“Good news,” someone on the levee said this morning before sunup. “Today is July 21. That means one month of summer gone. Only six more left.” In New Orleans, that is only a slight exaggeration.
“We’re from Rayville, Louisiana,” Suzette said today in the seminary’s Hardin Student Center. “We’ve been gutting out houses, and we’re headed home in a few minutes.” I was waiting for my 2 o’clock appointment in the student lounge, so I invited the Rayvillians over and drew their pictures. “We’ll be praying for you all,” they assured us. The Lord alone knows all the church groups in this city at any given time. We are so blessed.
Freddie Arnold said, “Did you hear about our visitors? Some folks from the University of New Orleans came by. Wanted to buy our building.” Buy our building? “I told them it isn’t for sale. They’re trying to buy up property around here. In fact they bought the Lutheran headquarters next door, I understand. Going to use it to house people.”
Freddie was not on staff here a few years ago when UNO approached the association about purchasing our property then. They wanted to give us a building in another part of the city and a little cash. I was chairing the finance committee and took the negotiations a little further than DOM Fred Dyess, my immediate predecessor, wanted to go. When we told them we’d trade for no less than one million dollars, that ended the discussion. Today, having come through the hurricane high and dry, my guess is the building and location make it worth a lot more than that. But Freddie is right; it’s not on the market.
I drove the length of Elysian Fields Avenue today, retracing my route of some six months ago when I recorded here the conditions of life on this wide street that stretches from the Mississippi River behind the French Quarter to the lakefront, a block west of our offices.
At the northern end of Elysian Fields used to sit the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, a favorite spot for generations of families. In the late 60’s they tore it down and a research and development center now occupies the site. The only holdover from the old days is the Civil War-era lighthouse, now buried in the sand one-third of its height, as a result of the land-creation project of the 1920s which gave us the ground we now rest on. Just west of the R&D center is UNO, also a creation of the 1960s. From all appearances, the university is doing well. The buildings gleam, the grass is green, students come and go.
A few blocks south to Robert E. Lee Boulevard–the original shoreline for Lake Pontchartrain–everything is green and the houses lining Elysian Fields appear bright and lived in. This was an expensive neighborhood and seems to be still.
A little further down the street, the Burger King is now doing a landslide business. The sign out front shouts, “Now Hiring.” All around it lie businesses still shuttered and shut down: the Shell station, Popeye’s Fried Chicken, Capital One bank, the student bookstore, the Daiquiri shop. Walgreens is running and the parking lot stays filled.
The dead tree line begins near Robert E. Lee. In the wide median–what locals call the neutral ground–a string of old and lovely trees line both sides of the thoroughfare; now they’re dead. They stand black and rigid against the sky, their lifeless limbs reaching upward without a single leaf to adorn them. Here and there, a green tree can be seen. Since the entire area took major flooding, there’s no explanation why some trees were drowned and poisoned and died while others survived. Perhaps that is a metaphor for the human population, with some surviving the worst conditions and others succumbing.
Ferraro’s Supermarket is now a vacant lot as is Wendy’s across the street; there’s not a single clue these establishments ever occupied these spots. The service station is roped off and boarded up; McKenzie’s bakery is dark and dismal, as are the cleaners and comic book store. Dead trees abound. Weeds knee-deep stand in half the yards up and down the 6000 block of Elysian Fields Avenue, indicating a lack of human involvement.
On one typical block I counted 4 FEMA trailers in driveways. Most of the yards sport either piles of innards coughed up from the house’s gutting or high weeds to indicate the absence of care. Houses lie vacant and empty, and in many cases with windows and doors wide open. Getsemani Eglesia Bautista has been gutted and rebuilt, and now stands waiting for the neighborhood to return.
The ugly yellow watermarks remain on most of the homes, in many cases six feet high. It’s a rare house that does not still carry the National Guard tattoos, spray-painted on doors and walls in the early days after the storm when the military searched for survivors.
Where Elysian Fields crosses Prentiss Avenue, St. Raphael Catholic Church stands vacant, lonely, and untouched. The Guard’s spray paint beside the front door is still vivid. The church’s Marian Central School lies dormant. For Sale signs can be seen up and down the block. Neglect lies on this neighborhood like the summer heat.
In the Odin and Filmore areas, more For Sale signs in every direction. Weeds, trash, trailers, dead trees. The bakery stands open and empty, gutted. The restaurants which used to give this little neighborhood a special character today are vacant buildings, with dumpsters in front of the entrances.
Oddly, the traffic up and down Elysian Fields is a nightmare. All four lanes are being used as a raceway by construction workers, residents, and college students. The contrast between the early days after the storm when no vehicle could be seen here is stark. The traffic lights are working, so I suppose drivers feel free to vent their pent-up frustration. Either that, or they’re eager to get past these scenes.
