Friday, October 05, 2007

In the Wilderness

While the strip of New Orleans' City Park that runs along City Park Avenue is looking something close to its old manicured self--the lawns trimmed and the great oaks leafing out-- if you wander far enough to the north (less than a mile in this 1,300 acre urban greenscape, say north of I-610, you leave behind an urban park and enter a feral urban wilderness where wild boars recently roamed.

I remember a time when much of the north end of City Park was such a place, before the north course or the new driving range on Filmore, a time when Filmore did not bisect the park at all. The land north of the West Course and behind the riding stables was a wilderness of tall grass and weedy trees, camphors and Chinese tallow, a place where packs of wild dogs roamed on well-worn paths. I lived just across Robert E. Lee and would sometimes venture just a short way in. Not too far, for I was young enough to bring Tonka trucks to the great piles of earth that rose up as the lagoons and golf terrain of the North Course were excavated. But I heard the stories from older boys, ones who would venture far into that wild place armed with trusty BB guns.

That tangled wilderness is long gone, just like the ski jump that once sat in the lagoon along Marconi before the Filmore causeway was built, back when water skiers were a frequent fixture on that long and narrow stretch of water. Gone as well is the man who used to launch his amphibious sports car at the same ramp used by the skiers. That was another park, another era, a time like that described by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer, when the girl who rode in passenger seat of that water-born car no doubt wore the same sort of tight, one piece swimsuit as the water skiers, the sort of little skirted number you could trace all the way back to the noses of bombers in the 1940s.

Am I really that old? At fifty, enough people who seemed not so old are suddenly dying off like flies. Its the sort of age when you start to look at the obituary page not because you expect to find friends from high school there, but just to start to place yourself in the mathematical distribution of age and cause of death, to look at those pictures that might have been next to yours in the high school yearbook, to see them depicted in the grey and grainy tones of the photos of ghosts.

I've been in such a rut lately--kids to school, into the swirling vortex at work, back to get kids and run them around in the early evening; chores on Saturday then collapse on Sunday--that I rarely get off my well beaten paths. I noticed those lost golf tracks through the encroaching wilderness just as the subject of the article on the lost world of City Park North did, as I crested the Wisner overpass one recent day as I drove my daughter out to Ben Franklin High School at the lakefront. Crowds of track runners passed bicyclists following a path through the tall grass of the newly wild north side. I need to get out there, I told myself, even before I found the Times-Picayune article I missed courtesy of Bayou St. John David.

Driving my daughter to Franklin on Saturday (my wife's weekday chore), I found myself taking a wander through another bit of urban wilderness: Gentilly. As I wandered down Mirabeau on my way over to St. Roch, I was struck as always unrelieved prospect of desolation. So little has changed since I came home last year. Sure, there are new debris piles as I travel around Mid-City and Broadmoor, and yard signs pop up touting this or that contractor along the way. It is not as if I don't know that I live in a disaster zone. Still, I might as well be living on Audubon Place for all I get out into the real Debrisville lately. It would be so easy to stay in settled Mid-City or the sliver by the river and forget just how desolate some neighborhoods remain.

City Park may be hauntingly beautiful in its slow decay back into a natural state, but Gentilly is not beautiful, even in a haunting way: haunted is more like it. I almost forgot how disconcerting those empty blocks can be, ones where sagging houses stare through glassless windows onto unkempt lawns in a scene that seems to repeat infinitely to the horizon like a trick with two mirrors. Has it really been more than two years, and so little done? Did Berlin look like this in 1947? Hiroshima? Is this how far we've fallen in one or two generations, that we leave half an American city to rot, its people scattered? We are not as our mothers and fathers were, not by a long shot. The World War II museum here should close as a matter of general principle, lest the few remaining survivors of that conflict come by and confront what a failure the nation they once served has become.

Some of the city, I fear, will ultimately revert just as the park has. I worry about the hardiest pioneers on the frontiers north and east along the lake. Here from my little atoll of City Park, at the edge of the archipelago of dry spots sometimes called the Isle of Orleans, I wonder as I did a year and a half ago how those who return to the emptiest neighborhoods will cope. The idyllic neighborhood of flowerbeds and children on bicycles they remember are gone, replaced by a wilderness that lacks the beauty of City Park's rampant greenery, but instead offers a parade of peeling sideboards that reminds one of the abandoned farmsteads along rural roads, signposts along a way of life that no longer exists; the greying brick facades which smack of the stone piles by the side of the road one finds in Europe, the leavings of cultures past.

These dark thoughts swarm around me like termites around the glaring lights of Metairie, engulf me sometimes like that first measure of syrupy weather as you step out of the cold airplane just arrived from the chilly north and step into home, into New Orleans. Yes, much of this place is trying to revert to the wilderness settled by our families hundreds of years before.

Still, it is the landscape we know, the one we have glimpsed driving down Highway 300 to the End of the Earth Marina, the barrenness vaguely familiar to those of us old enough to remember when there was were raw new subdivisions west of Causeway but this side of the airport, when the East was the empty land between Chef Menteur and Morrison Road.

It is not the wilderness I wandered in for nineteen years, the place we call America. I've lived in places where culture was an ad in the newspaper listing a half-dozen events in a year at the local college, where the restaurants were all careful clones of someone's imagined Italy or Mexico replicated a thousand times over. Life was safe there, predictable. I could plot my future out with the certainly of someone who knows how many more trips to the store it would take to collect enough Yellow or Green Stamps to claim that RV at the back of the redemption catalog.

