She talks about the changes she's seen in her neighborhood — and in New Orleans.
It's 1994, the height of a murder wave in New Orleans.
I'm 9 years old, home alone waiting for my mom to come back from Walgreens on St. Bernard Avenue and Broad Street. As I'm watching Sesame Street's Follow That Bird, I hear gunshots.
I start sobbing, terrified my mom's been killed. When my mom returns unharmed half an hour later and I explain to her why I was hysterical, she starts to understand that the New Orleans where she is raising me is very different from the New Orleans where she grew up. Now I am experiencing the same feeling.
My mom was an art teacher and a real bleeding heart when it came to her students. Most of them were twentysomething black men who thought of her as a mom and me as a nerdy little sister. Since I was an only child and only grandchild, I loved it when they would play with me and bring me tapes, candy and toys.
Many of them were eventually killed on the streets of New Orleans: Tassi, Nell, Ronald and several others whose names I can't remember all got shot. I think of one particular man every time I pass the Parakeet Lounge: He was talking to his girlfriend on the pay phone outside, when some guy shot him in the head.
In an apartment complex behind the McDonald's on North Broad Street in the 7th Ward, a pregnant lady was shot. I think her name was Sheila. I used to play with friends over there all the time, jumping rope with telephone wires, playing hand games, It and house. The lime green- and black-trimmed complex eventually was shut down, but only after another year of violence.
Because of incidents like those, the New Orleans where I grew up wasn't some hip place you moved when you didn't know what to do with your life. It wasn't a "blank slate." It was a place where you lived because you had ties there, because you were stuck there or because your job was there.
You didn't just come to New Orleans with a guitar and a dream.
Maybe I'm a conspiracy theorist, but I think many decisions made by politicians are only made to help build a utopian New Orleans for whomever is spending the most money, regardless of the impact on everyday folks.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Housing Authority of New Orleans received funding to demolish and rebuild the St. Thomas and Desire projects, moving tenants into the St. Bernard Project — regardless of the common knowledge that Uptown often clashes with Downtown and displaced St. Thomas residents were likely to attack St. Bernard residents.
In 2001 in the St. Bernard Project, my friend Clarence Hubbard was killed. He was 17. A guy came to his family's apartment asking for him, pretending to be a friend. Clarence came out and the guy shot him. He was from the St. Thomas. Incidents like these weren't isolated. Now that several of the projects have turned into mixed-income housing, I know former residents who say they no longer can reside in them because of their new neighbors — or they can't afford to do so.
Residents of the Iberville Project who worked in the French Quarter were able to get to their jobs quickly, without having to rely on public transportation. Some French Quarter chefs now say their employees who are former Iberville residents are having trouble getting to work on time or staying late because they've had to move to New Orleans East, Chalmette or the West Bank, and relying on public transportation is difficult.
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, natives and pre-Katrina New Orleanians were doing what so many transplants are doing now: seeking authenticity. These are newcomers who romanticize the city, shaking their heads at natives who don't start the day with beignets, eat red beans every Monday or attend second lines.
My Dillard University classmates and I would go from the Hilton New Orleans Riverside to Capt. Sal's on St. Claude Avenue — back when you wouldn't see white people there — and eat po'boys at least twice a week. Then there were the Cafe Du Monde beignet runs, going to family members' houses whenever there was gumbo, daiquiri trips and strolls down Bourbon Street. We missed what we thought we might never get again, so we wanted it all the time when we could find it.
I feel like these newcomers and TV producers looked at our Facebook posts post-Katrina and said, "Yes, this is what New Orleanians love! Gumbo, second lines, red beans, this Schwegmann's place and these Hubig's pies!" That's what New Orleanians grieving for the city wanted, but that's what these newcomers never knew.
Why are these people grieving for what they never knew? Who gave them the right to come to the pulpit and give our eulogy?
