After ten years living in Garland, TX, and Baton Rouge, LA, Marie Gardner and Darryl Houston finally return home to New Orleans.
The writer, a Chicagoan with deep ties to the Seventh Ward as a veteran inner-city teacher, neighbor, and mother, was always regarded as a Yank. Until Katrina hit, and all the rules changed.
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When I moved to New Orleans from Chicago in 1991, my next door neighbor told me I would be welcomed and accepted, but I would never be truly local. If you were born above the Mason-Dixon line, you were born and you were going to die a Yankee.
After Hurricane Katrina, another transplant, whose job required that she be back in New Orleans days after the storm, endured the stink, chaos, and daycare and housing shortages of that time. She said, “Fuck those people who say you’ll never be local if you weren’t born in New Orleans. I’m local now.”
I taught for 14 years in New Orleans’s public schools. I founded an underground, do-it-yourself Mardi Gras parade. I had a baby with a jazz musician who was born in the fabled Treme neighborhood. This was my pathway to citizenship.
When I bought my dilapidated, hundred-year-old house in the Seventh Ward in 2001, I’d felt like an interloper, but a matriarchy of female homeowners on my block took me under their various wings. Miss Alma gave me advice on how to get and keep a man. Miss Evelyn’s son Darryl fixed my house and her son Boo kept my car running. Darryl’s wife Marie helped me take care of my son. The Seventh Ward has long been a Creole enclave, a place the light-skinned African Americans who are the backbone of New Orleans called their own. That my son was a beautiful creamy brown color, and his dad a well-known musician, might account for the warmth I found; the instinctive hospitality for which New Orleanians are famous is the more likely explanation.
Later, I had another baby with another local, Mark, a math teacher I taught with who’d grown up in Harahan, Louisiana. We only found out after we had our son that I’d bought my house from his mother’s first cousin. It came up when we were buying the house behind ours—Mark was looking up the titles when he made the discovery. “You bought your house from my parrain,” he said cheerfully when he came home, amused by the coincidence but not particularly surprised. (“Parrain” is New Orleansese for “godfather.”)
Before he’d become a math teacher, Mark was a weather forecaster in the Air Force—he had a degree in metrology that the military had paid for. He watched the Weather Channel as Hurricane Katrina starting moving into the gulf and ordered hurricane-tracking maps from the weather service to use as a classroom project. Mark warned me this was going to be the big one.
I hated the idea of evacuating. We had had so many false alarms—Andrew, Georges, Lili, Ivan. I thought Katrina would be the same: a lot of panic peddling, the unnecessary expense and disruption of evacuation, only for the storm would miss us.
After the storm, watching the people stuck on roofs and stranded in the Superdome, the nation passed judgment on those left behind. Why hadn’t they evacuated? What was wrong with these people? Unless you had gone through that decision—should I stay or should I go?—as the weather station tried to predict where the storm would land, you wouldn’t know how hard it is to make that call.
I had another reason I didn’t want to leave, though. That weekend was to be a lovely little ritual known as Mid-summer Mardi Gras. For people like me, a woman who lives to break out the costumes, the wigs, and the glitter, the ritual ushers in the party season after the long, hot summer.
“You can stay,” Mark told me, “But me and the kids are getting the hell out.”
Not wanting to be left behind, I grudgingly packed a few pairs of underwear for each of us, shorts and T-shirts and diapers for the baby. I was sure we’d be back in a few days. We headed to a Motel 6 in Memphis where we ate fast food, tried to keep the kids entertained, prayed, and went to sleep knowing that Katrina’s wide ass was picking up speed as she spun through the gulf.
We woke up to elated news anchors babbling that New Orleans had been spared. At the last minute, the storm had veered east, devastating the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Roofs were damaged throughout the city, but the rain and flooding were not as bad as had been feared. We were good. We decided to wait out the predicted two or three weeks without electricity with my family in the Chicago area. We drove through what was left of Katrina, a blinding rainstorm, on our way through the Midwest.
But sometime late that morning the levees of the navigation and drainage canals overtopped. The low-lying, bowl-shaped city filled up with water.
We ended up staying in Illinois for four months. It felt like four years. For almost 300 years, poets and pundits have tried to explain what makes New Orleans so magical. From A Confederacy of Dunces to HBO’s Treme, most have only come close. I won’t even try. Since the storm, the city has been so overhyped that there’s no point. Just know this: Being away from New Orleans, not knowing for months if we could ever go back, was a hurting thing.
