Akasha suggested I take a two-by-four with me when I walked to the liquor store for a bottle of wine last night, and she wasn’t completely unserious. We’ve been meaning to get a baseball bat to keep by the bed in the event of an intruder, but for now a piece of lumber from our neighbor’s dismantled doorframe has sufficed—not that we’ve had to use it, of course; it functions more like a night light than an actual safety precaution, although its nice to know I’d at least have the chance to go down swinging. I told her I couldn’t possibly bring the two-by-four with me to the liquor store, though—not because it’s a bad idea to carry a protective instrument along with you at night around where we live, but what kind of psychopath would I have looked like walking into a liquor store with a two-by-four?

Some friends of ours were somewhat appalled when we told them our decision to move out of the Marigny further away from “civilization” into the Bywater, near the corner of Burgundy and France Streets. They had lived near that very intersection just after Katrina until 2007, and finally moved out because of the crime.

“The thing about France Street is,” my friend said, “It ain’t France.”

The issue our neighborhood faces is not unlike the one Arizona faces: We’re an area with relative wealth that shares a border with an area of relative poverty. Across St. Claude Avenue from the Marigny and Bywater lies St. Roch and some other neighborhoods I don’t even know the names of. Technically, the neighborhood north of the Bywater across St. Claude is apparently called the “Florida Development Neighborhood,” although I’ve sure as shit never heard anyone refer to it as that. Usually, it’s just called the Bywater, but “the other side of St. Claude.” You’ll even see that caveat wryly inserted into Craigslist postings for Bywater apartment rentals that seem underpriced: “And yes, it’s on ‘the other side’ of St. Claude, which explains why rent is so cheap.” Still, unlike Arizona, we’ve yet to pass a neighborhood mandate allowing cops to stop and frisk anyone who might be an illegal immigrant—the people presently moving into the Bywater look nothing like most of the people who commit crimes there, and it would be unfair to legalize the harassment of the poor blacks who are already being displaced.

While he was living with us, Mike Abu hung out a few nights with some punk rock kids he’d met who were squatting in a house somewhere in St. Roch or its neighbor on the upriver side, Treme. His friend with whom he went there had planned on moving into the squat earlier that month, but decided against it when one of its tenants was murdered. The kids talked about the machine gun fire they’d heard the night before with the same nonchalance they intoned to discuss different methods of hoisting their dogs into moving boxcars. They had set up a hotline that people could call who were biking through that part of town and became lost—rather than venture too far in the wrong direction, someone would bike to where you were and escort you out.

It’s not really the crime, per se, that makes living around here tough, but the crime’s residual effects. Our friends who moved out of the Bywater said they were simply sick of talking about it. It was the topic of conversation at every gathering of neighbors—who had been mugged, what had been stolen, who had known someone who was killed. It just became a drag after a while—a bore in the worst way.

They finally decided to move out because of Helen Hill. In the first week of 2007 a spate of killings rocked New Orleans, prompting thousands to march on City Hall. One victim during this time was filmmaker and activist Helen Hill, a Harvard and CalArts grad who along with her doctor husband worked on a variety of community-building projects to help revive the city after Katrina. Early one January morning some assailant who has never been found attempted to rob a bed and breakfast three doors down from Helen’s house, and failing that, ran through two backyards into Helen’s, where she was overseeing a bowel movement of her potbellied pig. The assailant shot and killed Helen, then shot and wounded her husband, barely missing their infant son in his arms. The house in which Helen was murdered is next door to the one in which Akasha and I live. We read about the crime on an old Crimestoppers poster hung on the wall of a party across the street, and then noticed the address. I asked the present tenant of that house if he knew about Helen. He said he’d found out after moving in, but not to fear: He works for the D.A., and owns a gun.

I wouldn’t call the neighborhood where we live a “bad neighborhood”—if I did, what title would I reserve for neighborhoods like St. Roch? It’s better than the parts of Humboldt Park where Akasha and I lived in Chicago—that’s a city that controls the divides between rich and poor, and makes sure they’re nice and gradual. There are acres and acres of far scarier places in Chicago than the ones you’d encounter in New Orleans—but they’re off the map to privileged white people, except when Bob Herbert writes about them.

No, our neighborhood isn’t a bad neighborhood. It—and the whole city—has come a long way since 2007. But it’s one in which your carelessness will be exploited. I locked my bike up outside overnight for a few weeks, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when its back wheel was missing one morning. A neighbor was held at knifepoint while riding her bike home from work, but the shocking news made more sense when I learned she was wearing her waitress uniform, indicating to all that she was carrying a wad of cash tips. More than Chicago, all this reminds me of Buenos Aires, where talking loud drunk American or wearing iPod headphones in desolate streets late at night made targets out of more than one of my friends. If you look like a target around here, you’re likely to become one. But that’s still no excuse to walk into a liquor store brandishing a two-by-four.

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