At Home In Central City

Mardi Gras Indians on Washington Ave on St. Joseph's night in the Central City Neighborhood of New Orleans
Five years ago when I was living in a cabin in Alaska with a tree growing on the rooftop, I would have been incredulous had you told me that I would end up buying and living in a house in a historically high-crime neighborhood in the middle of New Orleans.  

And yet somehow here I am, walking my dog through a mixed income housing development where just two years before stood arguably the single most dangerous public housing project in the country, former stomping grounds to New Orleans gangster rappers Li'l Wayne and Juvenile.  But my decision was not made brashly; only after having worked in the neighborhood for two years did I decide to make the single largest investment in my life in the Central City neighborhood.  The cultural prevalence of second line parades, brass band culture and Mardi Gras Indians made the decision to buy a rehabbed historic house attractive to me, almost as much as the affordability factor.  After working in low-income housing development for a non-profit which developed houses in an area about a quarter mile radius around my current house, upon signing my closing documents I already knew which blocks were family friendly, and which blocks were criminal, where the neighborhood organizers lived, as well as the dealers and the druglords.  

And so it came as no surprise when I got a text from my friend and neighbor, while I was out drinking cocktails at the Columns Hotel in the posh Garden District neighborhood just half a mile away, enjoying a perfect evening listening to live music being played by the band I manage on the side.  "Someone got shot on LaSalle, get ride home from one of the boys."  Or another text a week later, "Were those gunshots?"  I confirmed that they were when I rode my bike past an ambulance and a score of police cars.  This event was proceeded by a stabbing two days prior.

A day later I walk two blocks from my house to the historic and dilapidated graveyard on Washington Avenue.  There are scores of mausoleums lined up over three or four city blocks, and it is picturesque as the sun sets behind them.  
Graveyard on Washington Ave on St. Josephs Night

This night belongs to the Mardi Gras Indians, a secret society of African-American New Orleanians who spend tens of thousands of dollars and months of their year sewing elaborate costumes comprised of beads and feathers arranged to resemble the regalia of Native Americans.  The tradition supposedly originated as a commemoration of the Native Americans who gave asylum to escaped slaves.  Today it means much more.  Tribe members are typically low-income people or once were, and generally claim stake in neighborhoods flanking public housing projects.  And though many of the City's projects have been demolished and redeveloped, the tradition remains.

Tonight it is St. Joseph's night, a celebration in which scores of tribes of Mardi Gras Indians greet the sunset in full regalia, mock-fighting with one another.   The selection of St. Joseph's Day is rumored to pre-date World War I, when Italian Americans celebrated this religious holiday throughout the city, enabling the contraband celebrations of the Indians to occur reasonably undetected.  St. Joseph's marks the last episode of the Mardi Gras Indian season, the final battle, whereas the previous appearances (Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday) are more community demonstration events.  And unlike the first two events, there is hardly a caucasian spectator or telephoto lens to be found.

It is my second time going to St. Joseph's but the first time I am able to walk from my house.  I meet up with some friends and we wander the streets, just blocks away from the shooting that occurred a week before, or the stabbing days prior.  Despite being a little behind with work at my day job, I discipline myself to go out; it is all I can do to remind myself why I decided to choose a home right in front of all of this violence which, from this proximity, has left my mind a little fogged.  

In the dark I can smell the half dozen barbecue vendors selling their wares, and can hear the rhythms emanating from Indian drums.  I see a shock a feathers spinning almost uncontrollably, illuminated by a lone street light.  I am surrounded almost exclusively by African-Americans.  I have just enough alcohol in me for a little buzz, the best state in which I can absorb chaos immediately before me.  It is a New Orleans that is just five miles from the tourist-laden French Quarter, and it is the New Orleans I know and love.  

Central City has been described by more than one friend of mine as the Caribbean section of New Orleans -- replete with celebrations, music, Afro-influences, street food, brightly colored houses, and also poverty, working people, potholes and crime.  It has remained fairly untouched by the forces of gentrification, a little pocket of three public housing projects flanked by workforce housing.  Since the redevelopment of the housing projects the buildings have changed, but many attitudes of outsiders have not, and those who do not know and love Central City fear it like an impending plague.  

Living here it is hard to understand certain things.  Who gets murdered, and why, and why not me.  And why my drug dealing neighbors down the street whose life decisions I loathe are kind to me, and pick up their dogs feces in front of my house.  How there can be murder at the same time that there is kindness is a phenomenon all over the world that I never been able to understand.  

Particularly when I've traveled, there have been times in my life where I have found myself in peculiar situations, not understanding precisely what led me there but knowing that it is the right place for me at the time.  A little faith, and a whole lot of love for the intangible thing I'm in search of that I know is there.  Being homebound in Central City is one such moment.  I hope and pray that the violence goes away soon.  And I know that the good things are real, and that these traditions will stay in these very blocks I walk my dog in, as they have for a hundred years now.  It is strange but good to call Central City my home.


  1. Great post, Kim. Good to see you blogging again. :)


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