Boston Review: "life and death in a New Orleans squat"



In the early, near-freezing hours of Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010, eight people and at least two dogs died in an early morning fire, New Orleans' deadliest in more than three decades.

The way the story unfolded became another story itself — this wasn't a fire in a Metairie cul-de-sac or a Garden District family home. The blaze took, in minutes, a 9th Ward "squat," an owner-abandoned building repurposed by eight young people generalized as "punks," "squatters," "artists," "bohemians," and if you don't agree with their lifestyles, maybe those words made the tragedy easier to digest, as the fire instantly introduced "squatting" to a wider public. The eight victims were "homeless," according to headlines, and fire department officials and editorials warned how the tragedy was avoidable, that homeless shelters can provide shelter and that "really, is the life you ran away from so bad that this is your only option?" The conversation steered away from the lives of the victims and what happened that night, and into a civic lesson about New Orleans' "problem" with the above "types."

Author Danelle Morton revisited the fire and its victims in a piece published in the recent Boston Review. With her daughter, who follows a traveling lifestyle, Morton glimpses "life and death in a New Orleans squat" through that compassion, not forgetting that the victims had families and lives despite their purposefully unconventional lifestyles.

I thought about the kids first, but I thought most about the parents who would never stand on this corner. Even before that night, these parents likely knew something about the recklessness of the lives their children chose. For most of the kids, homelessness did not come from a horrid fall or a gradual decline. It was elective, a deliberate leap into the abyss. Recklessness as a point of pride. To see how far you could push it and still live. Or not live; many said they didn’t expect to see the age of 30. Wildness drew them to the rails, but in New Orleans I saw that more than wildness held them together.

Read the full story at the Boston Review website.

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