The Long Road Back
Some perspective: Today, more than two thirds of the residents of New Orleans proper are gone. No one can say for sure how many will come back. A quarter of the metro area's businesses remain shuttered, and nearly 1 of every 5 adults has no work. Six months after Katrina, the FEMA hotel money having just run out, the strains are showing. The social fabric is stretched thin in some places, shredded altogether in others.
That's certainly the case on Freret (pronounced fur-ET) Street. Sigur saw his barbershop looted, though there wasn't much of value to plunder. Once the looters were gone and the water subsided, however, he got right to work, dragging his waterlogged barber chairs out to the curb for trash pickup, pausing occasionally, he recalls, "to use my little asthma spray and pull some more." Within weeks, he had the shop he has owned since 1972 up and running. Business has been steady since. Of course, it meant draining his savings and pooling that money with what his insurance company gave him for his ruined car. No word yet, though, on the settlement for his shop, or his home, which was also destroyed.
Beginnings. Freret Street, like most of New Orleans, was brought to life by the transformative power of a series of massive pumps, installed in the early 1900s, huge contraptions, says Sally Reeves, a lifelong city resident and president of the Louisiana Historical Society, that "we talk about like they're our uncles." The pumps drained New Orleans mostly dry. Freret Street, at the back-swamp edge of town where the urban grid gave way to muddy lanes and marshland, was hardly prime real estate. Prone to flooding, it was a breeding ground for blood-fattened mosquitoes. The land was cheap, though, and it soon gave rise to modest homes of descendants of many of the newly freed slaves who turned up in New Orleans after the Civil War. "You can think of Freret as being the quintessential back-of-town street," says Richard Campanella, professor of geography at Tulane University and author of the forthcoming Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm. Freret was dry enough, Campanella explains, to support several semirural shantytowns but nothing much more than that. Today, you can trace the flood line of the levee breaks after Katrina as it weaves in and out of Freret. In some spots, Campanella says, the street was a "literal flood line."
In a city that once boasted streets with names like Great Men, Love, and Good Children, the origins of Freret are prosaic. The street was named after an 1840s mayor and architect, William Freret, whom history records as one of New Orleans's more "useful"mayors. Like its namesake, Freret Street, too, is useful, a workhorse kind of thoroughfare. "It's not glamorous," concedes the Louisiana Historical Society's Reeves. What it is, says Sigur, is a "lifeline."
It is a dividing line, too, reflecting with uncanny, if unplanned, accuracy the mottled socioeconomic spectrum of the city, bearing mute witness to the extremes of poverty and the policies of racial segregation. Today, Freret cuts through enclaves of shotgun shacks built to replace the old shantytowns that once bore names like Bed Bug Row, the Buzzards, and Yellow Dog. It also runs right past C.J. Peete, the public housing project built in the 1930s to replace some of the "worst slum districts in the city"--roughly 800 "substandard dwelling units ... for Negro tenants," according to a 1938 New Orleans Times-Picayune article. It was a place where tuberculosis was a workaday killer and violent crime a fact of life, outpacing the rate for the rest of the city by 40 percent. More recently, street corners like Freret and Washington, just down the street from C.J. Peete and around the corner from the Getaway Sweet Shop and Game Room, had a well-earned reputation for a thriving trade in illegal drugs. In some places, not much changes.