politics, thriving corner businesses, legendary brawls and finally of the crime wave fifteen, twenty years ago when fear sent folks scrambling for the outer parishes.

Left behind were beautiful family homes, mostly Creole cottages and shotguns built right up to the canted, crumbling sidewalks with a European and Caribbean sense of shameless proximity to street action. Property and lives still lean into each other at crazy angles without order or clear demarcation, with the messy intimacy of extended family and close quarters, a casual net of drama created from everybody being in each others’ business. Hidden, impulsive courtyards, or narrow side yards squeeze between houses, elegant, mercenary vegetation competing with concrete and brick for some slim and fertile accommodation. Further down towards Poland Avenue and the Industrial Canal, treeless blocks are lined with the blank repetition of shuttered shotguns and the sharp inclinations of stoops, houses built so close together you can feel the slap of your neighbors’ heels on your own floorboards.

If you grew up on certain Uptown streets, where the green, manicured distances between big houses politely waved off intimacy and contact, moving to this neighborhood could be major personal discovery, like finally recognizing the true and vital part of yourself after all those years of doubting it existed. But of course even the best part of yourself isn’t always safe from the rest, and this area is still crowned by poverty and crime, which can send sparks of violence and insecurity into its heart.

Even as fear raked through the neighborhood, it left behind a kind of fecund damage and pure history. Center hall  plantations and cinderblock Section Eight housing. Fences of thick barge board held together by square nails and poisonous shreds of paint. Asphalt broken open by the constant tread of eighteen-wheelers to reveal carefully-laid cobblestone. Deconsecrated churches shorn of their relics and statuary, one now used as storage for burlesque sets from a local club. The low metal canopies of boarded-up storefronts turned studios or flophouses. Over its last jagged century, the Bywater has acquired the distinct character of someone whose life has fallen apart time after time, but maintains just enough vestigial beauty and instinct to hold the wreckage together.

*

Fall 2005. The razor wire rolled back, the concrete barricades moved to the side, the Bywater was opened back up to us officially in early October. On one end of Clouet Street at the river, a block from our house, a fire, started by either looters or the police, depending on whom you talk to, had raged for several days during the aftermath and destroyed six blocks of riverfront warehouses and wharves. Unknown to us, thousands of propane tanks were being stored inside the warehouse on our corner and during the fire many of them exploded and shot all over the neighborhood into houses, throughout streets. You can still come across their dented blackened carapaces, in gutters, on sidewalks and untended yards, pocked with rusted, puckered holes where the roiling chemical pressure finally found its way out. Dresden on one end of our street, Sarajevo on the other at St. Claude Avenue, with its charred and gutted storefronts, furniture store facades, some three stories high, crumpled onto the sidewalks in cinderblock heaps, stolen and abandoned city buses left haphazardly along the neutral ground, their fuel lines cut by police.

*

In the early eighteenth century just after the 1718 founding of the city, land in what’s now the Bywater was parceled off in narrow tracts that fronted the river, so that the plantations were close strips running parallel to each other, tapering off into unusable cypress swampland towards lake Pontchartrain. The street where I live with my husband and son in an 185o’s Creole side-hall house was named for the de Clouet plantation; Louisa Street, where, though twice looted, Markey’s Bar still thrives, was named for Louisa de Clouet. Bernard Xavier Phillippe de Marigny de Mandeville, the heir to the land that now comprises the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater was a Creole rogue who lived extravagantly and gambled away much of his inheritance. In 18o8, he was reduced to selling the land off into lots, but not before christening the streets with obvious melodrama befitting his legacy. Over the decades an integrated working class neighborhood developed among the dramatic street names and swampy avenues, just behind the gracious Big Houses along the river. Names and addresses from the 1865 Confederate draft rolls in our neighborhood read like this:

