Archives for posts with tag: new orleans

The girl looks like a gangster’s girlfriend—I’m not sure how else to put it. The blonde breathiness, slyness of eyes, the fancy dress (slightly out of fashion)—all these made her seem like a person who people liked to involve in things. So it didn’t surprise anyone the first night she came around and started talking about a murder.

Really, though, she’s just a college kid, moved to the Big Easy to make it big in movies. Sure, she dates a weed dealer who makes her hold product when things get hot, but on a scale of girls I’ve known in over their heads, she rates kids play.

The details are fuzzy, of course. But what happened was essentially somebody tried to rob Chico and Chico left the guy’s burned body in the swamp. I guess this girl was there, or next door. Or her friend was, but the cops told her friend to leave town or she did so out of her own good sense, so now this girl—we’ll call her Kim—has to tell the tale. The guy broke into Chico’s house with a gun while everyone was partying, and Chico caught him, tied him up, and put a bag over his head.

I have no clue what Chico’s deal is—whether he’s a dealer or a fence or a veterinarian—but he was real casual when he showed the girl the guy tied up, sobbing with a bag on his head. He showed her to let her know there wasn’t going to be any more trouble. Like, we can all chill out and finish snorting this cocaine because the guy who came into my house with a gun is now on the floor of my bedroom with a bag over his head sobbing. He won’t disrupt the party anymore.

Unfortunately for Chico, he was not partying with people who are cool snorting lines while a guy is tied up with a bag on his head on the floor next to them (or even in the other room) sobbing. So, actually, the guy did disrupt the party even more, because Kim and her friend left. Then Chico killed the guy and set his body on fire in the swamp.

Now Chico’s gone, to Cuba, or to stay with his daughter in San Francisco, and this girl with a dyed blonde perm is telling us all this on the balcony of a bar across town from where it all happened. It’s a crazy story but I don’t think much of it.

Then last night we were walking on Chartres between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields, and another friend of Kim’s, who had partied with Chico’s, pointed out his house. It had a fumigation rig and an industrial mop bucket on the porch. The mail box was full of mail. We walked around the corner and found this sign on the streetlight. We tore it down and took it home and everyone had nightmares.


Update (Oct. 21, 2010): An article in today’s Times Picayune reinforces this post’s theory of the dangerousness of Saints fanatics after a loss: Three Saints fans were so enraged over losing to the Dallas Cowboys last season that they drug a calf from a petting zoo and beat it to death. The men currently face animal cruelty charges.

A dark and foreboding storm swirls violently on the horizon. It threatens not the levees of New Orleans, the delicate ecology of the Gulf Coast nor the various industries upon which Louisiana’s economy depends. But after five years of agonizing and fitful rebuilding of a destroyed, abandoned and demoralized city, one scenario could potentially wreak such violent and terrible havoc on the collective psyche of New Orleans that a doomsday, category-five hurricane that finishes what Katrina started might be preferred: a series of humiliating losses by the New Orleans Saints.

(Okay, fine. A Saints loss is better than a hurricane, but the possibility of either one fills me with dread.)

People here say the Saints winning the Super Bowl did more for racial reconciliation in New Orleans than anything since Civil Rights. White and black, rich and poor—we’re all on the same team come game time. There’s also the distinct sense that the rise of the world-champion team corresponded with the rebirth of the city post-Katrina: After 30 years of being losers, the team’s owner nearly moved the Saints to San Antonio when the Superdome became a refugee camp; he acceded to popular outcry and returned the team to New Orleans for the 2006 season, which also marked the New Orleans debut of quarterback Drew Brees, whose rivals for most-loved individual in the region pale beneath his charms and well-toned throwing arm. Brees and the Saints’ rise to heroship paralleled the city’s renewal, and their Super Bowl victory was universally understood as distinct and unquestionable proof that New Orleans had accomplished the unimaginable, and pulled itself up from a watery grave, finally, to its feet. The Christ-ressurection innuendoes run thick, especially in a city of Catholics cheering for a team called the Saints.

