The Bywater: Not so Black and White
One of the glass-is-half-full things about being homeless* is that we get to live in a lot of different neighborhoods. The week after next, we’re staying in the Bywater. Yesterday we walked down there from Canal Street to check it out.
My college boyfriend used to stay in the Bywater when we were students at Loyola. I was living in Gentilly and would make the drive from St. Cecilia to my Aunt Velma’s nearly every night. Velma was old, white and working class New Orleans. She warned me about the “coloreds.” She said I had to be careful.
But, yesterday, we walked up Royal Street busy with funky cafes, Ironworks and artist studios. I had to look up the term “gentrification” because I’m not exactly sure if that’s what’s happening to this neighborhood. Some parts have been cleaned up and artified. There’s still a lot of rough texture, though, abandoned buildings and senseless murders.
A lot of people that we meet encourage us to move to the Bywater when we get off the homeless boat. Many of these people are white, educated, professionals who came down here post Katrina to volunteer. They fell in love with the city and the neighborhood they were helping to rebuild and stayed. One woman told me that her windows are screwed shut. That she would love to open them during this fall weather, but she’s afraid. I wanted to tell her that we did just such a thing 20 years ago at an Uptown dinner party, and two kids came in with a gun and took our cash, our jewelry and our pecan pie. The fear can take you to horrible places.
As we walked up St. Claude Ave. after dark, I felt a little afraid. But what I felt more was a sense of freedom. There is nothing like walking through a neighborhood at night to make you feel alive. We passed some amazing locations for our film. People, mostly black people, were sitting out on their stoops, hanging around, enjoying the evening. (Here’s one difference between the blacks and the whites in New Orleans. Black people say “hello, how you doin’?” to strangers passing by their doorstep. White people don’t.)
I’m thinking long and hard about the old fear these days. It’s not so black and white. It has something to do with freedom, but I can’t really work it out yet. It has something to do with responsibility. Since I’ve come home to New Orleans, I’ve met people of many races, many religions and of many classes. I have been treated fairly and respectfully by every one of them.
New Orleans is a lovely city without fear. But, beware that chilly side. It will seduce you too.
*Patrick has asked me to footnote any mention of our homelessness with the fact that we have been homeless by choice since July 23, 2008. It is a somewhat experimental lifestyle, one of the aims of which is to limit our impact on the environment.