A Sociologist Learns to Squat:
The four of us sit outside Flora’s Coffee Shop and Gallery on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Rue Royal in Faubourg Marigny waiting for the rain to either drench the city or move on to another destination. Earlier today Shannon texted me to “bring a tarp, a sheet, bug net, water, food for morning, and a flashlight or headlamp.” She’s weary of the rain and the trouble it might bring, especially with feet sensitive to long periods of being wet from a life of traveling, squatting, and hopping freight trains. Kindness helped me pick up all the necessary gear this afternoon as I helped her look for an apartment near the Fair Grounds in Mid-City. The photographer takes pictures while we wait for the fate of the rain gods of New Orleans. After eating we decide to scope out a place to squat for the night. Our urban camping adventure begins.
From Flores Cafe we ride our bikes heading north toward St. Claude and take a right on North Rampart where double shotgun houses line the streets like a gauntlet of standing guards granting passage to a treacherous journey. We turn at the railroad tracks on to Press Drive, which separates Faubourgs Marigny and Bywater. At St. Claude Avenue and Press Drive, we head over the railroad tracks and go east toward the 9th Ward, take a left at Feliciana, another left on Marais, and a right on Montagut, riding our bikes on a road so destroyed that is more potholes than street. We move through two warehouses located on each side of a road also so torn up it is rendered practically impassable. We pass some seemingly abandoned buildings littered with graffiti and a vacant lot with thrown-out mattresses, sofas, and tires. Even the trees look sad. To the left, a partially boarded up warehouse is covered with graffiti announcing “Vampire Sex,” “Oye,” and “Finish Your Cereal,” along with its many broken windows. Layers of decay and abandonment surround two lonely and stubborn houses.
We enter into what seems to be a private facility, leading to an area beneath an overpass behind yet more warehouses. Someone named Spider has tagged himself all over the urban spaces. Realizing we are in private property, we turn our bikes around and head back toward St. Claude. An abandoned security booth that once screened traffic entering to and from the facility stands empty with shattered windows. We again pass the graffitied and abandoned warehouses – one of them spray-painted with the word “why” – to a half-filled parking lot and take a left on Marais heading toward 9th Ward. This area is filled with abandoned houses and buildings; now it’s a matter of finding the right one. Marais Street holds a mix of occupied and abandoned boarded up houses that, while legally considered vacant, may house some of the hundreds of squatters taking illegal shelter in these spaces. Left on Piety Street, the road passing through two cemeteries, St Vincent De Paul #1 on the left and #2 on the right where, interestingly, no graffiti covers these long expanses of brick wall.
We take a left on North Villere Street heading west, cross Louisa, and pass a boarded up house and two vacant houses – one with a collapsing roof and one that appears occupied given the toys littering the yard. Even the occupied house sits sadly in disrepair. Stray cats and feral chickens roam throughout the neighborhood as we search for home sweet home. Wires hang down without purpose from the telephone poles, swaying idle in the breeze. On our left, four traditional double shotgun houses barely stand in a state of dilapidation. As we continue, four colorful double shotgun houses on the right, one yellow and pale green, one orange and teal, another purple and blue, and the last lavender and white. Unlike their neighbors, these houses have clearly been cared for recently. A huge fenced-in building that was once New Haven Elementary School sits vacant further up on the left, now bearing graffitied signs that say “old crow” and “Sexo.” It is carefully shuttered and boarded to keep squatters at bay.
Taking a right on Clovet, a stop sign dangles lopsided from its post as we pass a house in the process of being gutted. Piles of old wood heaped in front almost hide the house from street view. We ride side by side talking about hopping freight trains while passing North Robertson near an overpass and onto a street with occupied houses, most of them protected with steel bars over the doors and windows. Two houses sit boarded up and abandoned. We cross North Claiborne as cars rush toward the overpass heading to Elysian Fields and a train rumbles loudly in the distance. We take an immediate left onto an unmarked street, parallel to the rising overpass of Claiborne, or Louisiana State Highway 39 passing O’Keefe Avenue and decide to park our bikes beneath the overpass. Across from billboards for watermelon vodka and Window World sits a vacant, cinderblock-elevated blue and white house, boarded up and coated in graffiti. We head up the eight steps to the porch where a book sits open, as does the door. It immediately becomes obvious that someone else is currently or has recently squatted here. We see piles of belongings – blankets, mattresses, pillows, clothes, and tools-carefully arranged in one room; another room filled with print material. Some of the detritus, including books and print materials seem to be of a religious nature.
We grab our bikes and ride another block west, still parallel to the overpass. We turn right onto another unmarked street just before the train tracks. We pass up a house converted into “Deliverance Temple-Church of God and Christ” that stands immediately next to two abandoned houses; the first boarded up, the second with tires piled high. A makeshift grave sits out front, made from a black painted wooden cross-covered with plastic flowers indicating the loss of a loved one, presumably in this very house. Two photographs of the man being mourned are tacked onto the front of the home and three deflated black balloons dangle in the breeze between them. Perhaps the dead man once attended the church next door.
