This is the first house my future husband and I lived in the Milneburg section of New Orleans. It was a rental house, but plenty large for two people. It looked differently then. It was painted a faded sky-blue color, there were shrubs and lush St. Augustine grass. We could sit on the front steps and hand out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters. Wave at old people driving by, or just read the Times-Picayune and sip coffee on a lazy Sunday morning.
There was no high water mark from a broken levee’, uplifted sidewalk, or new construction next door then. A friend’s aunt lived in a nice middle-class brick house to the right. Another Texaco employee lived down the block and rode his bike all the way into town through crazy, dangerous traffic. Friends lived blocks away, and I could ride my big chunky old fashioned bike to their houses.
UNO geology graduate school classmates of my future husband lived close by, as did professors who taught at UNO. On day our landlady decided she wanted her house back, and since we were on a month to month lease, we had little recourse when she booted us out.
Despite the unfriendly neighbors across the street who let their Miniature Collies poop all over our yard, it was a nice neighborhood. I was sad to go. We knew it was the end of an era when we found a new house across the expanse of the Pontchartrain bridges that crossed from Metairie to Mandeville. We didn’t know it was just another step towards an exodus away from New Orleans.
I don’t know what happened to our old landlady if she was still living there when Katrina hit. It was over 14 years later, so who knows. Going by the house where we’d first lived is painful. A lot of the neighborhood we knew is gone, destroyed by flood waters, and some big houses have gone up. Some houses sit abandoned after initial repairs had been started. The aunt’s sturdy brick house is gone as if it never existed.
Our little house had a wonderful picture window, later replaced with something more practical. A lot of hard work had gone into reclaiming it, despite the mold stains on the front siding. The rest of the house looked beautiful but empty. I looked at the back steps and remembered a lush potted garden of fresh herbs that once grew there.
People from outside of Louisiana look at pictures of new construction in New Orleans, and they think Katrina is done. Erased. She’s gone, but still felt. This house that once was a home to us is a metaphor. From the people who escaped and returned to rebuild, the struggle to find a new normal, and the tenacity of a people who chose to live below sea level. In an environment hostile to humans and other species.
New Orleans will survive. She always has, changing, evolving, surviving, and I will love and miss her every day of my life.