The soul of New Orleans is standing outside his lime green- and-orange shotgun house on Desire Street, lamenting the loss of stoop-front culture in the Bywater, a neighbourhood east of the French Quarter that’s been his home since 2004. At 51, Alton Osborn is old and wise enough to accept that times change. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“That doesn’t happen as much anymore,” he says, looking back at the men who’d greeted him with a “Hey, how you doin’ big man?” as he passed. “I miss that neighbourly thing.” Osborn, a clothing designer, says he remembers the day in 2005 when everything shifted in the neighbourhood. “Katrina changed it all for New Orleans,” he says. “On 8/29, that was the big one.”
Even though local homeowners were in the “sliver by the river” — the high ground on the Mississippi’s banks that avoided the worst of the hurricane’s flooding — the area’s demographics changed afterward. “The storm came and it was like an ethnic cleansing,” Osborn says. “This used to be a really very black neighbourhood, with lots of families. But because there wasn’t enough damage here that people lost everything, it was more like ‘Here’s a chance to sell my home and make double or triple the value of the property.’ Who wouldn’t do that?”
When former residents moved out, younger ones moved in, and the slow trickle of gentrification picked up pace, turning the once unsafe neighbourhood into a bohemian-hipster enclave dotted with restaurants, cafés and shops, including Osborn’s own, Desire. “I never thought I could do retail here,” he says. “There was a time when you couldn’t ride your bike down here without getting rolled, day or night. Now everyone’s an artist or a jug player — you know, that Appalachian kind of stuff.”
While Osborn’s business-owner side welcomes the increased traffic, his native New Orleanian side doesn’t appreciate the attitude that can come with it. “In this city, you always say hello to your neighbours,” he says. “Maybe these people just don’t say hello where they’re from. But it’s what you do here.”
Osborn may see younger and less friendly faces ambling into places such as the Satsuma Cafe and dropping $10 on a 16-ounce “Popeye” juice (spinach, lemon, kale and apple) with a shot of wheatgrass, but the same people are also helping keep “old” Bywater alive. They buy fried-oyster po’boys at Frady’s. They down ripsnorting Moscow mules made with freshly grated ginger at Vaughan’s. They watch R&B rockers King James & The Special Men blow the clapboard off BJ’s Lounge on Monday nights.
For now, the future of the Bywater doesn’t hang in the balance. But like other parts of the city since Katrina, the neighbourhood is engaged in a balancing act, one that sees some longtime residents wanting to protect a way of being, and relative newcomers trying to make a place their own. “Cities do change, but this one hasn’t for a long time,” Osborn says. “It’s so old and there’s a fragility to it. But I’d rather be in the Bywater than anywhere else.”