Peddling down Montagut Street we ride between a mix of abandoned and occupied houses on the east side, and train lines and barbed wire fences on the West. Part of the fence is decorated with painted fleur-de-lis while a house appears to have lost a battle to nature, completely overtaken by vegetation. Some lots have nothing but concrete slabs while others are little more than overgrown grass and empty fields. Boarded up houses sit next to occupied homes with neighborhood residents relaxing on their porches next to lots with weeds and grass over six feet tall. Most of the trains parked to our left showcase brilliant graffiti markings, and Shannon tells me stories of how to hop these trains, and her love for the freedom it provides. She’s got a sparkle in her big blue eyes.
We pass an urban garden where Habitat for Humanity rents plots for $1 per year. Some people use the garden to grow food for subsistence, others to sell to local restaurants, and some local businesses even own plots. Another urban garden sits on the right as we pass underneath the North Galvez overpass where mattresses and other discarded refuse litter the otherwise undisturbed weeds. Graffiti on the overpass states “turn the world around” while a graffiti covered building ahead on the right says “DO NOT DEMOLISH: New Owner-William McGowan Notice Violation, 6/5/2015” in three separate places. Three sofas sit stockpiled out back, next to a lightly gated, enormous empty plot of land with a sign that reads “Private Property, No Trespassing.” A train screeches on the left as we pay notice to yet more vacant lots and two more boarded up houses on the corner of Montagut and North Miro Streets.
Though the city may have abandoned these decaying urban spaces, perhaps god remains as churches seem as abundant as the vacant houses. We pass two churches sitting side by side, one red cinderblock building called “God is Love: Greater New St Luke Baptist Church; 2201 Montegut St.; Rev. M.H. Littleton, Pastor” with an iron gate over the entryway, padlocked with a rusting chain. Their motto says, “Committed to Kingdom Building by Spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ – St Matthew 6:33, 28:19-20.” The second church is a brick building with red and blue plastic in the glass windows, and blood red doors. Beyond the churches, we pass two occupied and well-kept homes before hitting North Tonti and roughly three or four blocks of vacant, overgrown lots piled up with thrown out TVs, tennis shoes, toys, mattresses, baby seats and other used up junk and former belongings. We swerve around a discarded and overturned stain-riddled couch and a chewed up wire fence.
A sign dangles from an empty plot of land saying, “No Trespassing” with graffiti scrawled over the top. Another lot on Montagut and N. Rocheblave Streets bears only the concrete slab foundation of what was once someone’s house. We observe a rare well-maintained vacant lot with grass cut short sitting directly next to another overgrown lot filled with high towering weeds and garbage of all varieties. Piles of mattresses, old tires, and plywood litter the streets and empty lots. A lilac tree grows defiantly above this mess. One dump sign says, “ReElect Judge Mebley” symbolizing much of New Orleans politics and its long history of failures and betrayals. Beyond the vacant lots sits a small lonely, yellow, locked but seemingly empty house next to a vacant lot whose wild weeds encroach upon the yard of a small cared-for semi-shotgun house. A port-o-potty and broken down Jeep occupy the back yard.
Passing North Dorgenois Street, we come across a tired sports complex field with rusting “SPRITE” backboards on the basketball hoops. “Kappa Sigma SPG Krewe Rebuilds NOLA” is spray painted on the wall of a small building at the edge of the field where a relatively new child playground, common to those found in fast food restaurants, sits devoid of the sounds of playing happy children. We spot a vacant house, potentially suitable for unlawful squatting, and take a left on the ironically named Law Street that dead-ends at the train tracks after four shambled houses, though two of those are occupied. A fire hydrant hides behind weeds. We walk into what was once a double shotgun and find a house gutted with a fine, well-intact roof overhead. It sits next to a reasonably kept, fully occupied house, but the only thing living here are happy birds atop the sad, drooping fans. The neighbors render our potential squat unsuitable and problematic. Shannon explains that good squats must remain at least one or two lots away from occupied homes. It’s too dangerous to disturb the neighbors who might call the police, or worse. Across the street to the left, the remnants of a house hide within wild weeds and untamed shrubbery, in a neighborhood that nature is trying her best to reclaim.
Picking our bikes back up, we think the street dead ends but realize it curves right onto Law and Press away from the train tracks and the barbed wire fence ‘protecting’ them from potential freight hoppers. Three stone steps emerge from the weeds on the right, with no obvious purpose. We hit Press Drive and Lausset Place and find a potentially perfect squat tucked away and hidden on the left with the train tracks just ahead. On both sides sit vacant lots, with the nearest house roughly 30 yards away; a crazy little green double shotgun house, the property lined with tires and makeshift fences, and a purple and green sign that says, “NO DUMPING” in faded gold paint.