“Those were dark days,” says my son Orlando, who was 8 years old when the levees broke.
Kids his age were riders on the storm. They learned too early what it feels like to lose everything, to be called “refugee” in your own country. I have to believe that my son and all the other young people who were shaped by Hurricane Katrina will make unique contributions to the problems that led up to and away from the storm; I’m counting on them to be the ones who help solve catastrophic climate change, to address the ongoing inequality of the urban poor, to protect this wild and vulnerable place.
Mark and I lost our jobs along with more than 7,000 other public-school employees. When we came home in January 2006, we tried to find jobs in the perverse new charter school landscape. Well-connected insiders had conspired to seize control of the New Orleans public schools while the parents and teachers of New Orleans were still under evacuation orders. Mark and I had thought we’d live out our lives as inner-city public-school teachers. It was our shared identity, our shared vocation. It turned out that the new charter system in the so-called Recovery School District didn’t want experienced, expensive educators from the old system. We had to reinvent ourselves, as so many did after the storm.
My house had a pecan tree resting on its roof and the back porch. The foundation was ruined from sitting in three feet of flood water. My car was a total loss. Mark’s house had flood water a few feet up the walls. Compared to those who lost everything, we did all right, but there were still two houses that needed to be fixed.
We were some of the first people back in our neighborhood. The drug dealers in the house down the street, the center of one of the worst open-air drug markets before the storm, came home next. The dark nights, filled with stars above the quiet city, were punctuated by gunfire.
There were abandoned boats and ruined cars rusting and molding. The curbs were lined with stinking refrigerators, taped up, waiting to be hauled away, often with sayings spray-painted on them. One was decorated like a Christmas present and had the words “Merry Christmas, Love Katrina” on it. Another said, “Only a fool would open this. I was that fool.”
There was a water line on just about everything—houses, fences, trees, cars—a giant bathtub ring that showed how high the flood water had been from street to street. We looked for it everywhere, to try to understand how each place had been affected. The rescuers, going door to door looking for the living and the dead, had left notations Xed on the houses they searched. Almost every house had the letters “TFW” on them. I still don’t know what they stood for. Too fucking wet!
It was a time of slogans on stickers, coffee mugs and other art-market trinkets. “Be a New Orleanian wherever you are.” “Forget Bagdad, save New Orleans.” “New Orleans: Proud to swim home.” I found a little jewelry box that had on it the words “Seventh Ward Lives.” I was glad to find something that represented my hood, overshadowed by the more devastated neighborhoods like Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, and the East, but still damaged and struggling.
Like so many others galvanized by the storm, rebuilding became my mission and my passion. I fought for all the assistance I could get, but the insurance money and the federal dollars to rebuild my home meant nothing if my kids weren’t safe, and my neighbors couldn’t come home.
I held neighborhood clean-ups. I spent hours on the phone with the city to get debris removed, blighted houses remediated, vacant lots cut. Neighborhood allies and I took on the drug house and closed it down. I got involved with the fight to push back against the neoliberal agenda to rebuild a whiter, more tourist-friendly city. I protested the privatization of the public hospital, public housing, and public schools. I attended meetings and wrote letters to the editor.
Now when I look at the box that still sits on my nightstand, I read it differently. To the words “Seventh Ward Lives,” I mentally add the word “Matter.” The work I did in my neighborhood and on my houses was for my family and my neighbors. Now new people are moving into my suddenly fashionable neighborhood. Social-media posts and bar stool conversations endlessly debate who belongs here, who the recovery was really for, who has been excluded. Old New Orleanians fear that the new people moving in will change the city in fundamental ways. The new people seem to fear it most of all.
Once upon a time, I had been a new person, and I was given a seat at the welcome table. Moving to New Orleans changed every molecule in my body. I expect the newcomers are more likely to be changed by New Orleans than to change it.
My Seventh Ward neighbors Darryl and Marie returned to New Orleans last week after ten years in Baton Rouge. Their mother had taken a couple of years to get back in her house, and when she did, she let her nephew and his family have the other side of her shotgun double (a.k.a. a duplex everywhere else). When the nephew moved this summer, Darryl and Marie seized the opportunity to come home. They said they had done well in Baton Rouge, but they missed New Orleans so much they could hardly stand it. Sitting with them on the front porch, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, sharing cell-phone pictures of children and grandchildren, it felt like one more piece of the complex, incomplete puzzle that is post-K New Orleans clicked into place.
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