More than a housing project, this was a neighborhood.
The buildings were festooned with dangling fire escapes, and dark holes threatened in spaces where windows used to be. Courtyards and driveways were strewn with rusted-out cars and broken sections of fencing. There was total silence. No children laughed raucously in the courtyards, running and jumping in celebration of life. No grandmas warned, “You don’t want me to come down there!” It was a gorgeous November day in the Calliope housing project, known officially since 1981 as the B.W. Cooper Apartments. The glitter of sunshine gave the dust-covered tableau the dull sheen of antique silver. The caked mud and detritus left by Katrina were everywhere. As is true of the city, 2005 was not a good year for the Calliope.
THEY CALLED IT "CAL-LEE-OPE"The Calliope community took its name from the massive housing project that dominated this neighborhood in Central City, stretching for blocks along Calliope Street. The Calliope project itself originally consisted of about 700 units, opening in the early ’40s as a prewar effort to house low-income families. Most of the project’s residents were black, although white and black store owners and their families were mingled throughout the surrounding blocks. My father had a drugstore with an attached residence a block away on Thalia Street. Technically I did not grow up in the projects; however, all of us who lived in the neighborhood felt empowered by the Calliope’s presence.
The Calliope project was impressive. Until its development, most of the buildings in the neighborhood had been single- or two-story wooden shotgun structures with small front yards. The Calliope had buildings that reached the lofty height of three stories. The most appealing feature of the Calliope was its brick construction. We knew from “The Three Pigs” that the project homes would withstand New Orleans’ quirky weather. Nothing could blow them down! Adorned with iron grill and manicured lawns, the stately project buildings often were the backdrop for family photos. Inside, the layout
defied the shotgun tradition with bedrooms off to the side for privacy. The Calliope was clearly a place where people could prosper.
St. Monica’s was the Catholic school that served the Calliope community. Over the years, St. Monica’s produced more than its share of outstanding alumni. During the 1940s and ’50s, many of us reached the school by crossing the Melpomene Avenue Canal, crowned by the big maroon-brick pumping station at Broad Street. When the canal waters were low, we took our time on the bridge, dropping rocks into the water to see the ripples. However, on days after heavy rains, when the canal waters lapped the bottom of the wooden bridge at Dorgenois Street, we shuddered as we crossed, grasping the railing, not looking down, and praying no car would drive past us while we were crossing. The brave boys learned how to swim in the canal. Most of the girls didn’t know how to swim, since swimming in canals was taboo, and there was no swimming pool for blacks in the neighborhood.
At Christmas, everyone received bikes or skates. Bicycle kids were considered the rich, lucky ones. Still, during the Christmas vacation, the grind of skates on the streets resounded from the morning hours until dinner time. Daredevil skaters would grab the fender of a moving car and hang on for the free ride. Enterprising skaters would build their own vehicles, utilizing the skates that Santa had left and crates discarded by local businesses. The resulting go-cart was an SUV of wooden crate design, since it used at least two pairs of skates. With bottle caps as decoration, even simple scooters could be personalized and adorned.
Mardi Gras was another big celebration in the neighborhood. Dressed in our costumes, my sisters and I gathered on the stoop right after breakfast. From there, we watched the neighborhood’s Indians come and go. The tavern across the street from my father’s drugstore was a toasting spot; there, right in front of our house, the spy boy would run ahead to check for marauders. Occasionally, an Indian gathering would get rambunctious, and blood would spill. My father would patch them up and send them on their way. We always caught the tail end of the parades on Carnival Day because my father kept his drugstore open until 2 p.m. We never minded. By the time we saw the Rex parade, the float riders and the beads were scraggly anyway. They could not compare to Calliope frontier warriors.
During pre-television days, the whole neighborhood went to the movies on the weekends. Most of us attended the Gem Theater on Thalia Street, where shoot-’em-ups reigned. The Gem is where Aaron Neville learned to yodel listening to Gene Autry. During evening intermissions at the Gem, the packed audience would listen in complete silence for their ticket numbers, to be called; the Gem awarded door prizes that included generous amounts of cash. One night I held one of the lucky numbers and proudly went up to claim a bottle of Gallo wine that was nearly as tall as I was. My mother, worried about the family reputation, tried to physically restrain me, but I had won my bottle fair and square. The stage announcer apparently didn’t relish the idea of a 10-year-old appearing in the local newspaper holding a bottle of wine, so he quickly steered me and my winning bottle off into the wings. I brought the bottle to school the next day and gave it to the nuns for altar wine.
Two prominent features of the Calliope that boosted the pride of the community were the Booker T. Washington High School and the Rosenwald Gym and Playground. The high-school auditorium hosted many of the black community’s major events – recitals, talent contests, fashion shows and concerts. The New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony performed there regularly, offering black children their first taste of classical music. Black high-school musicians fiercely competed there for citywide awards. An event at the auditorium signaled dress-up time. On the other hand, casual fun reigned at the Rosenwald Gym, which opened in 1949. The neighborhood boys and girls finally could learn to swim in a first-class swimming pool, instead of the Melpomene Canal.
The Calliope expanded in the mid-1950s, and the family house and drugstore fell to eminent domain. My father never got over the fact that his property ended up being green space in the project annex. He felt that the Calliope project could have been expanded around his property. Our home and business moved a few blocks over to Washington Avenue in the Broadmoor district, but we mourned our distance from the Calliope community. Some of the old customers made the trek to the new store for its special ice-cream malts and friendly credit practices.
After college, I accepted my first assignment teaching foreign languages at Booker T. Washington High School. I was back home in the Calliope.