Natives & Neighborhoods New Orleans During the End of the World
Cities are beautiful in the rain, but only New Orleans bleeds it.
Riding Amtrak’s Crescent line from one end to the other is a bad idea unless you want your journey to last. The 1,377-mile trip from Penn Station in Manhattan to Union Passenger Terminal in the New Orleans Central Business District takes over thirty hours, even if it stays on time. I once tried the trip in December. A snowstorm happened. Fifty hours after departure, I arrived in New Orleans on a chartered bus, and swore never again. But after my mom called to tell me my grandmother had died and that—this is the important part—she had left the old Montiglio house to me, I bought another train ticket and hoped for snow. In April.
My mom wanted to turn the house into a short-term rental—we could maybe subdivide the one living space into two, then list both halves on Airbnb. “You’re up north,” she told me, while outside the train window spring greenery unfolded to the blue mountains on the northern Virginia horizon. “I’m in Houston. Neither of us plans to move to New Orleans. It makes sense.”
“I didn’t ask for this,” I said.
“I know, sweetie. All the more reason to make it as painless as possible for you.”
“I can’t think about it now,” I said. Except I was thinking about only it.
I texted my fiancée, Renée: I had no idea gramma hated me so much.
Renée texted back: You dumbass. She obviously trusted you.
I reread “No Place for You, My Love,” the magnificent Eudora Welty story from the September 20, 1952 issue of The New Yorker , which reaches across generations to decode New Orleans and south Louisiana in the age of Airbnb, the age of gentrification, the age of a world ending.
Its protagonists, a man from Syracuse and a woman from Toledo, meet each other in the French Quarter and move from a restaurant filled with locals, whose “very local talk drawled across and agitated the peace,” to the places south of the city. There, the man and woman, mindful of their own superiority, look at additional locals as if they are noble savages. (At one point, the Toledo woman decides “that she was far more beautiful or perhaps more fragile than the women they saw every day of their lives.”) The man and woman are proto-gentrifiers. They are colonizers. Their grandchildren buy New Orleans homes in cash and convert them to short-term rentals, managing them like hotels. I wasn’t sure I had the right to do the same. I wasn’t sure I could live with myself if I did.
But so what? What’s the point of keeping something alive and local in a city that has an expiration date? In her story, Welty describes the features of a world that, even in 1952, long before Deepwater Horizon and Katrina, was beginning to end. She opens one perfect paragraph, “It was a strange land, amphibious—”
To be amphibious is to have features that pertain both to earth and water. New York is a city of islands, but they are islands of bedrock, and the delineation between bedrock and water is clear. When the land is amphibious, there is no such delineation, and without the border a kind of alchemy happens and the land comes to life. It moves. It deforms roads. It sinks streets, cracking concrete and creating valleys and peaks that jar the teeth of bus riders and unleash hell on front-end alignments. Houses lift themselves away, not necessarily as a precaution against flooding but as if to keep the amphibian ground at arm’s length. The basements and the tombs are above the ground.
Welty’s man and woman go south of the city into the wetlands, and the man installs himself as a guide to the place.“That’s what I’m going to show you,” he says. The woman responds: “Oh, you’ve been there?” and the man says, “No.”
Down there, the amphibian’s end game is betrayed, so that anyone with eyes can see. My great uncle lives in the wetlands. He has a tidy, tin-roofed cabin, which sits on stilts ten feet above the ground—we call it a camp—and has a deck running from its back door dozens of yards out to a tendril of brackish water that connects, eventually, with the Gulf of Mexico. When I was a kid, every inch of the deck hovered over land. Now, water splashes against its support columns.
Two questions ran through my head. The first: If you are a white guy moving from New York to New Orleans, are you still a gentrifier if you were born in New Orleans? The second: How would my mom react if I decided to keep the old Montiglio house, if I decided to live there, if I decided to wait in it for the end of the world?
Visiting Jazz Fest During the End of the World
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was happening when my train arrived. I bought a ticket. To get to the Fest from my grandmother’s house, I had to cross Bayou St. John, a little waterway that cuts from Lake Pontchartrain, at the city’s northern edge, to Mid-City, where my grandmother’s house is. I walked over the Esplanade Avenue bridge. Outside the houses on either side, little kids sold lemonade; older kids sold beer. At the bridge, a pack of middle-aged tourists debated which side of the bayou the Fest was happening on, and whether the bayou itself was the Mississippi River.
