Our Visit to the Lower Ninth Ward

November 19th, 2010

On our last day in New Orleans we took a drive down to the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was devestated by Hurricane Katrina.

From what I understand, The Ninth Ward is surrounded by levees on three sides, so when the levees broke (in several places) this neighborhood filled up with water like a bathtub.

We are standing on top of one of the levees in the Ninth Ward looking out on the Mississippi River.  Imagine this pouring into your backyard.

Prior to the Hurricane, the Ninth Ward was a vibrant neighborhood of working class families who owned their own homes.  The neighborhood contained two houses that were on the historic register (they are pictured later in this post) and was also home to Holy Cross, a well reputed private school for boys.

It has been five years since Hurricane Katrina.

And this neighborhood is slowly coming back.

Houses throughout the area are being fixed up.

And painted in all the various shades of joy, pride, and determination.

Then you get to these two houses.

Sitting kitty corner from each other, these two historic landmark houses were built in 1905 and 1913 by a steamboat captain Milton P. Doullot and his wife who was also a steamboat captain for their two children, a son and daughter.

As you can see the homes were inspired by steamboats, plantation homes and believe it or not,  the Japanese garden teahouse at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

I think I need a string of wooden pearls on my porch.

A block from the steamboat houses, Brad Pitt is spearheading a project to build modern, flood proof, sustainable, homes.
I got out of the car to snap a few shots of theses houses and to read the sign that describes the project, when a man came out of a little brick house across the street and began to talk to me.

He introduced himself as Sawool and he wanted to know why I was taking a photo of the sign.

“I don’t know” I said.

I was a little wary because I didn’t know if I had somehow offended him and also because he was clutching a paper wrapped bottle of booze in his hand.

We chatted for a bit and Sawool seemed to decide that I was alright and he asked if he could play me a song.

“What?”

“Can I play you a song?”

“Uh…. well… sure.”

“Okay”, he said, “I am going to go into my house and get my guitar. Will you still be here when I come back out?”

“Yes,  I will still be here.”

“Okay… you are sure that you will still be here?”

“I am not going anywhere.  I will be right here.”

So Sawool walked back to his house and I am thinking – what in hell have I gotten myself into?  The CD is sitting in the car watching all of this unfold and I motioned him over.

“We are going to listen to Sawool play a song.”

“What?” he said.

“Sawool…  He wants to play a song for us.”

“Oh… uh… Okay.”

Sawool took his own sweet time getting his guitar and I started to wonder if maybe we should just bolt, but he finally came out of his house dragging an electric guitar, an amplifier, and a couple of chairs. He motioned for me to come over and sit down. Sawool took the other chair. The Country Doctor had to stand in the grass. Sawool was not in a hurry and he fiddled with his guitar, smoked a cigarette and then took a nip of his booze before going back to tuning his guitar.

A friend of Sawool dropped by while he was tuning his guitar. His name was D.J. and he was a DJ. Sawool asked D.J. the DJ to stay and listen to his song too, so now Sawool had an audience of three.

And then a neighborhood kid on a bike stopped by to see what was going on – so now there are four of us and finally the audience was impressively large enough for Sawool to start his song.

The song was about me.

Yes – that’s right.

Sawool made up a song about me on the spot.  It basically said that I was beautiful and kind and a good person and that my husband better take care of me and appreciate me and love me…except it was much more soulful than that – because Sawool is a GREAT songwriter and really knows how to write amazingly TRUE SONGS!

It was easily the best song I have ever heard in my life.

After that Sawool tried to play a Jimi Hendrix song, but he couldn’t remember all the words or the chords and we all agreed that the Rechelle song was way better anyway. Then while Sawool was still trying to figure out Jim Hendrix, I  tapped him on the shoulder and said, “We have to go now Sawool. Thank you so much!”

And Sawool waved us off and went back to playing his guitar.

And we drove around the rest of the lower ninth ward.

Kids were playing.

The houses were painted in bright, cheerful colors.

The neighborhood still lacks local businesses like a grocery store or a gas station and there are still broken down houses and vacant lots.

I was only a casual observer (with a song written about her by one of the residents) but it truly seemed to me like the neighborhood was coming back.

Which is good, because it seems like a really nice place to live.

Comments

  • susan:

    that was so touching Rechelle. So many are afraid of venturing out of their comfort zone and even though you has some trepidations while waiting for Sawool (my landlord is Saul from Argentina and phonetically sounds like Sawool) you paid him a great service and received same.
    Aren’t trips like the one you and Mike experienced beneficial for couples? reminds you of why you are together in the present and helps reconnect. dont you think?

  • Great pictures… glad to see the big easy is not dead.

  • Wonderful NOLA posts Rechelle. You are a fabulous story teller.

    I wondered if you were familiar with the X-Code Exhibition?
    http://www.southernspaces.org/2010/katrina-5-x-code-exhibition
    I found the story fascinating, depressing, and inspiring. That some folks can take the mark of tragedy and turn it into art and inspiration is one of the greatest demonstrations of the power of the human spirit to adapt and survive.

    • Rechelle:

      Wow! That is a riveting web site. The whole thing about the ‘X’ and the lower quadrant. Such a powerful symbol of the destruction.

  • What a once in a lifetime thing to have happened to you. Not only is Sawool talented but he’s intuitive too!
    Those steamboat houses look amazing. I’d love to be able to see the inside of them.

  • Hi Rechelle, I’m a long-time reader but first time commenter. Even though I feel like the worst kind of whore, there’s something that I really want to share with you:
    http://helpmeorillkickyou.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/letter-to-an-ex/

    Anyway, thank you for writing and sharing your journey with us. I agree with the comment above, you’re a fantastic story teller.

    • Rechelle:

      Follow that link! Caro’s written a great letter to her ex – the catholic church.

  • Thanks for the great tour of the 9th ward…What a treat to have a song composed on the spot in your honor! Amazing.

    I bet Sawool would have loved your music, too.

  • Clay:

    What a wonderful story

  • Jill:

    Rechelle,
    You are a great storyteller. I love reading your blog and look everyday for new posts to enjoy…. Thanks for sharing about your visit to the 9th Ward. You should have played a song for Sawool. Listening to the CDs that Forrest has, you write such beautiful music that I am sure Sawool would have loved….

    Best,
    Jill

  • DirtyKSmama - Nikki:

    Rechelle, Sawool, Hitchins, Caro’s letter and the X-Code Exhibit, all coming together in one place. These a few of my favorite things, and make the Internet, and life, such a cool thing.