        Hinton, G.A., policeman Marigny & Levee
        Hirn, Andrea, laborer 94 Music
        Hobern,James, (none) 5 Peace
        Holbrook, Wm., painter Goodchildren & Louisa
        Holgrave, Henry, cook Craps between Poet & Enghien
        Holmes, Henry, beermerchant Piety & Love
        Hooker, John, ropemaker Greatmen & Elysian Fields
        Hutchinson Geo., seaman corner Love & Union


Many New Orleanians live in such close proximity to the romance and ignominy and mundanity of history that we are at times oblivious to it. After the various ethnic permutations of the Bywater from Creole to German, Irish and Italian immigrants to African-American, in the years leading up to Katrina, real estate along the river was once again becoming more desirable and increasingly white-owned, with the predominantly black population on the other side of St. Claude Avenue towards the lake. After all these slow and sudden churnings of history, on that same plantation land, some white artists who’d returned after Katrina to their near-empty neighborhood and wrecked gallery spaces began creating installations on the neutral ground of St. Claude Avenue, one of them being a collection of African-American wig-display heads mounted on sticks clustered across the street from the gutted Magnolia Supermarket. The artist was arrested, most likely by spent and exhausted cops, who took offense at the disembodied black heads hovering between the debris-choked streets.

*

In one-time New Orleanian Walker Percy’s prescient 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, the disasters of the soul, not nature, cause the devastation and social and racial upheaval. With a rifle on his knee, awaiting the catastrophe in a Louisiana pine grove, Percy’s narrator ponders the state of things. Has God at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we now feel is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us up and out toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding…and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold and the cars jerk forward?

During Katrina, New Orleans saw its sins exposed to the rest of the country and the rest of the country was shocked. But after the initial jolt, it seemed to sink into some quarters that these were the nation’s sins, not just New Orleans’ and not just the South’s. Though no liberal apologist, Percy’s narrator puts it this way, that centuries ago America had flunked the one test God had put before it, that of racial parity. “One little test: you flunk!” Most folks in New Orleans right now can’t help but feel caught up in those cranking gears, in the exhausting undertaking that has become life down here. The exodus of friends. The ongoing disgorging of buildings. Bumbling politics. Fires. But at the end of Percy’s novel, the narrator finds a sort of redemption and liberation in the ruins. In his diminished circumstances, he’s able to see and work and live and love more clearly. Unfortunately, without the clarity of an epilogue, very early on in our story, no one has any idea what’s ahead for New Orleans in all this. History, which we lived around and through, both artfully and shamefully, has rushed up to us, violently forcing itself into our lives, and now it’s not only ourselves but the country that must face up to it. Painfully and poignantly, the city was reduced to its municipal footprint of roughly 1878, driving us back and making us rethink the last century of our development, all the vagaries of demography, nature, both human and otherwise, politics, economics and technology that brought us to where we are today.

In the mornings I walk my six-year-old son to a nearby Lutheran school that was established in 1840 and has endured fires and past hurricane damage. Though it remained up and running throughout the latest ordeal, it’s again undergoing restoration, blue Army Corp of Engineer tarps pulled taught inside the belfry and over the roof. We walk past the blown-apart warehouses, man-tall piles of household debris from the storm or hasty departures or evictions, fetid, duct tape-bound refrigerators huddled on corners. We step across enormous messages, painted on the streets with rollers, GOV. HELP and SEND FOOD AND WATER. We pass the ubiquitous spray-painted Xs on the houses left by task forces from New Jersey and Texas and animal rescue groups from all over the country that swept through the neighborhood in the days after the deluge looking for survivors and victims, leaving cryptic markings of who they were, the date, what they found or didn’t. Terse, urgent narratives scrawled across the fronts of our homes.

One morning my son pointed excitedly up. “Look, another X!” In the hard blue fall sky two jet contrails had crossed each other, and for a moment it wasn’t just our houses, or city but the whole sky, the world itself, marked for search and rescue.

 

Anne Gisleson’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Oxford American, Ecotone, and The Cairo Review of Global Affairs and Policy, among other places. She teaches writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and helps run Press Street, a literary and arts collective and publishing concern in New Orleans.

1