For years, smug liberals in New Orleans have been making fun of Metairie and Kenner, mostly built in the nineteen fifties and sixties; the principal suburbs of New Orleans. Just like all over America, starting after the Second World War, and accelerating in the sixties, middle class whites fled the city limits of New Orleans in droves. But while the African-American community is the source much of the cultural gumbo that makes New Orleans so interesting, the cultural uniqueness of New Orleans middle class whites was also fetching. Many are proud of their Irish and/or Italian ancestry. So I biked out to the suburbs to see what was going on. My hypothesis was that I was going to find fascinating cultural bits, in a metro area that is still very insular. And in some places, I did. I also predicted that the area would be more attractive with age, even though thirty years ago it was depressingly tacky. I was more disappointed in this regard.
When we lived in New Orleans in the eighties I drove out to this area every day, because I worked in air cargo near the airport. For several months in 1988 I even rode my bicycle the fifteen miles each way to my office in Kenner. Still, I had never actually bicycled through the central parts of newer Metairie and Kenner. So I left Uptown New Orleans on a chilly Monday morning to see what I could find.
The urban area of New Orleans and its close-in suburbs is hemmed in by levied wetlands, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River. In the seventeen miles from our rental apartment in Uptown, crossing into the Jefferson Parish suburb of Metairie, to the lakefront in western Kenner, there is scarcely a vacant lot, much less open land. It is all one continuous dense city, despite its political boundaries.
Bicycling through New Orleans before I crossed into Jefferson Parish, it is generally beautiful; nineteenth century wooden houses go on for miles. I crossed the Parish line on the Mississippi levee bike path. From the levee, you could look back over New Orleans and see what locals call the CBD (central business district) in the distance.
There by the levee there are about ten houses built on the batture, the scraps of “land” on the river side, right across the street from a dense urban area. Because of the recent floods upstream, the water level was very high this day. These people are technically squatters, but many of these “camps” have been here for decades or more.
I got off the levee and bicycled through residential streets of Jefferson Parish. A cluster of railroad lines bisects the area. Google Maps showed a short “trail” connecting across the tracks at the end of Shrewsbury Road. However a stationary train sat blocking the path.
While I was standing there pondering what to do, a girl and a boy of high school age scurried under the tank car, and acted as if that was something they did every day. I was NOT going to do that, especially with a bicycle. So I walked the bicycle around the end of the train.
And I continued across several other tracks, then under an underpass, to a street on the other side.
These suburbs are culturely still New Orleans even if they are not inside the city limits. These beads littered this street: a Mardi Gras parade had gone through this neighborhood the previous day.
The newer parts of Metairie, and Kenner, were built and designed by New Orleanians, for New Orleanians. This is 1960’s tract housing; distinctive but unimaginative. Tract houses with hip roofs go on for miles, bunched closely together.
No cul-de-sacs here. These streets, built across previous near-swampland are so razor straight that they disappear into the distance.
Weaving through neighborhoods, I cycled as far as I could go. The city limits of Kenner run into a corner of tall levees and floodwalls, protecting the city from hurricane swells coming in either over the swamps of St. Charles Parish, or the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
Still within Metairie and Kenner, I cycled back towards the city limits along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline, sometimes on the levee bikepath. There was more upscale housing, bunched close together, in New Orleans style. I do not understand why people pay extra to live on the lakefront, since you cannot see the lake, owing to the tall levees.
New Orleans used to be full of Sicilians. In the early twentieth century the French Quarter was an Italian neighborhood. Wikipedia claims there are now 250,000 persons of Italian ancestry in the New Orleans metro area. Many live in Metairie and Kenner.
My best find of this trip was Mr. Ed’s in Metairie, the kind of place that used to be all over the city limits of New Orleans, places that had a combination of Sicilian Italian with New Orleans specialties like red beans and rice, and oyster poor boys.
I sat at the bar, next to a friendly guy, with three policemen sitting behind me.
After the obligatory salad, eggplant parmesan was delicious, although enough food to feed three people. I ate it all.
Dragging myself back to the bicycle, I headed further east down the shore of the lake, crossing back into Orleans Parish, passing the West End lakefront yacht harbor. Further east is the neighborhood of Lake Vista, a development inspired by the Garden Cities movement, built on reclaimed swampland starting about 1939. The street entrances to the houses are cramped, resembling alleys. Instead, the houses front a pleasant common space that has been filled in with large trees. This remains an affluent area.
The original 1936 plan was to have the four principal streets meet at a hub with a school, churches, and a commercial building for a grocery store. The school apparently never got built and the commercial building does not have many tenants. But there are two churches, and the buildings are attractive in a 1940’s – 1950’s way.
As much as I liked looking at Lake Vista, I was still about eight miles from our temporary home. I got back on the bicycle and headed towards City Park, which would head me towards Uptown.
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