Energy increased with decreasing proximity to the Fairgrounds gates. Doors were left open, and front porch gatherings combined with one another to create one neighborhood party. This effect is common in New Orleans. The Saturday before Mardi Gras, a huge parade rolls through Mid-City, and when I was young, family and friends would gather at my grandmother’s house and open the front door, at the landing of the front stairs, and our visitors would merge with everyone else’s guests. This parade, like Jazz Fest, is now so large that the event itself is secondary to the neighborhood experiences at its periphery. The closer you get to the epicenter, the less real it feels.
Inside the Jazz Fest gate, I went to the Gentilly Stage, where a local band I had been told about was playing; a friend said it was “a band of Cajun pop pixies.” They used many drums, a bass guitar, keyboards, violins. They sang in English and Louisiana French. Recognizably influenced by their cultural heritage, they nevertheless felt contemporary. The band still plays every week at a bar on the edge of Mid-City. My favorite song of theirs is about the 2010 oil spill, from the perspective of local wildlife.
After the cheers went away, the water came. Rain turned the dirt to mud, and barefoot visitors danced, unaware that during the rest of the year this is a horse racing facility, so the mud wasn’t just mud. I retreated back through the gates, outside which neighborhood bed and breakfasts and guest houses had vacancies; so many homes have been turned into Airbnbs, say the inn owners, that all the visitors are staying where New Orleanians used to live.
On my way back to my grandmother’s house, I walked on broken sidewalks. Rainwater overflowed crevasses, filled empty spaces between buildings, made Bayou St. John climb its banks. The water covered every surface and was sucked away by a circulatory system of pump-driven drains and poured into open arterial canals that can be dry one hour and be ten feet of whitewater rapids the next. Many cities are beautiful in the rain, but I think only New Orleans bleeds it.
The summer between my first and second years of graduate school, I flew home from New York and considered not going back. A waiter my age, wearing rolled-up shirtsleeves and carrying a tray of beer, got into a conversation with me one day at a cafe on Decatur Street. He talked about his loft by the river and about the art he created on canvases resting against the walls of Jackson Square. A surge of longing surprised me. I loved my whole Brooklyn thing, but it suddenly felt temporary, like a side trip from my actual life.
I did go back to New York, though. I told Renée about my feelings. We were driving up the Taconic to her parents’ place. She did not talk to me for an hour and looked at low mountains on the horizon. Eventually she said, “Men have tried to take me away from my family before.”
“I would never do that.”
Later, I lay in her childhood bedroom with the windows open, and a cool summer evening breeze, the sort of breeze that doesn’t happen back home, filled the room. I went downstairs and found her. We watched the sunset. I said, “I will always want to call this place home.”
The sun sank. Her arm slipped around my waist. She said, “It will always be home for me.”
She slid around so that her body was facing mine. She looked straight into me. “But more than one place can be home. When we get married, we should live in New Orleans.”
Two years later, I sat on the sofa in my grandmother’s living room. “You’re asking me this question so you don’t have to make a decision,” Renée said through the pixels on my laptop screen.
“No. No.” I grinned at her. “I mean yeah, maybe.”
I was in the living room of the old Montiglio house, with my MacBook sitting atop my grandmother’s stack of coffee table magazines.
One of them was a National Geographic from 2004. While Renée and I Skyped, I flipped through the pages and found a piece called “Gone With the Water,” about Louisiana’s coast. In the magazine was an image of a man standing chest-deep in the Gulf of Mexico. The man held a photograph of a house on a patch of land that once existed in the space behind him. I closed the magazine. I said, “It’s just here the story’s similar to how it is in Harlem and Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, and, sure, we wouldn’t be displacing anyone from this house in particular, but it’s still part of the problem, isn’t it?”
“So don’t let your mom Airbnb it,” Renée said. “Keep it. Make it a standard rental.”
“I’m—we, by the way, it’ll be we officially soon—”
“Just half. Napoleonic code.”
“They don’t have the Napoleonic code in New York.”
“It was a joke.”
“— we are going to manage a rental property from half the country away? Or we’re going to afford a property manager to manage it for us, and deal with taxes, and inspections, and you see what I’m saying here?”
“Then sell it.”
Selling was an idea I had never considered long enough to reject. It felt wrong. My mom and I agreed ownership of the old Montiglio house should stay in the Montiglio family.
Renée said, “No, don’t sell it. Let’s live in it.”
She was carrying her computer through her apartment. Through an open window, and so through my laptop speakers, came sounds from Washington Heights. She reappeared on my screen, sitting now at the little table by the window in her kitchen. “I said let’s live in it.”
“You still have a semester of school left.”
