Goodbye, Old Neighborhood
Life's Migration Continues
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett
When I moved my family out of the French Quarter this spring, I joked to friends that the population of children in the Vieux Carré had just decreased by 30 percent.
And that’s probably not much of an exaggeration. During our three years of residency – with the exception of my three kids – I only came across a handful of other children living in the Quarter.
Suffice it to say: It’s not like the old days – the middle of last century, say – when the French Quarter was pretty much a run-down ghetto filled – in some places overcrowded – with immigrant families chasing the unique American Dream this port city offered through the generations.
The kids we used to encounter were usually the very young children of very young parents, almost all of whom confided to me at one time or another that – now that they had a kid – they were beginning to plan their own French Quarter exit strategy as well.
We noble but few Quarter parents did a lot of “confiding” amongst ourselves with regard to this subject. And “whispering,” “discreetly inquiring” and “quietly disclosing.”
It is a more sensitive matter than you might think. One reason is that, once the adults around you discover you’re planning to leave, some get apoplectic – they can get upset, angry and sometimes just plain sad.
“Are you taking the kids with you?” one regular at the corner pub frantically asked me one night before considering the implications of his inquiry.
Young children are like exotic little puppies in the French Quarter. Anatomical curiosities. Oddities merely by their presence. And impossible to ignore.
Everyone stops to make a fuss. Scratch their heads. Loudly exclaim, to anyone within earshot: “They are so adorable!”
I admit to occasional piques of annoyance at this. I know they’re just being kind and expressing their affection in the best way they know how, but that kind of stuff can rattle a kid.
They are smarter than we give them credit for, kids, and after, say, the age of 4, they are cognizant of when they’re being singled out and reduced to props for the amusement of adults, to a conversation piece. And it freaks them out sometimes.
It is weird the way some French Quarter folks can flip their lids in the presence of children. Then you realize that, if you live a compartmentalized life in the Quarter, as so many people there do – never leaving the neighborhood, following routines that rarely change, associating with a like-minded peer group – then it’s actually possible to go weeks without ever seeing a living, breathing, funny-smelling child with missing teeth, terminal bed-hair and impossible innocence.
I swear to God: I prepared myself for the day when someone would pull a biscuit out of their coat pocket and offer it to one of my kids.
Thankfully, that day never came.
Another reason French Quarter parents tend to be circumspect about their plans to relocate is because there’s no denying it: We feel guilty about it.
For one thing, because all those people who were really nice to your kids for all those years are gonna miss them. You feel like you’re letting them down.
But more so because, when you’re the last settlers on the frontier and you pack up your wagon and head back East, it’s as if you’re admitting you’ve gone soft. Giving up the noble mission. Refusing to fight the good fight any more. Surrendering.
That you’ve finally decided to ditch your little studio apartment inside the Alamo for nice split-level with more room and less traffic over on the Brazos River.
It is like you’re abandoning a dream. And not just your dream, but the wishes of the commonwealth. You are upsetting what dregs remain of the balance. Giving up on an ideal – whether or not that ideal exists anymore.
You feel like you’re tipping the balance ever further away from what the French Quarter was for 300 years – a neighborhood.
We become victims of the take-one-for-the-team mentality. “If your kids don’t live here, whose will?” one incredulous neighbor wanted to know.
We weren’t just some of the last holdouts. We were living anachronisms, an actual real-life family doing family things like watching the Disney channel and playing Chutes and Ladders – all in the middle of the drunkest, rowdiest and most overtly libertine community in American.
We were metaphors and symbols. We were reminders of a vibrant and overly romanticized era that is now but a memory, like the howling strains of cornets emanating from the parlors and saloons of Storyville, dissipated into the Confederate mist and gone with the wind.
And it ain’t never coming back.
Families in the French Quarter are like those isolated strips of land surrounded on all four sides by water down along the south Louisiana coastline: Every time one disappears, it’s likely gone forever. And the landscape – physical in one case, cultural in the other – is forever altered.
The gradual erosion of our precious wetlands over the past several decades is the apt geographical doppelganger of the long slow exodus of families out of the Vieux Carré over the decades. Both phenomena hint at a dreary, seemingly inevitable fait accompli in the near future. And endgame for the coastline and family life in the Old Quarter.
