Hoover Dam now stands where Bucktown was. I was looking toward the lake from the Hammond Highway Bridge that crosses the 17th Street Canal and not knowing whether to be overjoyed or over-saddened. In the foreground is a concrete stage holding a row of pumps, each with ducts plunging toward the water like the tentacles of octopi clinching strangleholds on the canal; in the distance is a fence built across the canal containing gates designed to block the lake when it gets unruly. Had those structures been in place by September 2005, phrases such as “FEMA,” “Recovery” and “Road Home” might not be part of everyday lives. These giants that now guard the canal provide some hope for the future but if the imagination allows you to look past them, you might spot the apparitions of what once was, not so very long ago. A strip of land that is now high-tech and non-trespassable was once quaint and inviting.
Sid-Mars was a great place to be at sunset. From a table on the screened porch you could watch the sun behind Kenner in the distance. I was fond of the grilled tuna sandwich preceded by a cup of gumbo. On days when I was feeling especially naughty there would be an order of onion rings on the side. Across the shell road that was technically the 1800 block of Orpheum Avenue, shrimp boats bobbled from their berth in the canal. From that spot the old boats could putter into the lake only a few minutes away.
At the lake end of the road there was a pedestrian bridge that allowed passage to West End where, in better days, more restaurants once stood. One of those was Bruning’s. At the time of Katrina, Bruning’s had not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Georges. The backside of the original restaurant was severely whacked by Georges’ winds. The day in the future when insurance issues would be resolved and Bruning’s would return to the original building was erased by Hurricane Katrina.
Across the road from the bridge stood the old mansion that Captain Bruning had built. It was a nautical-looking house with an observation room on top from which, on a clear day, one might be able to see the shoreline of Mandeville on the other side. Now the restaurants, pedestrian bridge and home are gone and, without there being an observation deck, Mandeville has slipped below the horizon.
There is still a 17th Street Canal but the view has lost its poetry. In the days before Katrina, pelicans could be seen gliding over the canal, their tranquility occasionally interrupted by a jet-skier. Poetry, we would learn, did nothing to make the levees safe.
There are visions of Sid-Mars but only on a family Web site that laments that the government has not compensated the family for its commandeered property. Asked for an update, family member Kent Burgess answered: “We haven’t been compensated yet. We hope to reopen one day in the future if we ever get paid for our property. I would like to have a restaurant back on Lake Pontchartrain.”
Now the Bucktown that was exists as a Google search rather than as a lunch stop. Sid-Mars is the only likely legacy from the neighborhood but for there to be a future it has to survive its own whirlwind. May it have an expedited return. We’ve missed too many sunsets.