This Was Our House

Since this essay was first published on the pages of Daily Kos and Booman Tribune, on the first anniversary of the Katrina disaster, the house you see below may have been torn down.

This was Our House.  The house where I spent the first seven years of my life, with my grandparents and my mother.  The house where everything began. We lived below; the tenants lived above.  But one tenant was family with us for a long time.  So long, the grandchildren from the E family were living there the last time I visited in it in 1996.

But it may be gone now.  It was my stepfather who told me this spring.  He still has property in the city, and must report to the VA Hospital there from time to time to have evaluations of his diabetes and asbestosis.  A friend of his told him, don’t you know? your house on Peniston and Magnolia has been torn down. They drove over there and where there had been a house, was an empty lot. 

However, there are a lot of empty lots in that area of New Orleans, and I looked up the address on Google Maps tonight to find not an empty lot, but a pink-colored, rotting house threatened with a Louisiana version of kudzu. If this is the most recent Google photograph of the neighborhood, then Our House still stands. The empty lot they may have seen is where the pharmacy once stood. And my dad is still 77 years old.

Click here for larger version

One of these days, there will be a new house there, with new stories to tell from the families who will live there.  But I think that I knew what 2632 Peniston was truly like.  I knew what the neighbors were like, and it wasn’t a quiet, depressed corner of New Orleans.  It was alive.

It was home.

This was my childhood home, after Katrina.

I have had these photographs for almost a year, thanks to NOdiaspora.  I’ve e-mailed them as an attachment to my sister, who has given them to my mother, who at 72 is not computer-literate.  She always cautions me about the truthiness of blogs.  I tell her everything that I read is linked to actual news stories.

But my mother could not bring herself to see them.

I apologize if this diary seems long. But I will always know that Our House was near death long before the levee floods finally killed it.  When you kill houses, you kill a neighborhood, too.  When you kill people’s livelihoods, the houses go down with the neighborhood. When it came to property in New Orleans, as long as black people are living in a house or apartment, some landlords will only put in just enough repairs to keep it going until it is officially condemned. There is a law that says that renters cannot even put in their own repairs, but must wait for the landlord.  Of course, for some people, that could take years.

Our House sits like a wrecked ship on the corner of Peniston and Magnolia.  Rotting, wrecked, ruined and abandoned.  In the new New Orleans, I expect that eventually it will be torn down.  Those faded curtains in the window are a flag of surrender.  Yes, I will mourn when that day comes.  Our House sustained at least four or five inches of flooding.  Last year, when I saw a television view of Napoleon Avenue near Freret Street, when it appeared that anyone could go whitewater rafting on this main street, I knew that Our House was doomed.

Like the breaching of the levees, it didn’t have to happen that way.

Side and rear view from Magnolia Street.  The door is to the basement where the washer and dryer for the tenants were provided.  The boarded windows to the right are to the “back room” where I lived.

I have a photograph of the house that I knew as a child in the 1950s. It looked nothing like this photo.  This was my grandparents’ home.  They were homeowners.  They had a mortgage.  They earned a living with my grandmother washing laundry and my grandfather having “a pressing shop” -pressing shirts and suits.  (I have a 1930s photograph of my grandfather in a corner of what looks like a very hot, steamy shed with other black men with the pressers yawning at attention.)  They also rented rooms and apartments to blacks.  Later, when my grandfather’s health broke down, she went back to domestic work and kept money coming in.

I was born during the last days of de jure segregation in New Orleans.  Because we had no legal rights and I could not attend certain schools, it did not entirely mean that our lives were entirely lacking and without hope.  Black people–colored people then–strove for property, for legal marriages, for good schools, for a way of moving up.  True, there was a sordid side of life, but there were many blacks whose lives were not touched by this life, or who allowed themselves to go only so far, who had not completely succumbed to the streets. They–and my family–continued to have ordinary lives beyond Carnival or trouble.

A number of homes had to be destroyed to make way for a new public school, Thomy Lafon, and what became the Magnolia Projects, once a jewel of public housing in New Orleans.  People vied to move into the projects because New Orleans’ houses then, as before Katrina, could be woefully substandard.  My grandparents’ first house was also destroyed, but they were able with a settlement to move further down to the house that I came to know.  They continued to rent out the two apartments above and lived on the ground floor.

