Professor Violet Harrington Bryan remembers the evening in December 1987 when she sat with Lolis Elie Sr., Jerome Smith, Tom Dent and George Wein to discuss their personal remembrances of literary lion James Baldwin. Bryan's tape of that conversation was lost when her study on Parkview Terrace in eastern New Orleans flooded head-high after Katrina. So were all the early works published by Dent, a poet and past director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. "I'm glad the article about that conversation was published," says Bryan, a professor of English at Xavier University. Last week, on All Saints Day, Violet stood in the bones of the home where she and her husband, attorney Trevor Bryan, had moved when their oldest, Amy, was just 1 year old. That was in 1977. The neighborhood was convenient to everything via I-10, close to good schools, and Trevor's parents lived nearby. Like so many others in eastern New Orleans, they had found their piece of the American Dream.
Two weeks ago, a demolition crew came through and cleared out the sheetrock and furnishings. Now, like everyone on her quiet, oak-lined street, she's wondering whether her home and her neighborhood can be saved.
At dinner a few nights before, Trevor Bryan said they definitely planned to rebuild. His biggest concern was that they might fix up their property only to find that others in the neighborhood weren't willing to bring their homes back to their pre-Katrina condition. Like many local property owners, he's not sure that he'll get the value out of his home if he rebuilds it. And he worries that as the city delays in bringing back basic services -- water, gas and electricity -- property owners will grow discouraged.
"I've heard rumors that the city wants to make the East a mixed industrial area with housing for executives," Trevor says. Delays, he suggests, might encourage property owners to sell out at lower prices. "There's lots of room out here for golf courses," he said.
Mayor Ray Nagin's declaration that "We will rebuild New Orleans East" hasn't assuaged doubts. Many fear that the federal government will declare the area a flood plain -- something the city said won't happen. Others are concerned that the rebuilt levees won't protect them from another flood.
"The East" has seen tough times before. Rick Munch, the Bryans' across-the-street neighbor, said that his two-story brick colonial was five years and four owners old when he bought it in 1975. In those days, he said, oil and aerospace companies that grew up along Michoud Boulevard would move managers in and out of area houses, townhouses and apartments on a regular basis. When the oil industry in New Orleans crashed, housing changed. By the late 1980s, landlords hurting for tenants converted large areas to Section 8 housing, creating low-income islands in a previously white-collar, upwardly mobile sea.
On the south side of the interstate, a more lavish set of flood-gashed houses rises at the edge of the Louisiana Nature Center in view of Joe Brown Park. Here, in the Marks subdivision next to Lake Forest Estates, Edgar and Alva Chase lived with their three boys for 22 years.
"We moved there on Sept. 26, 1983," says Edgar, a past dean at Dillard University who now co-chairs the mayor's subcommittee on Historic Preservation. Every morning at 6 a.m., he and Alva would walk the neighborhood and see the same people following their routines. "You could almost set your watch by Dr. Keith Ferdinand," Chase recalls. "He was a runner. He turned the corner each morning at 6:15."
It was a diverse neighborhood. Chase's neighbors across the street were Vietnamese, while those to one side were Chinese. About 90 percent of his neighbors are coming back, he says. One neighbor even has his American flag flying out front.
The Chases won't be returning, however. They plan to buy a lot Uptown and use it to build a raised Creole cottage. "I'm looking for the 'B' sections on the flood plain," says Chase en route to his temporary home in Dallas. They were lucky, he says; most of the family photos were stored above the level of the flood, and the house was paid for.
Aaron Comeaux, a retired Mobil administrator, knows that his Eastover home was built in accordance with the 1984 Federal Flood Insurance guidelines; he built it. Nonetheless, he got more than five feet of water inside the raised slab cottage where he's lived for the last two and a half years.
Most of his neighbors, he says, have already gutted their homes, and the neighbors on either side have told him they're coming back. Comeaux is gutting his house, too, driving from his son's home in Houston on weekends to work on it. He's not sure what the next step will be, though he ventures that the storm might actually help the East come back to be the middle-class Mecca it once was.
"Everything is so puzzling," said Comeaux. "The officials from New Orleans keep saying everything is okay, but they said that before all this happened."
- Donn Young
- On All Saints Day, Xavier University professor Violet Harrington Bryan stood in the bones of her eastern New Orleans home where she and her husband, attorney Trevor Bryan, moved in 1977. They vow to rebuild.