New Orleans
Neighborhood Portraits

7th Ward

"The Seventh Ward was considered by many to be the quintessential Creole neighborhood in New Orleans. Many educated and accomplished people of color lived here before the Civil War and throughout the time when Jim Crow laws were in effect. But after desegregation, the city built the I-10 interstate right over the Claiborne neutral ground, destroying the 7th Ward's prosperous business district in the process. Today the community remembers the beautiful live oaks that were torn down to make way for the interstate by painting images of these trees on the cement pilings that replaced them." (from The New Orleans Data Center)

Ellen, Elizabeth, Kaitlyn, and Alexi

Elizabeth: The family moved over to this house. There are the four children, no, five children. I'm the sixth, and we had their mom…as our sister. [Laughter]. My father and his in-law brothers and brothers built this house. And back then that was what they did. And his dad, they were artisans. So what they did was, you know, there was somebody who could handle the electricity somebody who handled the foundation, and they all worked together on weekends. They were all postal workers and middle class civil servants and on the weekends they built each other's homes with the monies they could scrape up. These were young artisans; so you'll find crown molding in that house that you won't find in a lot of other houses. Those plasterers learned that trade from the people who came before them, who were sometimes, their ancestors were free persons of color who learned those trades in Africa and then came here, though Senegal, Senegambia, Martinique and Guadeloupe and Haiti. They learned all those trades and they put work in this neighborhood. And you'll find that a lot of these houses have that kind of work. So seven children were raised in this house by one working father and a mother who mostly stayed home, and they did the best they could. We are all Catholic. We are all Creoles. That means mixed heritage and ancestry from anybody born in the New World who can trace their ancestry from Africa, France, or Spain can use that term Creole in Louisiana. That is the most inclusive definition.

Elizabeth: So we grew on the street and is important for someone to own it who's in the family because our father's sweat and blood, and uncle's and grandparent's sweat and blood, is in this house, so now Kaitlyn has it and we're happy about that. It was always this school, and Corpus Christi was our community, there was a Catholic school, two blocks to walk to school. Anyway we had some relatives that lived down the street in a very old home, which you can't see from here but is next to that two-story brick house. And they were distant relatives. That home is over 100 years old. It has wood from barges; the support under the house is wooden barges that are like 12" x 12" and they were taken off when they dismantled the harbor and dismantled the ship that…that wood came down and they used that as the foundation of the house. That's just one of the caveats I remember about that house. Its just a nice community. In the 50s a lot of people who lived in this community, it was very tight and very culturally centric, and then in the 50s a lot of people who…My mother was one of 10 and my father was one of 10. Half of my mother siblings and almost half my father siblings moved out of this city and they moved to other places. They moved to California, so the Creole diaspora spread to the West, and spread to Chicago, and sometimes to the Northeast. But all these people, this neighborhood, this is the Seventh Ward of New Orleans. And we talk like this sometimes when we really want to sound like the Seven Ward.

Elizabeth: We had our own market. Our own printing press. We had a meat market.
Ellen: When we were kids we were pretty much part of a closed society. Our church was down the street, our grocery was down the street, we didn't ride the bus, we didn't have cars. For the most part we stayed in our community.
Elizabeth: But it was a very diverse community because we had Jews living down there, we had Italians living down there, the merchants were…like Mr. [Soche] was French and he was two blocks that way. We bought stuff from him. Mr. Sal was Italian, two blocks that way, he owned a little corner store. These were little corner stores where you bought your groceries. So we got introduced to Italians. We didn't know what it was, but we knew they were different because they spoke a different language, and they looked different from us. And we had Hispanic children down there too, but you know, race wasn't an issue then. I think we felt very secure in our culture in who we were, and because of our numbers. Then, you know, then things started happening.
Kaitlyn: what started to happen?
Elizabeth: The 60s, civil rights, you know, black power movement. In fact, the Panthers had a house two blocks down there.

"A gentrified house"

Kaitlyn: The neighborhood is being gentrified. If you go two blocks up that way on Dorgenois street, it's a street where you typically would see, or historically would have seen, lots of black families. Second generation, maybe third-generation. People who, their houses are being bought and flipped and sold. And even this way and on this street and around the corner on D'Abadie street. You see people who are not from here. That's one. People who are not from New Orleans. And then two, people who are not black. You see white people buying houses over here down the street. What it means, one: there is a rise of Airbnb….this unit right here is Airbnb, both of these. Which just means that we get home and we don't see neighbors. Like this is my neighbor; if he hears me at five o'clock in the morning come out of my house he's like "you alright? you doing okay?" These Airbnb people think that I'm a stranger and that I'm a danger to them. Because here they are…I'm crossing the street going to the house that has been in my family for years. So that's one, everybody wants to turn their house into an Airbnb. And two; it just means that the people who were second or third generation in these houses are being displaced…to where? Slidell. To Metairie.