Like my grandmothers fragrant geraniums (Courtesy: David Beaulieu)

Like my grandmother's fragrant geraniums (Courtesy: David Beaulieu)

Close your eyes.  I want you to imagine trees that shaded the street, old trees that had thick trunks that provided shade and were not replaced after hurricanes.  I want you to imagine that the house is white with green trim, not the cartoonish pink color.  Pigeons cooed and nested in its eaves, undermining the roof and spreading dirt and feathers, until my grandparents brought in someone who installed netting to keep them out.  There was a prolific bush that hid the rusted manhole cover.  A well-tended lawn that my uncle mowed for his mother.  I want you to see her rose bushes, her geraniums, her Easter lilies lining the side of the house that faced Magnolia Street.

And then there was the porch with a metal slider, where my grandfather sat smoking, sometimes chewing garlic to keep his blood pressure down, watching the busy activity on the street.  Sometimes he received visitors.  His older brother, like him an orphan, but who cared for him when they only had each other.  He was a former gambler and World War I vet who followed the racing circuit caring for horses.  Then there was my handsome light-skinned great-uncle, who had once been a chauffeur, and my uncle the trucker, and other old men who came to say, Wherey’at? and discuss the news of the day.  My grandmother in her apron would sometimes sit dressing green beans or okra in the only other chair–or just looked on.  Or she’d watch her TV soaps while dinner cooked in the kitchen.

There were two garages we rented to others–one on Peniston, and one on Magnolia that formed a natural fence to the backyard. Next to the Magnolia Street garage was Mr. Joe’s, the local “bar room,” where we would hear the likes of Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Ernie K-Doe almost everyday, including Sundays, and outside of which my grandfather would visit with the elderly checker players.  And next to Joe’s was Manale’s, our corner grocer who sometimes haggled with my grandmother over the size of his oranges.  And we sugared our ice tea.

Kitty-corner, across the street was a drugstore with a doctor who saw patients on the top floor and occasionally made home visits.  Directly across the street were the Wilsons.  Mr. Wilson drove a blue and white bus parked on Magnolia Street in which he picked up blacks who, like himself, worked at Avondale–the military shipyards.  (I keep wondering whether the very elderly Mrs. Wilson–the last of our neighbors–survived the floods.)  Next door were the Smiths, whose daughter’s “Peyton Place” domestic problems were gossiped over in our relatively middle-class part of town.

This looks like one of the fig trees in my grandmothers backyard (Courtesy: Our Florida Garden)

This looks like one of the fig trees in my grandmother's backyard (Courtesy: Our Florida Garden)

There was plenty of backyard to play in with the other flowers and bushes.  For one thing, there were fig trees. My grandmother made preserves from each harvest, and the little boys that lived upstairs and I used to eat the rest.  My grandmother was from the country, born in St. James Parish.  She thought that she could raise chickens back there.  Now, in the early part of the 20th century, in certain parts of black New Orleans, incorporated or not, you could raise chickens.  She had my uncle, who was good with his hands, build a kind of coop.  The city turned a blind eye to some of this, but when she brought in turkeys, she was told that she had to cease and desist.

All around was the hum of birds and insects. We called dragonflies “mosquito hawks.”  We heard cicadas hissing in their mating call almost all day long in the spring and summer, particularly at five when Mr. E, father of the boys upstairs, would come home from his railroad job, carrying a fresh loaf of French bread or some bagged groceries from Canal Villerie or Schwegmann’s or Winn-Dixie, and tip his wide-brimmed hat to us.  There were green lizards all over who lived in the shrubbery and dined off insects and eyed us cautiously.  We knew better not to upset a hill of red ants.  And then there was the ubiquitous cockroaches that ran around at night outside of everyone’s house and that we crushed with regularity.

The coops had been torn down by the time my mother, in her capacity as secretary to the women’s auxiliary, hosted a church bazaar in the backyard.  She once belonged to St. Luke’s, the Episcopal church around the corner from our house, whose congregants were mostly black Anglicans from Jamaica and the islands.  Some women didn’t wear hats but wore headscarves in church, as if they were still at home.  Some even tried to tell me about a general strike that had brought them here.  A strike that I learned that had paralyzed sugar production and led to Jamaica’s independence.

