The East is coming back and it's pretty close to what I remember. Ah, the East. Aside from having to live with my Mom's emotionally abusive first cousin and his even more emotionally abusive wife from October 2002-May 2003, after my Mom died and my Paw Paw took ill (He died in February 2003.), I have nothing but fond memories there: shopping at the Plaza as a kid and boy-watching there as a teenager, visiting family and friends of the family since practically every 7th Ward household engaged in the New Orleans East exodus and doing suburban family things like going to Denny's and Wal-Mart without having to go to Metairie, Kenner or the Westbank.
From what I gathered on this bus adventure, the majority of the East is back and there's not much blight — except for businesses. There were so many abandoned businesses and overgrown lots where businesses once stood. And it wasn't Mom and Pop places — these were strip malls, schools and other businesses that, if I had to assume, have the means to rebuild.
The fact that the Lake Forest bus was "oh-my-God-is-someone-else's-sweat-dripping-down-back," "please-mister-bus-driver-don't-make-a-sharp-turn-because-I-don't-want-to-fall-out-of-the-back-door" packed not only illustrates the rebounding population of the East but provides quite a few quotable moments...
Last week I mentioned the bus stop stock characters, particularly the bus stop griper and the bus stop conspiracy theorist, but I didn't mention the riding stock characters. I'm happy to report that I not only encountered the bus stop stock characters, but I also encountered most of the riding ones: the riding hustla, the riding token, the riding diva, the riding snacker, the riding lovebirds and the riding plaintiff.
The Lake Forest bus was about 30 minutes late. While waiting on the Lake Forest, two St. Claudes passed. Bus stop conspiracy theorists observe this and approach me, I'm guessing because I'm the big-haired weirdo with the camera and pink glitter notepad at the bus stop:
"Now you know why dem two St. Claudes passed, huh?"
"Because all dem white people movin' out there!"
"Ohhh. Mmmm hmmm."
"Yeah! And that's all the time! Wasn't like that before all the white people moved over in the 9th Ward after Katrina."
Once the bus came, the bus stop griper — in this instance, also a riding diva with her long black and gold-banged weave, honey-colored contacts, nose ring and lace tank — exclaimed, looking for someone to be, in the religious sense of the word, a witness, "This is a lesson learned! I will never ever get on the bus again!"
While boarding the bus, we see the riding token. She's seated, but the bus is filling quickly. One particularly sweaty male rider stands in front of her with his behind in her face. Nearby non-token riders assume that since she's the minority on the bus, she needs help standing up for herself. "Yo' ass in somebody face, never be too scared to let somebody know dey ass is in yo' face!" one non-token says.
I'm able to stand near the back door, keeping my balance by leaning toward the bar on the back of the seats in front of me. My hands begin to sweat a little when I feel the hot air and hear the whipping of the wind coming from outside while we're on the interstate.
After we approach a busy connecting point at Chef and Downman (Broad, Morrison and Lake Forest buses meet there) a passenger misses her stop, I'm guessing because the bus was so packed that she couldn't see and since stops aren't announced on this bus, so she yells, "Stop! Stop! Stooop!" to the driver who abruptly stops to let her off. Riders wonder out loud if the driver was going to get into an accident, to which the riding plaintiff replies, "He get in a accident we ALL gon' get paid!" The riding hustla, local rapper TKO Raw, begins passing out flyers promoting his latest single and says, "We don't NEED to get in no accident! I ain't tryna get paid THAT bad!" before disembarking.
(After doing some fact checking on Facebook, I see that the riding token is actually TKO Raw's fiancee! I also discovered that he designed the flyer for N.O. Meezy's "Get Cut Like Ya Ugly," a song I'm not ashamed to say I enjoy.)
As we venture deeper into the East, down Dwyer Road, I see rebuilt houses, which I know for a fact took on at least eight feet of water, right next to the abandoned Livingston Middle School lot. Sadly, this is the case for much of the East: rebuilt homes next to abandoned buildings and lots.
The bus goes a few blocks down Lake Forest past Crowder, past small businesses that are thriving but are across the street from an abandoned, once busy strip mall, before we are told to switch buses. Lucky me, I was right by the back door so I ran to the next bus so I could rest my legs, as I'd been standing and trying to keep steady for the whole ride. I noticed that the bus itself smelled like wet washcloths and it turned my stomach a bit.
I passed by a bright and contemporary new apartment complex called Village de Jardin but found out later that it's for seniors. Nearby is a set of neglected apartment buildings and the unoccupied but sufficiently maintained former Greater St. Stephen Ministries corporate headquarters. I do wonder why, with two megachurch locations in Atlanta, one in New Orleans, a contract to hold services at the Joy Theater and merchandising, nothing's been done with that building yet. I also wonder why Beacon Light International Cathedral has two abandoned locations, the one on Paris Avenue looking like Katrina just hit a week ago, but has a Houston, Baton Rouge and [temporary] New Orleans location. Not for me to judge...
