Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Structure 117

That is what the City of New Orleans calls the first home demolished in the Lower Ninth Ward, with the clinical detachment of an oncologist pulling the sheet over his patient's head, in this story in the Times-Picayune on March 7.

... the three-bedroom house where Herbert and Mary Warren raised eight children at 2330 Roffignac St. in the Lower 9th Ward…lay on Winthrop Street, a block and a half from its original site -- yanked off its foundation and sent spinning through the neighborhood by a wall of water loosed by the collapse of the Industrial Canal levee almost a mile away.

Broken and swaybacked, its squared corners and vertical lines smashed into crazy angles, Structure 117 sat in a vast landscape of similarly wrecked and abandoned houses, remarkable in only one way:

It came to rest in the street.

Reduced to a ruin by the failure of the federal levees, Structure 117 will live only in the memory of the families that called it home. It is easy to imagine what they will remember of it, even if the rest of us are instructed to call it by the number on the final mark it bears, the scar of a red demolition sticker, even if we have only a vague picture of the shattered frame of a wooden bungalow falling beneath the yellow claw of recovery.

I have not seen Structure 117. When I was home, I visited Lakeview, but I could not find time to go to the Ninth Ward or to St. Bernard Parish. I crossed the Ninth every day when I worked in Chalmette, but I did not have the time, or the strength to go to those places. Seeing Lakeview, the neighborhood to which I was carried home from Hotel Dieu and which I visited almost every day of my life for 30 years, was enough, was as much as I could bear.

Still, it is not hard to imagine Structure 117. It looks in the newspaper pictures to be a post-war frame bungalow much like those that filled Lakeview before such houses became teardowns for the wealthy. Both Lakeview and the Ninth Ward were mid-twentieth century suburbs, one built for whites and one built for blacks.

Structure 117 contained, we can be sure, a kitchen. In it, I can clearly see a small porcelain over steel gas stove. Sitting atop the back panel there was almost certainly a big box of Diamond matches, and a bottle of Tabasco or Crystal ready to hand. Once pots of gumbo as dark as chocolate or as light as café au lait simmered there. On Monday, red beans filled the house with an aroma of earth and leaves and meat as old as the places men first walked the earth.

The rooms and hallways of Structure 117 would be familiar: an L-shaped living and dining room in the front, with a hallway down the middle. Down that hall was room for that essential washer and dryer, and perhaps one-and-a-half baths, no waiting and no walkthroughs. The rooms were not much larger than those of the shotguns and cottages Structure 117 replaced, but they were perhaps a bit darker and closer, needing lots of outlets for the electric lights that would fill them with light and sound and make them livable, and for the window air conditioners that would transform the life of the South, making a porch superfluous.

The layout was not much changed by the time Marrero began to rise out of the swamps of the West Bank, where I once joined my girlfriend’s working class cousins for Thanksgiving dinner and learned to eat baked spaghetti and cheese with my turkey. Structure 117 was of the same vintage, a recent addition to the plan built in 1962. It was, like Structure 116 and 118, the place an entire generation lived, the place they all saw on their new televisions. And the lives that played out within those walls were much the same, Ninth Ward or Lakeview or West Bank.

Structure 117 and all its fellows were built on poured slabs right on grade, like all the homes of that era. Why would you want to build on piers, with rats and feral cats nesting under your house, with pipes that will burst in the first hard freeze, with the cold and the draft of the old way? It was the post-war era, and time to put aside the old ways. It was the time when the engineers and accountants and ad men conspired to turn Huey Long’s stump speeches into a solid business plan, to build every king a castle he could afford.

They built Structure 117 and all its like according to the best modern American way, as regular as Model As in the fashion perfected by Ford and proven by the war, according to the best laid plans of the men who built not just the Structure 117 and the new neighborhoods that held it, but the cars and the interstate highways that joined them, who built the ICBMs and the bombers to keep it safe, who built the levees and the floodwalls that protected them.

In time, all of those failed Structure 117, and the people who called it home. The highways slashed through the old established neighborhoods where Structure 117s residents grew up as ruthlessly as Patton’s Third Army, and the exhaust of all the cars darkened the sky and poisoned the air and water and ground. The ICBMs and the bombers protected us from our enemies, but not from ourselves, not from the people Ike warned us about. And the levees failed as well, as predictably as a Greek tragedy, hubris angering the indifferent-at-best gods who sent the waters that overwhelmed them.

The levees and floodwalls failed to protect Structure 117 not because they didn’t now how to build them, but because they placed the accountants and the ad men up on the same exalted peristyle as the engineers, because they wanted to believe the lies in their business plans and advertising campaigns, because this was the generation that would build the tower to heaven.

It is the same sort of efficient planning that built Structure 117 that reduced it from a home to a numbered line at the top of a list on a clipboard. To the man with the clipboard directing the fellow atop the backhoe, does it still matter that this was once a set of bedrooms where lovers spooned and wept, of bathrooms where men shaved and women bled, of yards where children played and gardens grew, of kitchens where pies cooled and chicken fried in great black skillets?

The owners came to watch the end of Structure 117. The newspaper tells us this:

Herbert Warren was there for a while to see the end of his home. He said he had visited earlier, but was unable to retrieve anything from inside. Mary Warren was unable even to enter the house.

"She suffers from the asthma, so she couldn't," he said.

It doesn’t tell us if he wept the first time he heard from his grandson the NOPD officer of Structure 117’s ruinous journey from its slab and down the block and into the street, or what he felt when he was first allowed to see Structure 117, and could not enter it to save a single thing.

Who weeps for numbers? Not the men who built these neighborhoods, or their grandsons who plan the demolition. A longshoreman who rebuilt Structure 117 himself after Betsy flooded it in 1965 just three years after he bought it, Herbert Warren is not likely a man who weeps in public.

If no one weeps for Structure 117, we will have forgotten what the Greeks knew thousands of years ago, about hubris, about catharsis, about the human condition. We will not learn the lesson those authors sought to teach their audience. Instead we will rear Structure 117 Mark II behind levees not much changed from those that failed, with predictable results.

It won't matter to Herbert Warren. As he watched the end of Structure 117, he told the newspaper he would hoped to stay in the city, but not be back to the neighborhood. Two floods, he says, are all he can stand.

wow this is a powerful post. thank you for your perspective.
Mark, this is so haunting and so beautiful. This is the kind of writing that really touches people and makes me envious of your talent. It certainly deserves a wider audience. I will post a link on TM. :)
Wow. Really, really beautiful.
to post li beau.
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