My mother inherited Our House when my grandmother died five years after my grandfather. Both didn’t make it to collect Social Security. By that time, my mother had remarried and had more children.  I was 12 when we came back from California to bury my grandmother.  And I found that she had kept them everything–all my costumes that I had worn for Halloween, Mardi Gras and the children’s pageants.  They were all too small, so they weren’t mine any more.  But they were small enough for my brother and sister to wear.  And my wooden rocking chair with the red seat?  The kids fought each other to sit in it.  I couldn’t imagine that I had been that little.

And the house itself looked smaller, cramped, stopped in time.  It had become a kind of museum of our former lives–my mother and me. Oh, the house had the usual railroad-style (what we would call “Creole-style”) set-up.  But it seemed that the front room, dining room, and kitchen skidded into each other. On the left, my grandparents’ room had a new king-size bed and new furnishings.  My mother’s bedroom suite was still there in her room; but now I could see my name and initials along with those of my boy playmates scratched into the headboard when we were whispering and fighting, supposed to be taking a nap. There was the one bathroom and then the `back room’–a utility room–that faced the backyard.  Here was where my wayward cousin D would sometimes stay; where I played with my dolls and read my first books; where my grandmother did her sewing, quilting and needlework, and where she, a minister in the Spiritual Church of New Orleans, had kept her altar, which my mother kept up even after her death.

I chose to live in this room, to sleep in my grandparents’ old bed that my grandmother couldn’t bear to junk, to use her chifferobe and chest of drawers, and to learn her secrets like old hats and makeup.  The closets could not close because a year earlier, Hurricane Betsy had torn off the roof, with water streaming down, warping the door frames. One of the garages had collapsed, and so now that space was tiled and part of the backyard.  So the house did smell musty, and not only with age.

Moreover, the foundation was shifting noticeably under the beautiful hardwood floors.  I would ride over “the hump” on my tricycle on the way outside to play.  But it now dipped to the right in the dining room with its mahogany Queen Anne table and chairs.  It would take a lot of work, I heard someone say after the house was fumigated.  The whole house would have to be lifted and the foundation rebuilt.  Otherwise, the ground floor is going to flood, and nobody is going to be able to live there.

We were not able to stay to find out.  My mother could not hold onto Our House, and we returned to California.

Over the years, members of the E family grew up, went to college, were buried and were married out of their apartment.  Sometimes, my mother or myself would call and ask about them and Our House.  Oh, it’s bad, said Mrs. E., Real bad.  He (the new owner) doesn’t want to fix nothing.  Your place got flooded and nobody could live there no more. This place is old, said one of the E boys, my childhood running buddies, during one call I made. It’s falling apart, even up here. My stepfather would go and visit the E family when he would see about his aging mother who lived on Josephine Street.  It’s bad.  You wouldn’t recognize the place, he said.  He ain’t taking care of it.  And the projects done gotten worse.

The neighborhood began to die in the Seventies.  The drugstore probably went first; it had already been dying since the doctor worked fewer and fewer hours and the pharmacist must have retired.  He was probably affiliated with Flint-Goodrich or Charity.  Then Manale must have died or retired.  The various industries that had provided “good jobs” for the city’s blacks–the railroads, the military, the shipping industries, even beer and pop bottling plants, went out of business, curtailed their services, or packed up and left.  This formerly middle-class neighborhood assumed the air and the finality of the dead.

Soon there was nothing left but tourism…and drugs.  Those who were left–especially the elderly–prudently did not venture out at night on foot.