Tru and Julisa

Kaitlyn: Okay so I'm going to tell you a story because that's how black people do it. So one night I got home - oh wait, I can tell you two stories. I was in the house, it was late at night. Our doorbell is very loud, this is not this woman's fault, but it's very loud and it's late at night, and its like alarming. So it rings one time and we're like, "Who is that? It's ten o'clock at night and I'm not answering the door." And then it rang again. So I go to the door and this woman is like, "Hi, we're renting the Airbnb. Someone' s parked on the street and I want to know if it is you." And I was like, "Yes, that is my car, there aren't spots, we park on the street." And She's like, "Well, I just want to know if you can move your car so we can be right in front of the door." And I was like, "No there's spots across the street." And she said, "Well we would just feel more comfortable with the car in front of the house." And I was like, "I'm sorry." And she said, "and also my sister's disabled, so she can't walk across the street." And I was like, "no ma'am. You need to park across the street like anyone else would." And she was just really upset. And it took me a second to process; I thought she was just being…whatever….but she is renting in this neighborhood, short-term, and is afraid of the people who are indigenous, if that's what you want to say. Like this is my home. This is my house. I park across the street. You park across the street. But you're scared? How did I say it? One time I said, it is consumerism, and not community. You want to come and be close to the French Quarter so you look on Google maps and you see, "Oh Onzaga and Tonti that's close to the French Quarter, I wouldn't have to pay a lot for an Uber." But then they get here and they see enough black people, enough young black people, you see enough people on bicycles or pedestrians, and then you feel like you have a right to be afraid of me? I'm at home. This is my house. And before this was my house, it was my family's house. My pa-pa built this house. So you don't have the right to come here and be a consumer who is also afraid, and then make this play something that it's not.
Alexi: If the same people who made them afraid had trombones and snares and were walking down the street with the second line, they'd be like, "Oh my goodness" and they'd get out their phone and take a lot of pictures. But when those people walk past, just living their lives, without the instruments, then it's like, "Oh terrified! I need to hide my things and go inside the house."

Elizabeth: and what I dislike the most is that they're taking advantage, they're willing to live with systemic things that this neighborhood has had to deal with but we didn't have the political will and the political know-how to take care of them as we should have, and when we had the opportunity we didn't use it. But they come here and they're willing to live with all of those unfinished businesses and take a chance on it, and I think we're at a point where this neighborhood is going to start booming and there is going to be a lot of economic development and they're going to be the beneficiaries. And for two or three or four generations, what our parents built was not something that stabilized for three generations and if we hadn't stayed here, persisted here, and if [Kaitlyn] doesn't, she has got major things she has got to do in this house now. We're just realizing it, and I'm sorry to put it on her but that is the case. So, she's got to do that in order to keep up with everything else is happening around here. And you know, these people are going to make a lot of money in this neighborhood now. It is going to be the new French Quarter, the new Treme. And people, my grandchildren may not ever be able to buy in this neighborhood again. Ever! Ever!
Kaitlyn: Even the process of buying a house took over a year. The first quotes, the first comps, the first time that the appraiser came with the comparables was tens of thousands of dollars different, in just six months it was different because of the rate of change of just people buying property and renovating. And you see it anywhere. You see a house for sale, you see a moving van, you see people who are leaving, and you see the new faces.
Julisa: Ms. Ellen she's leaving in December. She can't afford it. She's got to go to Gentilly, to a senior home.
Elizabeth: Yeah…that's too bad. That's too bad. And we knew everyone on this block, everybody. And everybody knew us.

In front of the family house

Q: How much is rented? And how much is owned, you think?
Elizabeth: I can just microcosm it and say for this block. This is owned but, there are four rentals here and the owner does not live here. This is owned. And the rest is rental. But that is changing. White folks are buying these things…
Kaitlyn: They're buying doubles and they're renting the other side to their friends. And the renter, because property values going up, to rent a two-bedroom, like half a double on Dorgenois Street, two bedroom, one bath it's like $1300. $1300. Historically that is not what people have paid to rent a home. Absolutely not. People don't have that income to stay in those houses. So I have a friend who bought a house on Dorgenois, and she's like, "I want to find a black tenant. I want to find somebody who's been in this neighborhood, but none of the ones who I find, who would be interested in living next door to me can afford to stay here. Because they can't. So now she has some…she don't even know….some middle-aged white man living by himself next-door.
Elizabeth: This block, no owner occupied. This block, one owner-occupied in the red house, and that man lives on the next block I think he's the only owner-occupied. You know, these were quality built houses. They may have been shotguns, but that was the trend then, but they are quality built so people see value in that.