Grown men wept with joy and embraced in the streets when the Saints won. Afterward, crime dropped low and spirits ran high. The long off-season felt like afterglow. The Who Dat nation reigned supreme, and as the new season approached Saints fans remained boastful, enthused and optimistic. But the foundation upon which this newfound self-confidence was built is as fickle as the swamp upon which the city sits, and which causes New Orleans’ streets to bulge and crack, the door and window frames of its homes to shift and stand askew. So much of New Orleans’ happiness depends on Saints victories, with little to undergird citywide emotional well-being in the event of heartbreaking defeat.

But it’s not only the potential of severe and widespread unhappiness and depression that worries me. People in New Orleans get crazy. This is a violent town, where anger always simmers (with reason) among the poor. Freaking out in public is a common occurrence, and indiscriminate shootings are far less unheard of than one would like. I’m afraid that if the Saints have a bad season, more than one person will pay with their lives.

I took some visiting friends to my favorite place in New Orleans the night of the Saints’ first regular-season game. It’s a backyard pizza operation that conducts business just one night a week, and purposefully keeps its online presence to a minimum. Pizza night usually features live music—mostly ragtag bands of players from established Frenchmen Street groups testing out new combos—but even my gourmet bohemian paradise was not outside Saints-mania’s reach: Instead of a band they had rigged up a projector to show the game on a sheet on the fence. My friends and I sat at one of the establishment’s signature wobbly tables cobbled together out of plywood and tree branches, paying as little attention to football as possible, despite the animated fan behind me. Casual observation placed him at about 40 years of age, and probably a lifelong resident of the shitty neighborhood in which pizza night takes place. He hooted and hollered and who-datted with gusto, and groaned when the opposing team marched upfield for their only touchdown of the game, which I watched on instant replay. The avid fan turned to me and held out his hand, indicating he expected a high-five. I obliged, somewhat confused. As we mutually gripped each other’s mandibles in the custom of these parts, his grip grew tight.

“For that,” he said, nodding toward the sheet.

“For that?” I said. I saw the enemy’s touchdown replayed.

“Fuck you, man,” he said. “I’m sick of this shit.” He turned around.

Sometimes things happen that are so out of step with your understanding of the world’s social construction that when your brain attempts to locate an appropriate reaction it comes up with the equivalent of an “Error” message, and you have no choice but to move forth in life as if the event had never happened, giving yourself time to consider other worldviews in an effort to make sense of it. Weeks after this particular occasion, the only conclusion I have come back to repeatedly is that, at the prompt of a touchdown against the Saints, this man had gone temporarily insane. I don’t know whether he thought I had been quietly and secretly cheering for the opposing team and his hand-clap trap was a way of outing me, or the “shit” he was “sick of” was my apparent non-anguish at the prospect of enemy gains. Either way, I can imagine his paranoid delusions replicated and intensified in the event of a serious Saints loss to the point of friends turning on each other in rage, drunken mobs destroying sports bars, and Bourbon Street going up in the flames of a riot.

The players of the New Orleans Saints have to know that their performance dramatically influences the welfare of their city, and I suspect that teams across the country know it, too. I can’t imagine anyone besides the same assholes who argued that New Orleans shouldn’t have been rebuilt post-Katrina not being touched by last year’s Cinderella season, and even diehard fans of opposing franchises rooting for the Saints under their breaths, because they knew the team’s undertaking was something much larger than football. But the characteristically short American memory will have forgotten any sympathy it held for the Saints nine months ago, and will view them only as the current champs—a role that our King of the Hill mentality always makes everyone’s favorite target. I’m not a fan of football but I’m a fan of the Saints, because I live in New Orleans and care about her. No city’s quality of life so sways with the whims of the sports gods as New Orleans, so for my sake and the sake of all those around me, I wish the team the best of luck, and hope for a successful season.

Who Dat!