“And then we get married. We’ve talked about New Orleans before. We agreed. This just speeds up the timeline.”
“It’s not what you want.”
“Don’t tell me what I want.”
I told her it was a bad idea, but I didn’t believe my own words. Renée knows me better, most of the time, than I know myself, and she developed that skill way before our wedding.
But I needed to tell her that, when I was ten, I lived on the north shore of the Lake, in a suburb, and an apocalyptic rain inundated the city and the suburbs both. The small lake behind our house overflowed. The street in front filled.
By then, almost 1,900 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands had disappeared; the rate of land loss exceeded a football field’s worth every hour. The Gulf of Mexico was accelerating towards the city and the surrounding towns and villages. The maps we used were out of date. Every day moves us closer to a time when people who know south Louisiana as home will have to move away or die. These physical realities were obscured by the terms that described them: coastal erosion, loss rate, mitigation, river diversion. Environmental and economic consequences. Human cost.
“There is the scientific and ideological language,” Zadie Smith wrote for the New York Review of Books , “but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising?”
“Look,” Renée said. “We have lives to live. So let’s live.”
I said, “Okay, let’s live,” and we sat there together, thousands of miles apart, connected by technology and comfortable quiet.
After the funeral, people filled my grandmother’s house and speculated too loudly about what I would do with the place, and spread rumors too loudly about why the old woman left the place to me and not some other member of the family. After all, I was never around, and neither was my mom, not since my dad—her son—died. They talked, and I remembered sitting, as a small kid, on my grandmother’s lap, on the balcony porch formed by the landing of her front staircase. We had conversations. She told me about the people who had been born and who had died in her house. I listened for hours.
When everyone left, my mom and I sat on that same porch. It was evening. A streetlight clicked on and silent insects danced in its halo.
“The place will make a great vacation rental,” my mom said. “This time of year especially.”
I said, “Yeah,” and gripped the arms of my chair.
“We could bring in two or three thousand a month, some months, I think from the research I’ve done. Think of how much of a help that’d be for you and Renée.”
I said, “Mom, I want to keep the house myself.”
“It’d be easier to transfer ownership. I’m just thinking of the taxes.”
“No, I mean, I want to keep it. I want to live in it.”
My mom went quiet. The old Montiglio house opened to a side street so narrow it felt like a crumbling path in some old French village. Sometimes, when the air was still, the traffic a block away on Carrollton was light, and the streetcar wasn’t whirring by, this stretch of the neighborhood became almost silent.
Eventually, I said: “Mom?”
“You haven’t said anything about my decision.”
“What’s to say? I’m not going to stop you.” Another bit of near-silence passed, then she kept talking. “I just think you need to be up-front with Renée. She needs to know what she’s signing up for. For all we know, the next flood’s a few months away, and then what? You move here and have your life uprooted immediately, or in a year, or in five years, or ten years. I love this city, you know that, but . . .”
Anything could happen anywhere, I told her. Hurricanes hit New York, too.
“But it’s different,” my mom said.
She was right, sort of. Lifetimes have happened since people here began to learn about the destiny of the place. But in the aughts, the stage of signs and portents ended when my family gathered around a battery-operated radio to hear the news as New Orleans’ flood walls toppled. Remember that God promised He would never again destroy the world with water, but He did not promise to stop Man from doing the same.
The last period of quiet was the longest. When my mom stood, she gave me a smile and touched my shoulder. “It’ll be nice having you closer, you know, at least in the region.”
I smiled back at her. It would be nice. She kissed my forehead and went inside.
Down the stairs on the above-ground basement level of the house, a split had formed in the exterior wall. The door of the basement level had shifted, and was stuck shut in its frame. The amphibian ground was on the move, dancing, rolling, ready to shrug my grandmother’s house off its back.
But the house had been here a hundred fifty years ago, when it was built on the edge of what would become City Park; it had been here a hundred years ago, when somehow the Montiglio family, one generation removed from Sicily and plotting an escape from the Quarter slums, had gotten hold of it; it had been here fifty years ago, and twenty, and five. It would be here tomorrow, and we could keep on going that way, one day at a time.
“I have never known anyone else,” Renée once told me, back before we were together, while I sat in a Columbia office watching a live Mardi Gras stream online, “who is as emotionally dependent on their geography as you.” She was right. I like most places and love a few. The one I love best is the most mortal, or at least the one most reminded year by year of its mortality. The reason I love it is its ongoing statement of life in the face of acknowledged death.
Rain fell. From the porch of my house, I watched water cover the broken concrete and flow, shimmering under electric lights, along the street.