Kaitlyn: The sense of community that's like this man who just stopped in the car: they don't know each other, they just go to church together, but that's been the feel of the neighborhood for so long, you see someone new and you form a relationship with them and y'all play around with each other from the car onto the sidewalk and you just go on about your business. That doesn't happen anymore.

Dari and Alexi

Elizabeth: They have a sign outside a liquor store and it says "free beer on Tuesday just before it turns Wednesday" [laughter] so be at the liquor store Tuesday and you might get beer when it turns Wednesday. There's a new community center, and we don't have community anymore. At Corpus Christi [church], what they did was, with the old building that had been sitting there untouched for a long time, even before Katrina, after HUD monies, they combined the Catholic Charities and they built the community center there; and we really don't have a community of people who have a community. But People's Help is there and they're trying to send vendors there to occupy that space, or else HUD could come after them.
Kaitlyn: Are we going to the liquor store? Or the Church?
Elizabeth: The devil or God? [laughter]

I'm Melvin. I don't know what to say, it's a nice neighborhood. It is. I've been here, what 12 years now, so it's a nice neighborhood. I watched it grow since Katrina. Its gotten a lot more busier, so it's nice. You know, I'll probably die right here. Good luck with your project. [He's in the Zulu social aid & pleasure club. His leather vest has Zulu colors on the back.]

How long has it been since Katrina? 12. So it took me nine years to get this house. I was persistent. Actually, what happened: my uncle was married. My uncle's wife died before him, and my mama was power of attorney over my uncle's stuff because that was her brother and he left his stuff to her, but my aunt died before my uncle, so my parents were supposed to go back and open succession to take her stuff because that is the way they had their will, whoever died first everything went to the other one, but they couldn't find that, so legally I had to do litigation with her grandkids, so I had to buy them out and I did. Then I fixed it myself. I do painting and hardwood floors, but, you know, I got friends that do this, and do that, so bartered jobs here and bartered jobs there, you know like the electrical, I bartered that from another friend of mine, the plumbing I bartered: I did their floor, they did my electrical. Since I've been here, the granddaughter of the man who built the house came over and she sent me pictures from the early 1900s when her grandparents built the house and all that kind of stuff. So I got a little history. Property values went up around here since I purchased this house. It needed a whole bunch renovations when I bought it, but I purchased it for 60. And since then? That house over there, the third house off the corner: 1362 square feet, $308,000 [laughs]. This house here sold for $319,000, the bottom is just a basement, but the top is a couple hundred square feet less than mine. But, you know, this is getting crazy. When I first wanted to get this house my siblings was like, "man you crazy! What you going to do?" And I said, "that's a nice piece of property." I said, "It's a historical piece." I say, "You know uncle Bob had it when you could only paint it white and green, under the Vieux Carré ordinances." After Katrina I guess they did things a little bit differently, they started letting people implicate paint colors and stuff, but for as long as I was a kid they could only be painted French quarter green and white. That was it.

My neighborhood? I've been out here…I have this first [house] down the street. Double house. And I have this one here, my son he finished painting [the pink one]. And this one's mine. If you go down to the garbage can, a little before you get to the garbage can, it's my two-story house. It is rented. That's the first house I got. With my family, we moved up here from St. Francisville, Louisiana. It's my hometown. My father's father had a big grocery store on the ground floor [there]. My father, he wanted to come to New Orleans and so his daddy said, "why you want to go when you got these children?" He said, "well when I get there, I'll write you back and tell you I'll send for my children." He had a Big store up there. After my grandmother and they got together, then after my daddy had children, my daddy, my mama, they got together and had seven children. So [a friend], told them come on to New Orleans. My mother passed. My daddy passed. Years going by, we're all gonna pass [laughs]. we can't stay here. So you just go on and do the good things you want to do, and stay out of trouble because one day we got to go.

I lived here 37 years, but I stay on Autumn Street now and Terrace.  This is my parent’s house.  I grew up here. The neighborhood changed a little bit since I first moved into the neighborhood, but it's better I think. It's safer. Its a nice neighborhood to be in; Esplanade Ridge.

 

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