I stepped in gum on my way to a poetry reading this weekend. I was baffled and infuriated: First, who chews gum? Where are these ditzy blonde secretaries or sleazy agents in wraparound shades that, to my knowledge, are the only people left on the planet who get a kick out of gnawing Juicy Fruit? I’ve never seen anyone like that in New Orleans.

Second, who does not know the obvious result of discarding gum on the ground, the prolonged aggravation some innocent walker-by will undergo while having to scrape something impossibly both rock-hard and grossly gooey from the bottom of his shoe? Whoever spat it: Let him be hanged.

My aggravation was not totally a result of the gum. The poetry reading I went to intended to recognize the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was Sunday, and among those featured was Yusef Komunyakaa—a Louisiana native now living in New York and a poet recently of great interest to me. Of course, in a gesture that affirms the robust humility that seethes from his work, Komunyakaa volunteered to read among the first poets instead of in the “headlining” spot at the end, where he belonged. And, of course, me—I’m always late for everything. He had finished by the time we got there.

I retreated to the bathroom after the event in search of some privacy in which I could attempt to chisel the remainder of the gum off my shoe—that which I hadn’t already rubbed into the fine fibers of Tulane’s auditorium’s carpet. I was leaning on a sink, making good progress, when I realized someone was in the bathroom with me, in a stall.

I began to daydream that it was Komunyakaa, and that after all I had gone through—the long wait at the sandwich shop which made us late in the first place; the drive across town during which I listened intently (obsessively?) to the noises my car made that increasingly suggest I’m going to need new struts; the rain; the gum on my shoe; missing Komunyakaa; Brenda Marie Osbey’s over-zealous expositing of mediocre verse; the bored, pompous look on Peter Cooley’s face throughout—this journey would have an extraordinary element after all. Komunyakaa would emerge from the stall while my foot was still in the air, my sole toward my face, gum in plain sight. I would glance up and recognize him, and he would see that I recognized him but that I was not overly awed or nervous in his intimate presence. He would gather that I’d read his work and appreciated it, and then he would look at the gray gum on my shoe and back up at me, and there would be a knowing connection between us.

In his effortless baritone he would tell me a story of how, once in Bogalusa when he was a boy, he too had memorably stepped on a piece of gum. The story would take place on a hot, muggy day, and would likely involve his father. It would illuminate the way in which we often learn one thing from a person who’s trying to teach us something completely different—or, how the lessons we receive from our well-meaning elders take on new shapes and proportions as they grow inside us during our path to adulthood. It would end with some line that would make me long for home, because I, like Komunyakaa, grew up in a small, crappy town and spent a good part of my life struggling to put it behind me, only to realize that this was impossible. He would only take a few sentences to achieve all this, and then he would wash his hands and walk out.

A college student in sandals and a white t-shirt was awkwardly maneuvering around me. I was blocking the paper towels. I put my foot back on the floor and returned to the lobby, where I ate a plate of complimentary salad.

That the mantra “Keep Austin Weird” transitioned from the battle cry of the Texas college town’s fringe elements to the official slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance seems a fitting coda to the glory days celebrated in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, as well as an explicit rebuttal of the mantra itself. Perhaps compared to the rest of Texas, Austin is pretty “weird” (I wouldn’t know—I’ve never set foot in the state), but for a person fresh off a month-long stretch of debauchery in New Orleans—a city that maintains its substantial weirdness effortlessly—Austin is about as straight-laced as anywhere else in the Lonestar State.

Mike Abu recently sent me this account of the defining moment during his short stop in Austin, which includes the reasons why he’ll never be caught in that town again:

“If I get used to being treated like an adult, shit could get dangerous.”

I was telling a bartender at the R Bar in New Orleans that getting used to the city’s wonderfully lackadaisical liquor laws was an incredibly bad thing for a person like me.

I wasn’t lying. In New Orleans, I could skate down a dilapidated street with a half-finished bottle of cabernet, walk into some watering hole with said bottle of wine, finish it while discussing Wittgenstein with some scumbag, buy a whiskey on the rocks, potentially bothering to put it in a to-go cup before heading back out on the sidewalk in search of another opportunity to crash my skateboard.