I went back to New Orleans several times beginning in mid-1990s, pulled by nostalgia, longing for some connection with my roots, wanting material for my novel.  The first time I went, of course, I wept.  I touched the boarded-up lower level.  It was all in me now, and I remembered.  Gone was shrimp boil, French bread and RC Cola.  Gone was the sight of my grandmother dressed in full priestess regalia on Saturday nights to preach at the Spiritual Church.  Gone was bouncing on my grandmother’s sofa watching Mighty Mouse on Saturday, or fighting with my grandfather to watch The Flintstones instead of his interminable Westerns like Have Gun Will Travel. Gone were the plates of fried chicken being sent downstairs and the plates of fried oysters being brought upstairs. Gone was wayward Cousin D sharing American Bandstand with me, and adjusting her skates on my feet with her key.   Gone were the young men practicing their Black Indian chants to parade the next day–Mardi Gras.  I couldn’t even open the door, and ask whoever was living there whether I could see it again.

Each time I went back to my old home, a member of the E family was living upstairs who could call my name and know me, even though both Mr. and Mrs. E had long since died.  That would never change, I thought, even though the upstairs porch was so splintered, with the paint peeling off the original wood that my foot almost went through it.  That lovely porch with yet another slider, where our parents could read the Times-Picayune’s Roto section and gossip on a lazy Sunday afternoon and call out to people they knew passing by in their Sunday best.

I think no one will live there again.  Not after Katrina and the floods.

One view inside the living room. The hardwood floors are gone.  My rocking chair sat here next to my mother’s chair in front of our old Muntz console TV.

It’s not just Our House that I will have an affinity for.  For example, there’s My First Apartment on Tenth Street in San Jose, close to San Jose State University.  But it, too, has gone down hill since its owner died.  She was a member of one of the first families in San Jose who had a hand in agribusiness in the Santa Clara Valley.  Those apricot and plum orchards are now practically gone and in its place is Silicon Valley.

My landlady kept up the apartment, kept the wood and mouldings shiny and oiled, the carpets and tile cleaned like it was her own house.  I only asked that the bathroom be painted, and it was, and I moved in for $125 a month.  I had a lot of good experiences there.  It was relatively quiet.  There were two old ladies who were also living in the same building with us young students in the Seventies.  They had raised children and buried husbands in the same small apartments.  We listened respectfully to their querulous requests and tried to look out for them, too.  When I last visited it, in the late 1980s, the apartment building looked as if both drugs and indifferent landlords had killed it, too.  Gang glyphs had been sprayed and even another wall had been erected in the parking area between it and the business next door, when we tenants had formerly recognized that property line without one.

Much like my respecting where I should not play near my grandmother’s altar.  You tend to know your boundaries.  What you should and should not do.

But you always remember the house where you were raised.  That’s where you began.  And sometimes, that experience defines who you are. How you would like to work.  Your language.  The way that you cook.  Your little rituals that no one else can understand.  What you are used to.

These two poles are the only things holding up the dilapidated porch; this is probably what the boards also hid all these years.

And I know how Our House could have been saved from within and without.  If the landlord had cared enough to save and to shore up the house.  If the levees had been built to withstand Cat 5.  If the city fathers had decided to rely on many industries, not just one, thus helping to hobble a black working and middle class. If the Super Dome, the Convention Center and the giant causeway that led to Canal Street hadn’t destroyed yet another thriving neighborhood and the places where the Mardi Gras Indians had masked and marched and where Robert Charles had made his last stand against a lynch mob of thousands.

The failure of the levees was a manmade disaster.  The death of Our House was not just through the wear and tear of time.  It was redlining and greed.  Both disasters were caused by negligence.

What was it that gave them the right to short-change the safety of the people of New Orleans?

I have an awful clue.

In reading about the history of New Orleans, I read that there was a very high death rate for African slaves building what became the French Quarter and the first plantations and arpents.  The heat, the swamp muck, the yellow fever and respiratory diseases so decimated the work force that the colonial officials were always importing more and more slaves to take their places.  Their lives were cheap, because slaves were plentiful.

That mindset, I believe, still exists today.  Not only in New Orleans.  Not only among whites.

Black life is cheap.

So in New Orleans, near the mouth of a river that commands the same resonance and awe as when people speak of the Congo or the Nile or the Amazon, black people who endured before the Americans came in 1803, who invested in themselves, in their families, in their homes and in their neighborhoods and in their culture: they were made cheap. And it wasn’t the first time.

But human life, like memories, isn’t cheap.

~ by blksista on August 26, 2009.

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