Yes, I am showing my age when I write about how much times have changed in just a mere 31 years-the 31 years that I have been a New Orleanian. Certainly, for many of you out there reading this (no doubt from your tiny device rather than a paper magazine), 1989 was before you took your first breath of air, before your parents even conceived of conceiving you. But for me, this time flew by.
A quick cautionary tale to those under 30: Never, ever wish for time to fly-even when you are having a mind-numbing and/or physically brutal day at work-because it will, and you will never get it back.
April 1, 1989, on a Saturday afternoon, at 12:35, I crossed into Louisiana and headed to the French Quarter to live, to begin my new life in my new home. Apartments could be had for as little as $200, and, of course, you could go big (foolish) and pay up to $600 for what might be advertised as a "luxury apartment" (simply more expensive).
I didn't know that the best way to find an apartment was by word of mouth, so I went with a real estate company and ended up with a "luxury apartment," which garnered that description and price point due to central air and heat and a dishwasher that drained directly into the courtyard. The installation of the heating/cooling contraption was as well thought-out as the plumbing (four years later, the toilet would leave by way of a collapsing floor and I, by way of the door). Winters were grueling due to the other selling point: 20-foot vaulted ceilings to which all the heating retreated as the great outdoors pushed through the flooring. So instead of a skylight, daylight poured through the beautifully restored cypress planks (another selling point), along with a view of the brook-like stream of water from the dishwasher.
The crazy thing is, these types of superficial, amenities-driven, faux-historic facades still camouflage termite-riddled and mold-infected apartments and houses. And unlike the truly lovely cypress floors in that first apartment, you will find laminated "wood" floors that often contain formaldehyde. And today, you will pay $1,200 and up for such habitats. Overall, I fondly remember the affordability of 30-plus years ago and really yearn for those amazing French Quarter apartments (unlike my first one) that were plentiful and untouched by "modernization"-with windows that opened and claw-footed tubs, original flooring and glass doorknobs, plaster walls that breathed and cypress doors that creaked. They were buildings whose souls had not yet been gutted and sheetrocked.
Lead-enhanced drinking water was always an issue but was cheaper. And before Katrina wrecked the already-fragile and ancient infrastructure of pipes and drainage, I seem to recall less boil advisories, flooding, and water-main ruptures (perhaps research would prove this fond memory moot). Overall, it just seems that back then, life was slightly less stressful-at least in the Quarter.
Of course, it must be said that bohemian as the Quarter was then, it was still a privileged community compared to our poorer neighbors in the Lafitte Projects just across the street from the Vieux Carré. Sadly, many disparities still reign hard in our town. In 1989, there were still some black-owned homes in the Quarter, but that quickly changed as tourism and real estate began to grow in earnest.
First, allow me to say that I simply love tourists-they have broadened my world view. But tourism is its own force of nature to be reckoned with. It can inflate rents, cause overcrowding, impact our delicate infrastructure, and unwittingly drive residents out of popular areas-the French Quarter went first.
In 1989 and for some years to follow (not many), the Quarter still had laundromats, drycleaners, printers, a hardware store on Bourbon Street, a post office, Woolworth's, McCrory's, D.H. Holmes, and just across the street from the Quarter was everything you could want at Krauss.
Most, if not all, the shops and businesses in the Quarter were independently owned. Today, many of the long-time book shops still exist, but they need you to continue this rare foothold. Just look around and you will see the proliferation of franchise-owned shops and eateries in the same spots where locals once created unique, one-of-a-kind commerce. The Quarter was a real neighborhood-not so much today.
When I first moved here and joined the league of tray-toting waiters, work was very seasonal. Summers were seriously slow, and Christmas season was so devoid of business that the café I worked at would feed us on our days off-there simply were no tips to be had. But tourism grew, and as it did, work was far more available. Yet, as a resident, I lost those quiet moments when the Quarter was all mine. Only after Katrina did the quiet return, but with such sorrow that we yearned for the hustle and bustle of visitors.
During the city's recovery, I fell in love with tourists and came to know that not all folks are here for Bourbon Street-many truly love this town. But, like I said, tourists have replaced neighbors, and I sure miss those folks-those characters who once reigned and ruled my Quarter. Danny Barker and wife Blue Lu would pass me on the streets-and they were just two of the living wonders who enriched my life. There were the well-known and crazy artists who filled our coffee shops and bars. I am talkin' museum famous folks, but to me, just "those crazy guys." And the street characters were not just mimes doin' a cheap hustle but folks like Ruthie the Duck Lady, Perry the Clown, and the Bead Lady.
Our new New Orleanians will never know how very recently our Quarter, our entire city, has changed. Hopefully, they will cherish the magic they come to know and protect it. I am privileged to have known her when and regret how quickly the time has passed. So it goes.