I drove to Austin with some Australian kid who I met on Craigslist rideshare (yo, what up my man Simon), and found myself alone in front of some bar hosting a Japanther show. I was more than a little lonely at that moment, and I started text messaging my ex-girlfriend. We were at a stage somewhere between full and zero communication, and I kept writing and deleting words in a desperate attempt at finding something to say that didn’t expose how ridiculous I felt. I kept doing that for about ten minutes, typing and erasing, before being rudely interrupted.

“Hey guy, what are you doing with that beer out here?”

Two Austin city police officers stood over me. Apparently I had wandered outside of the gates with my beer in hand.

Apparently this was a Big Deal.

As the police shined their flashlights into my eyes, my mind went blank save for the line my former band mate Brian and I had practiced while drinking tallboys in an alley way back in Salt Lake. Without hesitation, I told the cops the unequivocal truth:

“I’m not gonna lie to you Officers—this isn’t my beer. Some guy just handed it to me and ran off that way.”

The cops were less than impressed. I probably fucked up by not saying the guy who had handed it to me was Mexican. They started going on about how Austin laws state that any person holding or in close proximity to a beer is held responsible for it, thus making me the guardian of said alcoholic beverage (Lonestar) and therefore a “law-breaker.”

“We were gonna let you go, but you tried to pull a fast one on us,” said young cop, who probably wasn’t old enough to buy beer to begin with, fresh from a police academy that clearly wasn’t as awesome as the movies would have you believe. “Now you’re in trouble.”

“Okay, it’s my beer,” I said. “I was just joking. I just got back from New Orleans and must have gotten use to standing outside with a beer, plus I was just trying to text message my ex-girlfriend.” I showed Old Cop my phone. Young Cop started rattling off how much crime happened in the neighborhood, how some girl had gotten raped on those steps over there, how hard it was keeping the citizens of Austin in line while all they wanted to do was hang out.

“You wanna talk crime?” I said as I pointed across the street towards a gas station where I had bought a tallboy earlier. “Three dollars for a tallboy is straight robbery!”

The cops were still unimpressed.

“Listen, you seem like a nice kid,” Old Cop said as he shoved a ticket in my face for me to sign, “we’re gonna cut you a break—we’ll make this ticket for Austin only so you don’t have to worry about any warrants in other parts of Texas.”

Suddenly I felt less oppressed.

“Wait a minute, you’re telling me that if I sign this ticket and never pay the fine that I’ll be rewarded by never having to come back here again?”

I said this honestly.

“Well, not exactly, I mean, you’ll still have to—”

“—that’s what you mean, right?”

“Well, not exactly, um, you can still come down and explain yourself in court—”

“I’ll take it!” I said as I signed the ticket. I had already decided that there was absolutely no reason for me to ever go to Texas again, and this glorious ticket gave me a practical reason to ensure I kept my promise to myself. I headed back into the bar, bought a t-shirt from the Japanther merch booth that said “Fuck the Cops,” jumped on stage and filmed the band while a bunch of cute girls danced alongside me. Afterwards I said what up to Japanther and had them sign my open container ticket.


Whoops indeed.

The two-by-fours I used to build this desk once belonged to our neighbors on Rampart Street. I never knew them well, but when they moved out they offered us what they had left. These particular boards comprised makeshift doorframes in their apartment—like our apartment, theirs came with no doors.

Most residences you find in New Orleans are shotgun-style homes—long, narrow layouts, one room wide and four or five rooms deep, sometimes mirrored by an adjacent apartment to form a “shotgun double.” The design is ideal to battle heat, with high ceilings and a straight shot between the front and back doors. The heat is so intense here and the air so damp and lifeless that effective ventilation requires as few obstructions to air flow as possible, so shotgun rooms open up one into another, often with no hallways and no pesky doors.

