Eve Abrams' seven-part audio documentary, Along Saint Claude, explores centuries of changes in the area near Saint Claude Avenue between Poland and St. Bernard avenues. Abrams interviewed more than four dozen people to get their opinions on white flight, gentrification, their memories of the area and its actual history. The show is augmented with lots of local music, from Louis Armstrong and Dave Bartholomew to Morning 40 Federation and Helen Gillet.
The program aired last week on WWNO-FM and is available on Abrams' website (www.eveabrams.com).
Abrams spoke to Gambit about the documentary and its inspiration. This interview is condensed from a longer conversation.
What was your motivation in creating Along Saint Claude?
EVE ABRAMS: I live in Bywater and I was just hearing, as you probably do, so many people talking about the gentrification and newcomers — a lot of anger, a lot of resentment. I just started wondering: Whose place is this? Who has a right to it? Who owns it? Hasn't it always been changing, like most places? Hasn't it always been in flux? Especially New Orleans, being a port town with people constantly coming in.
I wanted to look beyond the anger and the easy-to- blame scapegoating and kind of figure out what was going on. I had heard a lot of people talking about gentrification and I wasn't even sure that was quite what was going on. And if it was, according to how that word is defined, from when?
It's definitely more white than it was 20 years ago. There's definitely way more money here than 20 years ago. But another 40 years before that, it was very different too. It went from being one kind of a neighborhood to another kind to another kind. It just made me think a lot about how change is really relative to where you're looking from and at, and how long a time period you're looking at.
The only real rule I set up for myself is to only talk to people who live or have lived in the neighborhood [off] St. Claude Avenue. I tried to talk to as many different people as I could — at least four dozen. Not only did I do interviews where I talked to somebody for one or two hours, I also had a couple of days where I would interview people waiting for the train to go across Press Street. I assembled a team of reporters and we wore T-shirts that said "Wanna Talk?" and I had little signs in the neutral ground that said "While You Wait, Let's Talk." We talked to a ton of people that way. I talked to as many different folks as I could: different ages, different in terms of how long they've lived in New Orleans, different races. It was really surprising and a lot of the stereotypes that people say there are kinda got blown out of the water.
I really wanted it to be grounded in some history so, lucky for me, [author/professor Richard Campanella] lives in Bywater. Bienville's Dilemma was like my bible for that nine months. Between my interview with him and his book, I really came to form an idea about how this place came to be a neighborhood and how it was in relationship to other neighborhoods from the very beginning. Who settled here because of that? I go back to before Europeans or Africans were in New Orleans. I spend much, much, much more time on the 20th century and the 21st century, but I do go back that far.
Did any responses surprise you?
ABRAMS: I was really surprised that on the two days we were on St. Claude Avenue randomly talking to people, almost every single African-American man that I spoke to was all for these newcomers coming in — all for it. It was really surprising.
One guy, when I asked a really broad question about changes, he said, "Well there are more white people here and it used to be that there weren't any white people in this area." I asked him how he felt about it and he said, "I love it. White people are the easiest people to live around," and then he said, more important, "White people mean more police, which means less foolishness." So I thought that revealed so much about how power structures work and who they're serving and who benefits. There were a couple of young men who said they really enjoyed having all these people from different parts of the country living here because they felt like it was broadening their horizons.
I don't want to say that all African-American men I talked to felt this way. There were two that I interviewed in depth that have much more complicated feelings — a lot of alienation and resentment and probably sadness more than anything else.
There was one man who talked about how a lot of people just didn't want to come back, how his sister settled in Jessup, Ga. and was able to buy a house there, something she might not have ever been able to do here. She just doesn't want to come back. He said, "Somebody has to live in those houses."
This wonderful woman, I asked her about all these complaints that [newcomers] don't say hello, they're not friendly, and she said, "We're training 'em." For a while, I was adamantly saying hello and good morning to everybody. It's a change to the culture and I think when you don't grow up doing that, you don't know that that's an expectation. I think the sheer number of newcomers here, that's why people are so agitated. It's so easy to get offended and upset by that. It's hard to remember. It's hard because when you say "Good morning" and no one says it back, it's like "Ow!"
It's a seven-part documentary. What's the structure?
ABRAMS: The first part of the documentary is called "What's in a Name?" Through the course of this documentary, I really came to feel like these neighborhood names are more of a problem than a help because I think they make people feel really divided. I came to really question a lot of these "neighborhoods." In the second episode, called "A Brief History Lesson," that's the one where I go back over 300 years ago and talk about how this neighborhood is geographically related to the center of the city and the river, most importantly, and therefore what that meant in terms of wealth and who settled here and who didn't and how that's changed, and how it's on the high ground. [Hurricane] Katrina's all through this documentary.
Part Three is called "The 9th Ward of Yore," and I think I say it's like a Yat fairyland, the stories about it. Everyone talks about it like the golden time. I was really fortunate that I found all these people who used to live in this neighborhood. Two men in their 80s — one went on a walking tour with me of the neighborhood and he had the most amazing memory. A woman named Joycelyn Cheramie whose dad owned the pharmacy that's now Booty's. And just a bunch of other people: Roy Markey, Michael Markey, Frank Donze, a woman named Joanne Livaccari Cieutat and her brother Eppy who live on Poland [Avenue] and grew up on Poland. I really try to paint a picture of this place at that time.
Most of it is very "Oh, it was a wonderful neighborhood," "It was very upbeat," but it had a lot of darkness to it and a lot of it had to do with race. I include that as well. My neighbor who lives in Bywater now but grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, she shares that as a young girl she was not even allowed in this neighborhood because of her skin color.
Part four is called "White Flight," so that continues the story of ... what I say in this piece is that this is the last major change people know about and talk about. It was actually way more dramatic than what's going on right now. Such a major reshuffling all over the country really, all over our cities. I also talk about how it wasn't just white folks who were fleeing the cities, that black folks were too and often even fleeing the South.
Episode five is called "The G-Word." You can guess what that's about. It's people complaining about it, it's people saying that it's gotten a bad rap. It breaks up the complexity of it, because it's not as simple as people think it is and in many ways the opposite of gentrification is stagnation.
Part six is "New Kids on the Block," and that's two things: people talking about the new people and then it's the new people themselves. I actually confess in part five that I'm a newcomer as well. So that's my, "I'm out," you know, coming out of the closet. This is the episode that's the most Katrina-heavy. The reason that new people moved here, for the most part, is because of Katrina. All three of the folks I interviewed who were newcomers in the piece, they all visited here either in college or as a volunteer. They just fell in love with it and stayed, which is how most people move here; they fall in love with it and they don't know how to leave. So there's a lot about Katrina and also the housing opportunities that were created by people not returning.
The last episode is called "Old Buildings." I think it's pretty clear that the reason you live here is these incredible structures that these craftsmen made that are still standing, with these incredible raw materials. Buildings like this don't exist everywhere. Some of these are dilapidated, they need love, they need help, but they're just these incredible constructions that shape our lives. Either because we live in them and they literally shape the way we conduct ourselves or we see them in our environment. I wanted to honor these homes, and the people who made them, and the people who continue to make them by restoring them and loving them. But they're also on high ground, and so they've become hot property. In this episode, there's a lot about real estate, zoning, restoration, scale, the arts corridor — the money side of these homes.
"The New New Orleans"
Gambit's ongoing series about the city's demographic changes, "The New New Orleans," can be viewed at www.bestofneworleans.com/newnola. Readers can share their thoughts on changes in New Orleans by using the hashtag #newnola on social networks.