By Valerie Menowsky
Okay! I confess! Last time someone asked me where I’m from, I nonchalantly answered, “New Orleans,” knowing full well the impact that name has on people around the world, especially after Hurricane Katrina. I confess that this wasn’t the truth, but to paraphrase the great Edwin Edwards, haven’t you ever told an itty bitty lie?
!’m actually from River Ridge, the small, unincorporated suburb of ranch and split-level homes lying outside the invisible line enveloping New Orleans. So why lie? Because it sounds so much cooler to mention my home as The City That Care Forgot, the Big Easy, the land where children, wearing various patterns of plaid, walk under umbrellas of oaks passing homes described as shotguns and camelbacks.
I mean, why would anyone admit they live in the conventional sprawl of Kenner, Harvey, or Westwego with street names like Hester, Wilty, and Central, when they could thrive in neighborhoods with the ancient names of Bywater, Garden District, or Marigny, their poetic street names sunk into the sidewalks with blue tiled letters: Royal, Piety, and Octavia?
I recently returned to River Ridge after living 25 long years in other suburbs around the country. I didn’t drive up and down Veteran’s Highway to see how Target had replaced Maison Blanche in the Clearview Shopping Center or walk through the Hometrends, Mainstays, Sterlite aisles of Kenner’s new cookie-cutter Walmart.
No, I was compelled to feel, once again, the swing and sway of a streetcar ambling up Carrollton around the curve of the river bend and onto St. Charles Avenue. And the passion of picking the perfect fleur-de-lis pin under a tent, under the oaks, amid the strains of jazz and the aroma of shrimp crepes at Palmer Park made me giddy.
Resettling with my mother in our house of 47 years, I asked her, “Why did you and Dad move to the suburbs instead of staying in the city?”
When my father accepted a position at Xavier University back in 1962, we first rented the upper level of an apartment on Carrollton Avenue, right across from Lafayette School where I attended first grade. I remember the arched façade of the screened-in porch, a detail which resonated in the throughways between the rooms inside. And that the huge bathroom tiled in a sea of small black and white squares was a perfect slippery stage for a child’s fantasy ballet. I remember the purple of Katz and Bestoff on the corner of Claiborne where men and women stood in groups fanning themselves while waiting for the bus or streetcar to sprinkle them around the city.
I remember dressing in my best patent-leather shoes and gloves to shop for fabric at Krauss on Canal Street, catching a spray of Jungle Gardenia from the perfectly teased-hair ladies who called me “Darlin’” and “Sugar” and buying a luscious, irregularly shaped chunk of white chocolate at the base of the escalator in D.H. Holmes. And I remember driving out to the Lakefront to eat boiled crabs at Fitzgerald’s, watching the hypnotic waves lap against the mossy steps while impatiently waiting for dusk to turn to night to see the Mardi Gras fountain spray bursts of green and purple and gold into the humid, brackish air.
But my favorite memory was of a small, white-columned eatery a little further along Carrollton where everyone sat on round, twirly stools and the black men behind the counter tore the paper tips off the straws and offered the exposed, colored plastic for us to pull out ourselves and place in our fruit freezes as they yelled our hamburger order to chefs slapping patties of meat on greasy griddles.
“Why did you and Dad move to the suburbs instead of staying in the city?” I asked, wondering how different my life would have been had they bought a raised cottage in Mid-City or a double Uptown, the porch enveloped in Pink Perfection camellias and arched crape myrtles. I could have grown up feasting on Frenchulettas at Liuzza’s every Saturday afternoon or maybe walked in my saddle oxfords to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, anxious for my debut during Carnival season.
“Why did you and Dad move to the suburbs instead of staying in the city?”
“We couldn’t find a house that we could afford that was big enough for our baby grand piano,” she answered.
My musical parents eventually added on to their spacious, affordable suburban home in order to add a second baby grand, when Dad left Xavier to teach piano and voice from home — something that would have been difficult to impossible in many of the older style of homes crammed side by side in the city.
