But in the small space and in the small time between the coming of the Civil War and the going of the Reconstruction, it was the most lawless street in New Orleans. It was named Gallatin Street and every foot of it was dedicated to crime and vice. It was home of Crazy Bill Anderson, Henry Thompson, Redhead and Whitehead Petrie, the Live Oak Boys, Bricktop Jackson, and Bridget Fury. Life was held so cheap that in 1861 the criminal sheriff of Orleans Parish told an English interviewer that his city was "a perfect hell on earth and ... nothing could ever put an end to the murders, manslaughters, and deadly assaults till it is made penal to carry arms."
Yet in the two years leading up to that interview, the Orleans coroner held inquests over the bodies of 132 murdered Orleanians -- an average of just over one a week.
Arcadia. Shang-ri-la. Utopia. The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The distance between the 2600 and 2800 blocks of Washington Avenue just about equals the space of Gallatin Street in its hellish hayday. This year, five people have been murdered in this space and in this time: six months.
They don't have a resonant name like Gallatin, these few blocks of Washington Avenue. They've just become a very useful catch-basin for sudden blood.
A time, a place, a creed ...
The time, between first and full light. When cities yawn their way awake and the day's noises murmur rather than roar. The place, a tree-guarded avenue where houses crouch like damaged animals begging to be put out of their misery. Soon enough they spit out men, women and children who every day submit their lives to the hard mathematics of crime and hustle. And any wisdom around costumes itself as cynicism.
A landscape painter would note the places of community interchanges. Smudged-window convenience stores masking as groceries or vice versa (Ali's, Mike No. 3's). Tay's Tattoo place, the Nite Owl Lounge. But more Baptist churches than lounges. (Willing Workers B.C., My Redeemer B.C. Church motto: "Show some love.")
A medical clinic and a half-dozen boarded-up buildings across the street, the housing project, half of them with plywood gags nailed across their eyes and mouths.
Near Washington and Clara, Alphonse McGhee was shot to death in April. He was 24 years old. A week later, the gunman shot another man. The shooter was 16 years old.
In February, 48-year-old Denise Arnold walked over to a burgundy Chevy in the 2600 block of Washington. A minute later, the driver shot her dead.
Thirty-two-year-old Cynthia Jackson walked over to a car, too, parked in the 2800 block. She argued with the driver, and then five or six shots rang out. The crowd later gathered around the body, talked of her three children and how she'd wanted a better life for them. Some talked about Cynthia's mother, who had been shot to death when Cynthia was only 3-years-old.
On May 20, Fadi Abulia, 18 years old, was shot to death between Willow and LaSalle streets. He had been working long days to save up for a down payment on a SUV.
The creed of this place and time, the value system that governs here now, is simply complicated. Who from outside can read the creed? Passing outsiders, the bane of all groups anywhere, look away, look away, empty land. Because who can long look at the outlook on display and not feel fear or sympathy -- which is the vainest form of fear?
These are the outlooks that seem to go on forever, because poverty is a mighty preservative. It keeps things unchanged until they become poisonous. Days stripped bare of the unfamiliar and the optimistic, days naked and seething. And every day those days are having their effects on things. And some days, there are Alphonse McGhees or Cynthia Jacksons or Fadi Abulias lying dead on Washington Avenue.
The police know that few of the people around here see anything that would help them solve crimes. They don't seem to be the least bit curious about their lack of curiosity. And for these people who carries the flag to follow?
The morning is now fully roused. Just down Washington, a half-dozen women of all ages are lolling on folding chairs in the hallway of a two-story apartment, talking loud and hairsetting. Some kids are playing near the sidewalk. A smooth-worn basketball breaks away from things and rolls, past the sidewalk and across the street to the other side.
After it comes a boy, 8 or 9, his thin legs churning inside his baggy shorts, and the flicker of him causes the van's driver to hotfoot the brakes and the van and the boy miss intersecting by a yard, no more than that. The women on the folding chairs in the hallway begin to raise their voices in some disapproval, non-specific, maybe some directed at the van driver.
The boy chasing the ball looks up at the van driver and gives him the most beautiful smile. Then he turns his head and gives the same smile to the women in the hallway. Death, cheated out of the moment, got only a grin this time around.
A couple of blocks away, the caretaker has swung open the gates to the Archdiocese's St. Joseph Cemetery. They will be open to Washington Avenue all the day long.