Posted on August 26, 2010

Please Don’t Come Back to New Orleans

Ken Foster, Salon, August 25, 2010

Last October, while running an errand, I made the mistake of thinking that I could walk four blocks on a sunny Saturday afternoon in New Orleans. I was in my old Bywater neighborhood and inevitably found myself stalled by spontaneous conversation with my former neighbors; this camaraderie is what I missed about the neighborhood, but it was also why I should have driven. I didn’t have time for it, and in the years since Katrina I felt burned by what I now felt was a false front that we were all in this together.

My neighbors and I parted ways, and within half a block everything changed. I saw a group of kids on bikes ahead of me and turned to avoid what looked like trouble. Two stray dogs came charging toward me, but I was too slow to realize it was because someone was about to club me from behind. Because it was from behind, I never got a good look at who it was, but he probably used a two-by-four to hit me, a popular weapon in New Orleans these days. I hit the pavement and skidded across. {snip} They took my iPhone, left the cash, and then they were gone.

Now, as I picked myself up from the street, I scolded myself for being so stupid. I should have driven. I found my glasses where they had landed across the street. The skin on my knuckles was scraped off and bleeding. Someone called the police, {snip}.


I gave the detective a list of witnesses and names of other people who had encountered this gang–a journalist who had seen the gang just before they got to me, a man who had their photos on a cell phone they had stolen and returned. I even learned their approximate address and that, like many New Orleans children, they had no parents in the city. They were on their own. There was even a video of them causing trouble at a local convenience store–a video the police didn’t know about until it aired on the news. But the police did nothing with this information.


This crime was classified as a simple robbery.

In fact, it had been six months since I’d taken a walk on these streets, after a bunch of kids shot 16 rounds in front of my house; {snip}. A few months later, I found myself running through my dark yard to retrieve my dogs while someone in the yard behind me fired a machine gun into the air. This is the New Orleans I now know.

If you are looking for drugs, you have a wealth of opportunities for comparison shopping on my little block. There are gangs selling from half the stoops, although they don’t actually live here. They drive in to do business, taking over the stoops of the elderly, who are too frightened to report anything. Early in the morning, you can watch people picking up their stash for work, and then again in the evenings on the way home. Sometimes, passage through the block is impossible, due to the stalled vehicles hoping for their dealer to return. {snip}

It wasn’t always this way. Three years ago, when I moved from a rental in Bywater to purchase a renovated house in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward, there was no crime here. There were virtually no people. Friends expressed their concern at my living in a completely abandoned neighborhood, but I quickly grew used to the glorious quiet. The silence was broken by tour buses, hoping to survey the destruction that still hadn’t been cleared, surprised to see that there were actually people living there again, stopping to ask which way it was to the Brad Pitt houses they’d seen on CNN. In the mornings I could walk my three dogs past block after block of empty housing, the doors still standing open with debris visible inside. The last time I walked my dogs, one of the dealers outside the bar on the corner said he’d shoot my 10-year-old mastiff if he ever looked at him funny again.

Whenever I call the landlord of the house next to mine, to let him know about the guns, or the constant drug dealing, or the dirty diapers tossed from his property onto mine, he says he is powerless to take action. After all, he left the city to avoid dealing with people like the ones to whom he currently rents–and with Section 8 paying a premium, he’s just one of dozens of slumlords who have poisoned the neighborhood for all the true neighbors who have returned.


So five years after Katrina, I find myself longing for those early, golden, empty days, when the streets were barren and we could find parking anywhere we went. Back then, I took great offense at the people who voiced their hope that many of the displaced might never return. Now, in spite of my better judgment, I’ve become one of them.