South to Gentilly Boulevard past Mirabeau, everything is still lifeless. Occasionally a house has been cleaned out. The Church of Christ looks clean and attractive. Brother Martin School, formerly St. Aloysius, is operating at full throttle these days, in contrast to the deadness in the neighborhood around them and the blackened trees in the front yard. A block down the street, a barber shop and sandwich shop advertise their services, possibly catering primarily to the students. Approaching Gentilly, a paint store and an animal clinic seem to be in operation. A bank has drive-in facilities only. Everything else in this shopping center occupying several blocks seems shut down–Blockbuster, McDonald’s, everything. No businesses operating, yet the cars and trucks zoom past one another, the drivers going somewhere urgent and fast.
Between Gentilly and Interstate 610, the contrast is strong. Several banks are open, most of the houses seem to be either lived in or in the rebuilding process. Trailers are plentiful. The site where Elysian Fields Avenue Baptist Church stood has been cleared and fresh topsoil brought in, resulting in a fine covering of grass and knee-high weeds.
At the intersection of I-610, signs on the corners announce dry wall and construction businesses, law firms, individuals who want to repair homes, and Direct TV. Two abandoned boats still underneath the overpass where they have remained since September, but the flooded cars which sat in rows for many months have been removed. A block south, the McDonald’s and Burger King are still closed. At the traffic light, the van to my right read, “First Baptist Church, Pea Ridge.”
Lowe’s is open, between I-610 and I-10, and doing incredible business if the full parking lot is any indication. Large vans offering sandwiches and burgers line this part of the street and seemed to be doing a brisk business. The thermometer inside my car indicates the outside temperature at 98 degrees at the noon hour. Most of the stores in this area are boarded up; few people are living here; a woman carries trash out of a house.
Between I-10 and the river, the neighborhood seems to be coming back rapidly. While most stores are still closed, many are open with busy pedestrian traffic in and out the doors. Again, the streets were crowded with cars and trucks, all of them driving too fast and too rudely.
Our major point of interest in this part of Elysian Fields Avenue is the Baptist Friendship House run by NAMB missionary Kay Bennett. This terrific lady is one of the most powerful advocates for missions I’ve ever met. She is so focused, always hard at work, and never without a smile. Prior to the storm, the Friendship House ministered to troubled women and their children. They have living quarters inside their small building and Kay’s team of workers do rehabilitation work with the residents. Since the storm, her facilities have been devoted to housing volunteers solely from Oklahoma Baptist churches.
“We normally have from 15 to 30 at a time. Mostly men.” She added, “But the group scheduled for this week canceled, so we decided on the spur of the moment to have Vacation Bible School.” I had caught her and her assistant at the kitchen stove. Lunch today was macaroni and cheese and beanie weenies. They were feeding the children. “Some of the church groups that stay here bring a couple of women to do the meals. But we’re always available to help anyway we can.”
“We’re about to transition the Oklahoma folks into the Volunteer Village downtown,” she said. “Local organizations have been calling, saying they have battered women with children needing a place to go. So, soon we’ll be back doing what we do best.”
“The flooding in this neighborhood stopped one block east of here,” Kay said. “A friend in Mississippi called and said they had a trailer truck filled with bleach and could we use it. We distributed 150 gallons of bleach from door to door one morning.”
“There are not a lot of children in this neighborhood. People are working on their homes.” She said they tried to get into the FEMA trailer villages to do VBS, but the government is strict about this. Not to be deterred, she said, “We decided to go from door to door taking plastic bags of toiletries. That’s what everyone needs most.” She laughed and added, “You know we were not just giving out things. We were meeting them and talking with them about their deepest needs and offering our services.”
I asked where she gets all the toiletries. “We almost don’t buy anything. We have lots of people who take care of us. We’re on the ‘Christmas in August’ list, so we get all kinds of toiletries to give away.”
“I heard the fire station and the police department in this area were running low on toilet paper, so I’ve been going around taking them some. It’s a good way to strengthen the relationship and meet people.” She said, “You know me, Brother Joe–I don’t like to sit still. I’m always looking for some way to minister.”
Toward the end of our visit, I said, “How safe is this neighborhood? Any crime here?” She said, “There haven’t been any reports of any. The National Guard is patroling this area. I go out and talk with them and let them know how much we appreciate their being here. Crime is down in the city 26 percent, they say.”
She was quiet a moment, then said, “That’s why we have no one here this week. The media scared the parents of the teens away.” I was not surprised. We had four teenagers killed by a lone gunman–who has since been arrested; it seems to have been a drug deal–and the mayor calls the governor who calls in the Guard, it makes all the evening news and front pages, and people everywhere decide it’s not safe to come to New Orleans.
I suggested to Kay that, if this happens again, she give the church group the names of the previous week’s volunteer team. “Let them talk to each other.”
I called my Mom this morning while driving to the office. She was telling about a rash of burglaries of some stores in that section of rural Alabama. I said, “I’m glad I live in safe New Orleans instead of dangerous Winston County!”