Across from the recently opened third NOLA Copy & Print location is an abandoned nursing home.
See the trend?
Further down Lake Forest Boulevard is the former site of the Plaza. At its best, the Plaza was "the largest enclosed mall shopping center in the Mid-South" offering diversified shopping, dining and entertainment options. At it's worst, the Plaza was home to athletic footwear and urban apparel stores — but there was always a chance of spotting Lil Wayne.
Here's a Christmas 1980 Plaza ad. You'll want to right click to open it in a new tab so you can see the stores:
Since 2003, there have been talks about overhauling the Plaza with funds generated through tax increment financing (TIF) which would require the city and state to each give 2 percent of their annual sales tax collections to fund the project. We haven't heard anything since 2009.
Since so many chain discount stores have opened, there were only a few areas along the route worth exploring:
Lake Forest and Crowder: daiquiri shop, restaurants.
Lake Forest and Bundy: NOLA Copy & Print, restaurants and Rodney's Snowball Stand, a New Orleans East legend that's famous for hiding gummy bears in the bottom of your snowball.
5951 Bullard Ave.: mostly chains, but there's a local cupcakery, Sweets & Eats,
Read and Morrison: I stopped here.
Read and I-10 Service Road: I stopped here.
Snoasis is located in the parking lot of the strip mall at Read and Morrison and has flavors I've never seen before, including French Vanilla and Tres Leches. They also sell snacks, but what won me over is that they accept credit cards using the Square for smartphones. I don't know why any business is cash only when the Square exists. My verdict on the snoball, Swiss Almond Coco, was that the snow was smooth with absolutely no lumps yet wasn't overly gushy. The syrup was sweet and flavorful without being overbearing.
I walked a few doors down to Value Gifts, a store that has a little bit of everything including many black greeting cards, but specializes in Saints merchandise. The owner's most popular Saints item is a reversible silk robe which is only sold in one other store in Louisiana. While browsing, I overheard the owner, Freddie Matthews, and a customer, Timothy Ward, discussing their feelings on the bounty. Here's what they believe:
Bounties have been around forever, even in park football for kids.
The powers that be of the NFL made the country aware of the bounty on purpose.
They did this because they don't want the Saints to win the Super Bowl in 2013 while it's hosted in New Orleans, because that would make the Saints the first team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl hosted in its own town.
Another reason they want to mess with the Saints is because they know that if, say, a West Coast team and an East Coast team go to the Super Bowl, money will be going to the NFL and to New Orleans from all directions. If the Saints are in the Super Bowl hosted in their own city, the city loses out on tourism dollars.
I walked down to the corner of Read and the 1-10 Service Road to stop at Balloons R Us, but they were closed. I visited Orleans Furniture & More, just to chuckle at the gaudy inventory.
While waiting on the bus to go back home, I noticed two things:
1. Trash cans are scarce! I didn't see one outside of the stores as I was walking nor did I see one on the sidewalk.
2. Easily overlooked but potentially confusing for an outsider, the automated RTA rideline still lists the Orleans Furniture bus stop as the Rite-Aid stop. It said, "You are at Rite-Aid. Is that right?" I thought I messed up and punched in the wrong stop ID number, but then remembered it used to be a K & B, then a Rite-Aid. Also, the schedule listed the Lakeland Medical Center as the end of the line, but there are no longer any hospitals in New Orleans East. Big Lots is coming back in November and Walmart is coming in Fall 2013 where Lakeland was, though. The RTA folks could use Google Maps street view to update things, if Google Maps would go ahead and de-Katrina us.
The bus came and was nowhere near as packed as before. The floors were pretty sticky and there was a lot of trash on the floor, including a McDonald's sundae, spoon and nut packet. When we approached the stop near Rodney's Snowballl Stand, the driver complained about the school bus drivers' incompetence, wondering why the school bus would let children off in the middle of the street. He drove around the school bus (Isn't that illegal?) and continued to vent. A well-dressed, middle-aged black woman sitting near me suggested he voice his opinions about school bus drivers in a public forum, so that something could be done. He didn't want to hear it. He already tried. She was encouraging, letting him know that the race needed him, but he was still grumpy.
We came to Winn-Dixie and the lady was still trying to motivate him. Frustrated, he got louder and said, "We don't care! We black people as a community don't care!" I went to sit in the back of the bus so I could take a certain picture, when something told me to look down. Roaches. Tiny ones. Several of them scattering when I approached. Shocked and disgusted, yet thankful I always keep my bag on my lap, I said, "Oh hell no!" and sat in the front, with my legs elevated. I wondered if the bus driver's disenchantment with community involvement manifested into a broken window theory-esque manner which made him assume the cleanliness of his bus didn't matter.
I went to the back again, hoping the roaches returned so I could document them. Only one roach came out for me. Here is his picture.
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