I wrote the passage below in 2007 in a city still profoundly shaken by Katrina. The upside to all the darkness of the times, both literal and figurative, was that the bright spots stood out that much brighter. I remember these bright spots, stores in oasis of light, candlelit bars in the darkness, and I remember how they sprouted up here and there and almost made you cry for all the beauty of them. I discovered one of these bright spots when I moved to Faubourg St. John, on the edge of what most people would think of as Mid City. This little community has parks, shops and restaurants, all bustling, all within walking distance, and at its heart is the curve of Bayou St John. The reason I bring this up, the reason I’m talking about Katrina on New Years Day, is that last night my wife and I wandered among the colorful explosions of fireworks in the air and on the bayou, wandered among parties, dodged champagne corks and fireworks and honking cars, stood on the Dumaine Street bridge and watched the New Year arrive with our neighbors, on our bayou. It is as if all us neighbors were rediscovering the treasure of our neighborhood and allowing it to draw us together for celebration. It is good to see that here. It is good to be here. And I remembered that this isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way….
Here, in Mid-City, in Faubourg St. John, at the confluence of trails and bayous, at the literal heart of New Orleans and her very reason for existing, one can feel the breeze of history all around. It is somewhere around here that the natives first showed Iberville the little winding trail following the high ground through the swamp. A trail from the Mississippi River to Bayou St. John, The Portage, a shortcut from the river to the ocean. A great place to put a city. So they carved a settlement out of the swamp, built isolated little centers in the wilderness on what ground they could and started something that would thrive for 300 years. Still today when walking through this crossroads you can feel that warm and wooded history in the patterns of the streets and the shapes of the houses, and its easy to imagine for an instant these big trees as tiny saplings watching the laden traders roll down the widening path. These tress are living pieces of memory clothed in the musty dust of history’s roads.
There are new settlers here now, cutting new paths through the new wasteland, writing a new history: they are working just as hard to carve out little clusters of life in the returned swamp. With the same undaunted labor of their predecessors, these people know the benefits of their location, now numbering much more than simply commerce. Here, on the dark edges of not-so-virgin wastelands, they rebuild houses close as companions, wedded in the almost-sculpted quiet little treelined lanes and breezy avenues bustling with the important lives of families. Through these green lively islands they walk together in little windbustled groups shaded from the fading sun by the autumn canopies and so-perfect kids laughing, who actually clatter sticks down the cast iron handrails guarding porched double shotguns, all proud in bright Caribbean attire. In the air the chatter and the crisp footsteps report from the sidewalks to the porches and out the open windows where life is lived as it is meant to be; together in the closeness of the familiar, at home.
And in the night the wet history of the swamp and the legacy of trade are repeated in a gentle reminder; from my house I can still hear the sad, low bellows of the riverboats as they echo across the city. The horn smacks the broken empty streets and, finding nothing familiar moves on, miles away from the river until, as if guided by an ancient memory, it finds the little settlement by Bayou St. John, the way to the ocean. It is here that the moaning bawl of the horn swells for an instant of recognition and, frightened by its voice, abruptly stops, leaving only dying pulses whispering in the bedtime dark streets, not quite a world away from the empty swamp.