Even if you have not lived in a shotgun with roommates you might imagine that along with the liberated breeze wafting from one room to the next are the sounds and smells and the existential presence of your cohabitator(s). We had two long-term guests crash at Rampart Street apartment, neither of whom kept a day-job schedule like Akasha and I. This resulted for our guests in many unlit creeping trips to the kitchen through our room while we were falling asleep, and for us many long, quiet leg stretches as we stepped silently over their sprawled bodies while they slept through the mornings on the floor.

There was also very little sex. For anybody. For obvious reasons. These are the types of things that, in the age of air conditioning, induce the desire for doors.

Shotgun houses are much more suited for couples than they are for roommates, and because of this, for a while, our neighbors had far less need for doors. One afternoon the young lady of the house told me the reason they were moving out was because what had begun as an innocent Craigslist roommate arrangement became a love affair they couldn’t sustain. She had returned to Louisiana from a year traveling in Mexico and could not go back to her hometown Baton Rouge without seriously compromising her dignity and psychological well-being, so she dropped into New Orleans. She had auditioned several potential housemates and the one she settled on seemed the sanest—a movie lighting technician from New York on hiatus to work on a film script. The two became quick friends, then lovers. I imagine the doors he had built to accommodate her when she first move in stayed open for a while. Then they realized that what they felt for each other was serious, and they were both too young for anything like what they were getting into. The doors closed again, and they went their separate ways.

I built this desk last week, and after five months in New Orleans I finally have a place to sit and write. Akasha and I have a new apartment (farewell Rampart Street! farewell mice, roaches and shitty fatass landladies!), and one of its most appealing points is a room I quickly recognized and claimed as an office. I have grand plans for it, and a desk is a start. Its raw wood finish doesn’t do much to repel red wine, which I’m sure will become an issue at some point, but I’m reticent to stain it or coat it with veneer. It doesn’t have the aged or “distressed” look of, say, my bookcase, because unlike the lumber I used for that project this wasn’t gutted out of some hurricane-ravaged house. Still, though, it certainly qualifies as reused, whether it looks the part or not. When I sit down to my desk I can think of the door frames it once made, the doors that swung open and shut on them, and if I’m feeling sentimental I can imagine my old neighbors peeking past this very wood at each other, having just moved in together, wondering with nervous excitement whether the other also feels the rushing onset of smittenness.

A couple weeks ago I received a brief email from a friend of a friend asking if I might answer a few questions regarding New Orleans’ “literary scene” for the blog attached to Fictionaut. I was tempted to admit that I’d only lived in the city for a few months and was therefore probably not the best person to ask about such things, but the sparse punctuation and complete lack of capitalization in her request indicated that this probably wasn’t the most serious undertaking, and I’m always happy to offer an opinion.

So, she sent me her questions, I sent her my answers, and she edited my answers down into a single answer and posted it with some other answers to other questions that she had asked a writer who spends time in Haiti and another who started a Fictionaut group that has something to do with the Gulf oil spill. You can read that post here. Below, I’ve posted the complete set of answers I sent her.

whats the word on new orleans re: post-katrina literary world. i heard an influx of hipsters moved down in solidarity to volunteer their help. true or untrue? if true, has there been a change in the literary scene?

True. Lots of young people have moved to New Orleans since Katrina to participate in the rebuilding of the city. Some are hip, and others are not hip. Some help out “rebuilding” in literal ways, like volunteering to build green homes or starting entrepreneurial ventures or nonprofits, and others just sort of figure that adding themselves to the mix as bright, motivated, intelligent people is good enough. I saw a clever advertisement for the University of New Orleans the other day that showed a picture of a smart-looking girl and it said, “She’s part of the BRAIN GAIN.” There’s even a nonprofit here whose sole function is to keep all the people who have moved here post-Katrina from moving away.

As far as the literary world goes, I would say that it has not been tremendously affected by the influx of hipsters … yet. Remember Adorno’s idea about writing poetry after the Holocaust? People had other things to do after Katrina besides write fiction and poetry, on top of the psychological trauma. In fact, Anne Gisleson, a writer who runs a cool gallery/publishing house here called Press Street, said in an interview that she even stopped reading fiction for a long time after Katrina.

