Four years ago, Robert Hughes would often push a stroller around the Holy Cross neighborhood, giving his baby daughter a big dose of fresh air. Neighbors would steal a peek, admiring the little girl with huge brown eyes. Even then, the tot showed personality to spare.
“Everyone seemed to have a certain amount of respect for a father raising a child,” remembers Robert, a bartender at Mimi’s in the Marigny. He enjoyed lots of support from friends and neighbors who took turns at babysitting. Now, Mathilda has a live-in nanny.
In time, Mathilda could circle the block on her own two feet, alongside her dog Shiro, calling out to neighbors by name: Mr. Ike, Miss Michelle and Miss Laurence. Mr. Ike has done maintenance work at Mimi’s for as long as Robert has been working there. Miss Michelle, a waitress at Gerald’s Donuts in Arabi, is also Mathilda’s close friend. Miss Laurence runs a free children’s library in her living room across the street.
For Robert, the neighborhood has been like living in the country without leaving the city. Resembling a nature preserve, the overgrown lot behind their house is home to a variety of birds, squirrels, raccoons and possums. The Mississippi River is the only backyard the child has ever known. Growing up on Long Island, keeping a watchful eye out for alligators was something Robert had never needed to consider.
“But water is very restorative,” he said.
When Robert and his former wife Charley Cameron were searching for a home, real estate prices in the Marigny were too high, yet they found an historic house in Holy Cross with triple the space for half the cost. The charming, 2,800-square-foot Creole cottage had been partly renovated; Robert did and continues to do some of the work himself.
Though people speak of Holy Cross as a “hip, up-and-coming neighborhood,” we still lack basic services, including a grocery store, he says. While many historic houses are undergoing renovations, others remain abandoned with X-code marks left by hurricane search-and-rescue teams. The changes that have occurred since Katrina have been slow and incremental.
Holy Cross needs a great deal of investment, but that does not mean it needs giant condominiums, he said. Development of single family homes on the opposite side of Claiborne Avenue will attract more residents and probably bring in additional retail stores.
Mathilda plans to enroll in pre-school in the fall and Robert wishes he could take her hand and walk her to class in the morning. The Lower Ninth Ward has but one public elementary school with a waiting list. He’ll probably have to drive her to Treme.
In the meantime, Mathilda loves to explore her environment.
“I like it here because even on the big ships, they wave back to you,” she says.