New Orleans In New Orleans in the Bywater-Marigny neighborhoods where I live and work were in the throes of a long drawn out, desultory stretch for decades since the 1980s. We were going to be “hot” one day, but who knew when. Into the latter years of the 20th Century, one thing or another like the oil glut, our low per capita income, and rigid boundaries of race and class between Uptown and Downtown along the directions of the Mississippi River held property values within limits and rents towards reasonable, especially in Bywater. Marigny was too close to the French Quarter so was under siege earlier and more often, until with some relief we could cross the Franklin Avenue safely and then breathe with some relief past the Press Street tracks of Bywater’s official boundaries with working class shotgun doubles the primary housing stock dating back 100 years to the Irish and German workers who had covered the canals and persisting in a multi-racial and largely affordable community. The River formed the boundary on the south and the neighborhood stayed on high ground thanks to the alluvial floodplain over thousands of years. St. Claude Avenue marked the northern border of our skinny district. On the other side of St. Claude in the 9th Ward was a “tweener” to Claiborne as the housing became less historic and the demographics more African-American in our majority black city moving north.
Everything changed with Katrina almost a decade ago. Where our community was 30% white, it is now 70% white. Where housing averaged $400 per month, it takes luck and roommates to handle $1000 a month now. Housing values tripled and quadrupled. In our city, now smaller by more than 80000 people with many more lost in the diaspora and others still coming to take their places, taxes are higher, services are more scarce, streets are potholed to dangerous degrees, and change is everywhere for better or worse, like everywhere else. Regular reports now rank our small piece of turf as one of the “hot” neighborhoods in the country, like the Brooklyn of the South, except more popular. When the stretch towards Claiborne was renamed by North Bywater by real estate agents, I knew we were in deep trouble.
Coffeehouses are now sprinkled along St. Claude and throughout the neighborhood, including Fair Grinds, which we just opened in the back of our own building, whose former life was spent as a snowball machine and distribution center and mixing kitchen, not unlike the one ACORN occupied years ago in a former funeral home. Discount furniture stores still hold on in some blocks while in others they take on new lives as art galleries. Where we once proudly visited the last public market owned by the city before the storm for a great and affordable po’boy, there is now a newfangled food court of sorts where $8 bucks might get you something of a snack and bran muffins are going for $4.50 apiece. A Spanish grocery around the corner from our old house is now a hip restaurant called Red China with a picnic table in front. Developers are claiming Frey’s hot dog plant as the site for new housing construction and high end condos. What was St. Claude Hospital remerged as a Catholic nursing home and is now vacant and waiting for more apartments and condos. Across from the old fish market is something called the New Orleans Healing Center home of the food cooperative that has real meaning in our continuing food desert as well as a playhouse, yoga classes, and a bookstore already closed as the hopes of the bleeding edge entrepreneurs, many from parts unknown, earn bitter lessons in the perils of plotting the gentrifiers’ progress as faster than the reality of people.
Even where the newspapers trumpet the fact that a bar, wine shop, or restaurant seems to open every week, the old neighborhood is hard to erase and holding on. Liberty and H&Block have offices on the street. You can still buy seafood at a couple of places. Corner stores still outnumber wine bars. Family Dollar and the Dollar Store both do big business. We still have a patch where homeless folks share tents, tarps, and a fire barrel. Laborers still stand waiting for work at Franklin and St. Claude across from our last gas station on St. Claude. There are still three used tire and fixit places, though the fourth just closed. And, as long as there continues to be a revival tent on St. Claude, this old, diverse sturdy community will continue to maintain some bulwarks against the constant push-out and blanching of gentrification, absorbing change in its own way and still feeling like home for all of us.