At first, buying a house in the Sixth Ward was purely a matter of economics. That, and the need to contain a precocious brown puppy.
When we first moved to New Orleans, my future wife and I rented half of a shotgun double on a quiet Uptown street. Everyone we consulted said Uptown was the only place to be. "It's safe," they said, which we took as a euphemism for "It's white," delivered in Southern politeness.
But for us, the place was great. Exotic enough with its pink and teal color scheme, it had charm, high ceilings and a shaded backyard. At $800 a month, it was affordable compared to rents in Chicago, our previous home. (We're both natives of Georgia.) A few jobs, a marriage and a blissful indoctrination to New Orleans in its full quirky, potholed and boozy glory came to pass. Then came the dog.
Binx was picked up sick and mange-ridden at the SPCA and named for a literary hero, Binx Bolling of Walker Percy's The Moveigoer. Binx, the moviegoer, is a New Orleans blue blood who spoke for pages on why the gray, frozen hell of a Chicago winter will break any Southerner. Binx, the puppy, was wild and expressly forbidden in the lease. He was a misfit, chewing and scratching the carefully restored wooden floors, and eating holes in the kitchen table. A trip to Home Depot produced a backyard jail of cinder blocks and chicken wire.
Our landlord was not amused. But we were ready to move anyway, one-year lease and deposit be damned. With the desire to reap some of the profits that friends in the real estate business were pulling in, we wanted to be homeowners. We started looking.
At first, Uptown was all we knew. But you're talking $250 a square foot. Renovating a place myself was not an option; for me, changing a light bulb is a challenge. A good friend who renovates houses was tipped to a place on Bayou Road in the Sixth Ward. "Where?" we both wondered, having never heard of either. Our friend gave us directions, and we drove by. It was love at first site.
The house, built in the mid-19th century, sits on a three-street intersection. An ancient oak twists majestically across the front. Inside, a wide, graceful hallway marks the entrance, leading to a huge front room with a large brick fireplace. Squatters had lit fires to stay warm that winter, so soot charred the walls and ceiling, but we could still see the potential. The place was perfect.
Not knowing the neighborhood, we wanted to first check the block for drugs and thugs. We figured cruising by once in the morning, once in the evening and once in the middle of the night was a solid safety survey. We found no warning signs.
Bayou Road runs at a contrary angle to the right-angled street grid of downtown New Orleans. That should have been a clue that it was something special. In Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children, John Churchill Chase gives a history of local street names, and the author describes Bayou Road as the "dean of all New Orleans streets, older than them all and older than the city itself." The road was originally a natural levee. Natural elevation saves on flood insurance. We were sold.
What happens when two white kids from Georgia move onto an all-black block in the Sixth Ward? Some neighbors were warm and friendly, some indifferent, some overtly hostile. (That's not too different from our Uptown neighbors.) Most were just surprised we wanted to live there and told us so. As we immersed ourselves in the new neighborhood, we became better acquainted with the dire problems that follow racial lines: bad schools, drugs, crime, police brutality, poor housing.
We've witnessed some of those realities first-hand. One guy was riding his bicycle down the street during broad daylight when two men ran from a house and blew him away with AK-47s. We hosted a going-away party for a friend moving to Miami; as he and his girlfriend left, they were robbed, guns in their faces. I don't think they miss New Orleans that much. A near-riot broke out when the NOPD responded to a 911 call of a middle-aged mother dying of a heart attack; one cop had a score to settle with one of her sons, who reportedly was linked to the notorious gang Seventh Ward Soldiers. The cops found some drugs and a gun, and when the handcuffs came out just a few minutes after the stretcher carrying the sons' dead mother, so did the block's anger and frustration.
Another time, our best friend on the block, a mother of two struggling with her on-again, off-again marriage, was given an eviction notice after missing a rent payment by a week.
The incident that hit me most directly came as I tried to lure Binx out from under the house with a box of Scooby Snacks. Standing on the sidewalk, back to the street, I felt bodies pressing behind me. Turning around, I immediately had three teens pushing me against the wall. My mind raced with thoughts of what I should say. "I'm not your problem. Don't live in the past. Don't let that anger eat you alive. Come inside. Talk to me. Let's shoot the shit."
I didn't say any of that. Somehow I managed a stern "f--k you" and walked off, untouched.
But there are touching moments, spontaneous displays of beauty that reveal a tight-knit, compassionate community. Across the street, I've seen countless neighbors stop by to drop off food to an old man through his window. During a recent evening thunderstorm, the entire block lost power. Televisions not working, the typical bustle was increased ten-fold -- everyone was on their stoop, on the corner, socializing. Suddenly, a group of teens, mismatched in Hornets jerseys, white T-shirts and jeans, picked up the typical brass band instrumentation -- drums, trumpets, tuba and trombone -- and began to sail through familiar rhythms. Bayou Road soon swayed and strutted behind the boys. Laughter, music and heat commanded the night. Despite the problems -- the realities -- I still love my house. Late in the afternoon, the sun sinks below the oak and above the houses across the street. Light streams in and sets the room aglow. Looking out the window, I see a bright, beautiful and loving neighborhood. Sitting inside, but knowing I'll always be on the outside, I glow, too, with the self-satisfaction of knowing I have the best house in New Orleans.