There are some stirrings, though. The best example of good new blood I can think of is Paul Killebrew, a young poet and attorney who recently released a book with Canarium and also recently moved here to work for the Innocence Project New Orleans. Lots of people have been coming through, too, some as a residual result of the storm: Dave Eggers taught a master class last year at NOCCA and did some other stuff with the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival; Deb Olin Unferth is (tentatively) coming to teach a master class at NOCCA this upcoming year; Amy Hempel recently completed a residency at Tulane; and an outstanding unknown writer and generally all-around great guy named Nate Martin has really been shaking things up and doing good for the community.

All that said, people in New Orleans are kind of tired of hearing about all this post-Katrina blah blah blah. Seriously, it was in 2005. Get over it. Mary Robison got away with publishing a post-Katrina book last year only because she’s Mary Robison. I met a Bosnian filmmaker named Mirko Rucnov who’s working on a film set in post-Katrina New Orleans and he’s getting away with it only because he was a war refugee and can perhaps bring a perspective on trauma, displacement and loss that differs from David Simon’s. In case y’all hadn’t heard, there’s a new catastrophe that’s devastating the Gulf Coast AT THIS MOMENT. Sure, a lot of New Orleans is still deeply scarred by Katrina, but we have no choice but to move on.

how has literacy in new orleans changed if at all since katrina?

Literacy, yeah … hmmm … I think it was at 40 percent in 2005, which made aid difficult to distribute in some areas of the city because people couldn’t read the forms they needed to fill out in order to get the aid. I don’t think it is any worse now than it was then, if that’s any consolation. Although I do know that some Vietnamese fishermen who were trying to file for compensation from BP for oil-spill-related losses couldn’t fill out the requisite forms because they couldn’t read English—but I think most of them can read Vietnamese alright, so I believe that’s being somewhat sorted out.

As those of you know who read The Shock Doctrine (or at least made it through the introduction), New Orleans’ school system underwent a radical transformation post-Katrina, as neocons—alongside ordinary people who were exasperated at the thorough and relentless fucking-up that has plagued N.O. public schools throughout history—essentially dissolved the city’s school district in favor of a system dominated by private charter schools overseen by a state board. There are currently more charter schools in New Orleans than in anywhere else in the country. Obviously this divides people along ideological lines, but I think it’s really too early to tell what positive or negative effects this has had on literacy, or education in general.

There are also a number of literacy organizations that have either launched or undergone a rejuvenation with help of federal aid since Katrina. The Louisiana Literacy Alliance is a sort of umbrella organization that pulls a lot of them together, at least informally, and there are smaller independent groups, too. Press Street was running an after-school program for a while, but they’ve yet to restart it since moving to a new space last year. The Neighborhood Story Project is a fruitful undertaking. I talked with some folks at McSweeney’s a while back and they are really interested in launching an 826 center here, but as one might imagine, there are obstacles that make such things difficult (crippling poverty, etc.).

[Addendum: After the interview, I found out that the 40 percent literacy rate was ascertained in a nationwide study that accompanied the 2000 census. A similar study accompanied the 2010 census, but Louisiana did not participate because of a lack of resources.]

what can writers, readers do to help?

Move here. Sure, it’s hot in the summers, the crime is atrocious, and sometimes attaining goods and services is tougher than in other places, but New Orleans is a magical town abounding with amazing sights, sounds, interactions, and activities. My girlfriend and I live in a (veritable) mansion in the coolest neighborhood in the city for $1,000 a month. There’s an incredible insularity to the city’s culture that distinguishes it from the blasé amalgam that you find in much of the rest of America. While most of the country piddles along stagnant or receding, New Orleans is in a period of rebirth. While in New York you can be one in a million and there are still eight of you, in New Orleans you can make a perceptible impact. The city’s strong literary tradition hit a glitch with Katrina, but will soldier forth anew. Perhaps all it needs is you.

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.