We – along with the ideas and memories we hold dear – are all either prisoners, slaves or casualties of the inexorable march of time. And the forces of change.
But it was fun while it lasted.
When my kids were younger, they went to the Aquarium and Insectarium like suburban kids go to their local playgrounds. Hell, the Aquarium was our local playground.
Albeit with climate control. And a whole bunch of fish.
On weekend afternoons, we used to browse the art galleries, gift shops and antique stores on Royal Street and play “Called-it!” laying imaginary claim to all the really cool, old, weird stuff we knew we would never in our lives be able to afford.
We bought our Christmas tree at the French Market and one year hired a pedicab to haul it home for us while we walked behind it. With the tree leaning noticeably to one side and its branches flailing up and down with every broken contour of the street, it oddly appeared as if a severely intoxicated Christmas tree had hailed a pedicab for assistance in getting home.
That doesn’t happen in other cities.
At least, I don’t think it does.
Every year, we got up early one special Sunday and rushed out to claim our spots along the routes of the Germaine Wells and Chris Owens Easter parades. It was the single day of the year my kids were permitted to actually hang out on Bourbon Street.
On all other days and nights, as we approached the determinedly raunchy Boulevard of Broken Dreams on foot, I imposed longer strides and a quickened pace, and generally hoped that no one would notice them, that no one would step on them and I literally prayed no one would spill a sticky red hurricane on their heads.
During our first year living there, I actually made my kids hold their hands up alongside their faces – in the manner of blinders on a horse – and ordered them to keep their gazes fixed directly ahead.
I was and remain convinced the French Quarter in general and Bourbon Street in particular harbor a greater potential for inducing traumatic childhood experiences than anywhere else in America.
To temper that notion, I used to tell myself – and other skeptical parents – that there are great benefits to be had for a child growing up in the French Quarter: They are exposed to, and learn more about, the human condition than most of their classmates Uptown.
There was a bar on every corner of our block. There was the neighborhood bar, the neighborhood gay bar, a late night Goth club and a place called the Society Page, where transvestite streetwalkers congregate at night to smoke cigarettes and scream at each other during lulls in business.
About two years ago, my kids set up what I am assuming was the last lemonade stand to occupy a Vieux Carré sidewalk. Amazingly, my kids made over $100 in less than two hours; drunk tourists were so enamored of this sight that they tipped madly. But my kids were so traumatized by their customers that they never did it again.
So much for chasing the opportunity of the American Dream!
One day it became clear: My kids had had enough of the human condition.
They are teenagers now and they were feeling more and more trapped inside our apartment with nowhere to run wild and free – like kids are supposed to do.
So this spring we packed up and moved out to where skies are wide open, the view feels like forever and there’s no mule poop on the street. Where you can’t make any serious money selling lemonade and we haven’t seen a dude in a pair of sparkling size 13 Jimmy Choo heels since we got here.
We live in the wide open spaces of Bayou St. John now.
It feels very different here. It feels like the country almost. My kids, they walk out the door and tell me they’ll be back later and I don’t know where they’re going and I don’t care.
Because now they’re finally getting to live their end of the American Dream; it’s called childhood.
Editor’s Note: During the first few years of the recovery, if there was one voice of the people it was that of Chris Rose, at the time a columnist for The Times-Picayune. His mind was in sync with the questions that couldn’t be answered from a handbook. Should Carnival parades return to the streets although many people were still homeless? Of course, Rose said. He knew we needed it for the spirit. Should the Neville Brothers be welcomed back to Jazz Fest although Aaron was living in Nashville and Cyril had referred to the Katrina aftermath as “ethnic cleansing?” Look past it, Rose urged. He knew that, like the parades, we needed the Nevilles, too. We also needed to read more from Rose. A book, which was a compilation of his early post-Katrina writings, 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, became a local bestseller. A signing he did at Jazz Fest drew a Neville-sized line. Each year in our Tops of the Town survey, our readers have made Rose their first choice for favorite writer. (Anne Rice is generally second.)
Since leaving The Times-Picayune, Rose worked briefly with WVUE-TV, Ch. 8, and now is freelancing. Though this article does not concern Katrina directly, it certainly deals with the decision-making of the time as parents made choices about their family’s future. Chris Rose is speaking to us again, and will continue to do so as a columnist for this magazine starting next month.