A friend of mine grew up on Napoleon Avenue in a beautiful, white, three-story home with steps that swept down to the dark green, confederate jasmine-covered ground like Scarlet O’Hara’s petticoat. She attended St. Andrews, Newman, Harvard, and Tulane. Her father was a member of a Carnival krewe and some years they invited us to the balls, where we sat in the balcony of the Municipal Auditorium watching the silken pageantry below. They only knew their neighbors to the right and left, and recognized them as eccentric but lovable while keeping an eye on the crack house behind them. They generally regarded the ethnic differences and cultural inequities of their neighborhood with … indifference. It was all part of the ambiance of living in New Orleans.
When my colleague Maria moved to New Orleans, she was drawn to the Carrollton area by the architecture, “the romance of the streetcars and the proximity to an intellectual and diverse community.”
Buses cruising up and down Airline Drive aren’t romantic, but they’re functional. A Sikh family lives two houses down. But proximity to an intellectual community? How does one feel that in a neighborhood? Do satellite campuses of UNO and Tulane dotting Elmwood Business Park count?
Let it be known that Maria did give up her romance and diversity to move to River Ridge expressly to raise her young son in the safety of the suburbs after her divorce. However, now that her son is grown and getting ready for college, her house is for sale as she puts out feelers for the perfect Uptown rental. Apparently one can only survive intellectual stagnation and lack of cultural diversity for about as long as it takes a child to go through elementary and high school.
Don’t get me wrong, my house is my home. It doesn’t have columns or wedding cake filigree under the eaves, but it does have a fountain and a persimmon tree. We know most of our neighbors in their freshly painted houses with newly installed, plastic windows that open easily to clean. And many have found it necessary to enclose their too-small-for-today’s-large-car- garages to make extra living spaces.
It’s home, but it’s the epitome of a suburb, where, like suburbs around the country, much of the architectural flavor, multicultural ambiance and general “feeling” of the bigger city doesn’t cross the parish line.
It’s a nice house, but it’s not a funky, multicolored shotgun of the bohemian Bywater. It’s functional, but it lacks the character of the richly ornate architecture of the fragrant Garden District. It’s pretty, but not as seductive as the hidden luxurious inner gardens between the connected quarters on the quiet backstreets of the Vieux Carre. When I walk my dog around the block, it isn’t quite the same as jogging with him on the neutral ground, or dodging Frisbies in Audubon Park.
And when I hear my city friends talk to one another, they seem to have a kind of collective consciousness about what’s going on in New Orleans. It’s like the gossip and hearsay is transmitted by the moss and ivy from double to double and shotgun to shotgun. Our geographic differences of just a few miles leaves me feeling culturally barren, as if the ride out Earhart somehow affects the rhythm of my heart, making me innately different from within. I’m close enough to enjoy all the benefits of the city, but was doomed to never be a part of it when my parents found a house in the suburb big enough for their baby grand piano.
So what is the etiquette for naming your hometown? Do you mention the suburb first, then, upon the responding quizzical look, name the bigger city? When I told people I was from Tampa, I was really living in Odessa. And when I said I was from Tulsa, the truth was that I actually lived in Broken Arrow.
Is there a certain amount of shame to living in the suburbs? What does it reflect about me that whenever we moved, we settled in Sugar Land instead of Houston, McMurray instead of Pittsburgh? Was it fear? Was it economics? Or was I perpetuating and replicating something instilled in me when my parents chose their first and only home in the suburbs of New Orleans? A domicile that was spacious enough to bust open and grow to make room for two baby grand pianos.
So I live in River Ridge, a suburb of New Orleans. A nice, safe neighborhood conveniently close to Home Depot, Kmart, Best Buy and a variety of franchised restaurants. Where there’s a CVS or Walgreens on every corner, car dealerships by the mile, shopping malls and plenty of parking. We have our very own Café du Monde on Veteran’s Highway and … did I mention plenty of parking?
However … my saving grace is a place tucked under the shadow of oaks, where you can sit on round, twirly stools and pull your very own straw from its white paper cover to place in your fruit freeze while a man shouts your order to a chef slapping patties on a greasy griddle…and it’s only 15 minutes from the burbs.
River Ridge resident Valerie Menowsky submitted this article to NolaVie.