Before Katrina, no transplant would judge a native for liking fajitas at Chili's or burgers from Wendy's or for being excited about a new chain coming to the city. These super NOLA transplants don't know that there was no fussing from residents or even from Cafe Du Monde higher-ups when Krispy Kreme came to the French Quarter in 2002. There was no griping when other chains came to New Orleans either, like Fatburger, Planet Hollywood, Sizzler, Garfield's and so many others.
Chains opened, they thrived or didn't thrive, some stayed open and others closed. Then it happened again. It will keep happening. It's reminiscent of how people come to the city. They come, survive and stay or leave. Then it happens again.
When I was growing up, white flight was what plagued New Orleans. Poor, likely black people move into a neighborhood. More well-to-do, likely white people move out further into the suburbs. Stores are shut down or left to rot slowly, sometimes replaced with stores some higher-up thinks will suit the now-majority black or poor clientele. Then it happens again.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, however, there's no one area for white flight because so many out-of-town landlords are happily collecting Section 8 rent for houses they bought all over the city. People who want to come back home or move back to their old neighborhoods often can't afford it, because people are coming in from out of town in droves, buying up houses or paying high rents. Many of them are eager to give us poor backwoods New Orleans folk the gifts of authentic bagels, artisanal sandwiches and innovative ideas about education, health care and entertainment.
I'm 28 now and I'm still in the same house where I grew up, in the 7th Ward near St. Bernard Avenue and Broad Street, except now I'm there with my white husband, our cat Ellington and a baby on the way.
The white neighbors with whom I grew up have all moved to Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes. The man who inherited a house behind me is an absentee Section 8 landlord who lives in Houston. He rented out the house to a family of drug dealers and addicts, one of whom was arrested for rape in the Garden District. Our schizophrenic neighbor was evicted and lived in their yard for a while, before moving to her Range Rover. My new Creole neighbor and I filled out hot sheets, called the cops, went to HANO, looked through records and did everything we could to get rid of them. Nothing worked. Thankfully, they lost their Section 8 voucher after their son's rape conviction. I must admit, I miss listening to their jail stories from my bathroom window late at night.
I have a neighbor named Gumbo who likes to steal things and sell them for beer money. His sister cries and begs for food. A young black family moved in down the street. People are always getting evicted from the rentals across the street from me and behind me; I'm friends with our new white neighbors down the street. Two houses across from me are being inhabited for the first time since Katrina.
There's been a significant decrease in the number of murders, but an increase in the amount of simple criminal damage and car theft. High school kids broke my back windshield recently and a few days later my husband caught someone breaking into our repairman's truck. A lady's car was taken after she left the keys in it while she went in the corner store, something no one would have done there in the '90s. My Creole neighbor has worked hard to make her house beautiful, but her chairs and parts of her fence have been stolen — some by Gumbo.
The amenities in my neighborhood are pretty much the same: clubs, corner stores, fast food, seafood places. A few places have closed, like Triangle Deli, Pampy's and an arcade where my mom wouldn't let me go because people there sold drugs. That's it. However, I feel my neighborhood changing. There's now the opposite of white flight: an influx of white people.
When I was growing up, four out of nine houses on my block were occupied by white people. The rest of the neighbors were black. Aside from when the kids would play outside, our white neighbors mostly stayed inside. Now, my new white neighbors and other white people passing through the neighborhood are outside all the time, riding bikes at all hours of the day, walking dogs, going to music clubs and stores nearby. I used to do that because I had no car and I had to do that.
I feel like they are trying to make their presence known in the neighborhood. Is it good or bad? I don't know yet.
I don't want to say it's gentrification — because my property values have been rising steadily since before all the new people got here; because I don't think many residents in my neighborhood will be priced out; and because there's not a lot of property for sale here like there was in the 8th and 9th Wards.
My job is here, I have ties here and my house keeps me stuck here. Whatever happens, I'm most likely staying here. I'm just going to sit and watch while people move in and eventually stay or go, as they always have.