It was not terrible there. To suggest otherwise would not be fair to the people who lived there, the ones who marched on St. Patrick's Day in D.C. or danced on Syttende Mai in the Nordic Midwest. To them, it was home. Over time it became to me a flat landscape without relief, the desert of the Isrealites without the comfort of a fanatically certain Moses, or even the wan light of a volcano bellowing a column of fire in the distance.

There is a certain safety in the cities of the diaspora. I know that, having found it a dozen years ago not far from the other end of the Mississippi. But at some point the wilderness will find you, even as it creeps over the greens of City Park or claims abandoned bungalows in Gentilly. Even among the high rises of Atlanta or Houston the same chill feeling the endless steppes of North Dakota sometimes stirred in me will grab a hold of you, will make you wonder why you stay there. Over time the void that can't be filled anywhere else will overpower all the reasons to stay away, and the growing wild places of New Orleans will be reclaimed by those who left, or by their children.

I may not live to see that day, but I am as certain as Moses that it will come to pass--if not for me then for my children. And that is enough.

Though I may not always comment, your posts always resonate so much with me. I'm 5 years younger than you but I remember a lot of the scenes your memory conjures. The nostalgia has had quite a hold on me of late.

When I was about 5 years old, I improvised a song about Pop's Fountain during one of my brother's band rehearsals in our garage. (Somewhere a tape of this exists and I hope to find it one day.) To me, that spot was like a secret, enchanted place, hidden away from the world. (This was before I-610 was built.) I've spent a lot of time lately in the north end of the park. It's a great place to give an unlicensed driver (my son) some low-risk time behind the wheel. And again, the fountain and its surroundings seem like part of a long, lost world with stories it may never again tell.
Wow, Pop's Fountain, now that hasn't popped up on my radar for some reason even as I was doing the same thing with my 15 year old daughter (has your son hit the giant pothole on the Golf Drive/610 Underpass yet?).

Pops was a little further than I was wont to wander even a an older kid, when we would trace the edges of the bayous as far as Harrison but rarely further on aimless kid rambles of the sort video games seem to have effectively ended forever.

I think we need to tell the stories of the things that were slipping away even before The Event (my mother's preferred term), and are crumbing even faster now. Someday our current aimless ables down memory lane may be all that's left. (Google City Park lagoon water skiers. My post in 2006 and this one seem to be about it. Not even so much as a Blake Pontchartrain column.)
Warrington is the most forgotten tragic street in the City.

Gentilly is really battered.
There are stretches between Robert E. Lee and Filmore, especially off of the main thoroughfares, that almost make be cry every time I pass. And I pass them a lot, living right on the border between the "settled or in progress" and the "nothing happening".
A voice cries out in the wilderness, "Am I really that old?"
"Yes," was the answer.
I think you, Lisa and Pudden should put your memories into a book. I so love reading your Nola reminisces....makes me feel like I was here back then.

And hasn't anyone told you.....50 is the new 40! ;)
That would be one helluva boring book, least my section would be, anyway. LOL

Oh...and when I hit 50 in a couple of years I'll let you know if it's the new 40 or not. Although the "old" 40 wasn't all it was cracked up to be, in my opinion.
This post moved me to tears. I tend to stay in the sliver by the river and the CBD. When I do venture out to Gentilly and New Orleans East, I come home and feel so drained and blue. I try to tell myself "More sweeping. Less weeping." But some days it is so hard.
LOL...Julie, YOU feel drained?? LOL

I've spent the time since Katrina living in a FEMA trailer in my Gentilly front yard, and then driving every day through either the Ninth Ward or the East to get to work in Chalmette. You wouldn't believe how much that wears on you. I guarantee the stress has taken a good five years or so off my lifespan.

But it's my two sons (and all other kids in the situation) for whom I feel the worst. They'd just turned 15 and 12 when the storm took everything. They still had some childhood left to live, instead of the poor excuse for a normal life that's pretty much the best I've been able to do for them so far.

At least we're getting close on our house...finally. Entergy's supposed to be out tomorrow to hook up the service line, so it shouldn't be too much longer for us to be in. Unfortunately the same doesn't hold true for the four houses in a row across the street, which have barely been touched.
Hang in there, Puddin' WILL one day be telling us all about moving into your house. I propose a a nice, big bonfire for the trailer at that time!
It's people like you and your family that are the backbone of this city....all you've been through and no whining while others (who IMO have no right) bitch & moan while still living in their nice, clean, whole homes.
(Rant over)

BTW - I'm here to tell ya that 50 IS the new 40 (or 30 or maybe even 29) ....yep, it's true. I promise!
I tried to make a lengthy comment last night, but I realized the internet had gone out when I clicked publish. This will have to be brief(er).

My mother tells me that she remembers seeing Chep Morrison water skiing in Bayou St. John, but I had always had trouble believing that. I guess if the Filmore bridge wasn't there, there would have been a longer stretch for it. Was there water skiing in both the lagoon and the bayou, or is her memory off?

The sight of neighborhoods turning into wilderness is heartbreaking, but I do wonder about the people who feel compelled to impose their idea of order on an unused golf course. I never said anything before because, until I read that article, I thought that I was alone in my aesthetic preference. Mainly, I'm reluctant to criticize people that get off their butts to do something to try to help the city, Still, on the weekend that I wrote that post, I noticed that an overgrown area that I liked had been shaved bare. I couldn't help but imagine the neighbor in "Mending Wall" with a touch of Tim Allen. Of course, if it were totally overgrown, the city would probably deem it hazardous and off-limits.

I'm surprised that you see a lot of people when you drive by. There used to only be a few people letting their dogs run our there, lately I see a lot more people walking out there, but not all that many. I'd hate to see it get crowded, but sometimes it bothers me that so few people take advantage of a great place to walk, ride or just sit.
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