We set our bikes near the rotting gazebo that sits next to the potential squat house. Vegetation completely consumes the front of the house along with its porch blocking any potential entryway into the space. We find an alternative entrance – a hole in the wall on the right of the house, only accessed after traversing mounds of garbage, weeds, and roof tiles. We move our way through the weeds covering the pathway to the house and climb through the hole to find solid floorboards and a suitable roof to prevent rain from drenching us in the night. We know that, in a pinch, the place is suitable for squatting. It is hidden on a barely navigable road that dead-ends to remote train tracks in the middle of nowhere. This is not the New Orleans I know or recognize.
In the distance, the New Orleans skyline emerges from behind the train tracks. Shannon suggests that she knows of a better spot, so we climb out the back of the house, past a discarded toilet, through the vegetation and wild weeds, onto our bikes and off again. We take a left onto Press and hit Florida Street where we find men working, surveying land, and operating huge construction machinery. The road is barely navigable even for bikes, but the construction workers pay us no mind. We pass an abandoned house on the left that appears to be government owned; the windows and doors are carefully covered with metal stamped with the emblem VPS. Past the Alabama Division Oliver Yard and over six railroad tracks, we ride along a horrid looking canal filled with frightening water to our right. It is 102 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity; the heat hangs heavily and punishes unrelenting. In the distance, we see a building for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. It appears to be a run down, dilapidated old pumping station where the canal begins.
We take a left at Florida Avenue and Almonaster Boulevard looking at the magnificent Crescent City Connection ahead in the distance and ride our bikes parallel to Almonaster overpass. We pass Law Street and continue down Almonaster, passing a line of newly renovated houses in great condition, graffitied and boarded up houses, and vacant houses covered with vegetation. Scores of vacant lots decorate the seemingly half abandoned neighborhood as squatters sit on the porches of deserted homes and feral roosters cross the proverbial road. It looks like a strange rural New Orleans days after the storm, not ten years later.
We take a right on Comus Court to inspect a possible squat house. This decrepit pink house remains shut tight with boards blocking any entrance from the windows or doors. The FEMA sign says, at the top “926” indicating the date September 26; to the right, nothing indicating no hazards present; bottom, “0” indicating no dead or alive bodies found; and to the left, “FL 2” identifying the rescue team. In short, On September 26, 2005, just weeks after Katrina, FEMA rescue team FL2 found no bodies and no hazards. We turn around and hit Rocheblave and head down toward the train tracks to Port Street where we see a variety of vacant houses – all offering possible squats to urban camp. One house gutted and halfway through repair has the spray painted word “Tried” written on the front of the house indication that the money just ran out. Down half a block, we find two boarded up and vacant houses on the left, and a warehouse to the right, all covered in a myriad of graffiti. Next to the warehouse, we find the shell of an old brick house with piles of tires and wood, thriving trees and weeds, and graffiti that reads “1 DEAD 9/17.”
Ms. Lolita, an elderly woman who moved to New Orleans in 1976 and now lives next door to our potential squat, later reported that Pastor Joe William died in this house from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. According to Ms. Lolita, the preacher from a church on Deslonde Street in the Ninth Ward was found “standing in the door stiff as a board” despite her pleading warnings for him to vacate the premises in lieu of the storm. It was a shame, she said, the preacher had seven children, or to capture her beautiful New Orleans pronunciation, “chiren.”
The house is located on North Rocheblave between St. Ferdinand and Port Streets. We walk through the vegetation and tires dumped in front of the house where the dead drowned preacher once lived to make our way into the gutted house. We found a sign that reads, “Moms Drunk Again” and “Keep This Squat Nice Bitches.” This “nice” squatter space provides a sofa along with two chairs sitting in front of a fireplace that once kept people warm in their home. The room is littered with debris and used up urban camping gear. Dozens of old empty candles barely provide enough light to compliment the near full moon light. We walk through two rooms and a big hole on the left hand side of the tracks and into the side yard of another house well boarded up except for in the back. And in this back is where we enter jumping on the porch providing entrance to our abode for the night. This gutted house serves as a great place to urban camp, or as Shannon says, “bum central.” She admits being aware of this spot. People she knew once squatted in this space.
Before settling in for the night, we search for cardboard boxes to use as mattresses to help provide a more comfortable rest. Shannon searches dumpsters and trashcans. We enter into other vacant houses to find evidence of squatters with old remnants of squatter gear. The back entrance of one squatter house says, “Squat the World” but has no cardboard boxes. We walk into another former squatter spot filled with roaches running and flying all over the place. We find enough flatted, and probably previously used, cardboard boxes to lay our heads for the night. We buy cheap whiskey to chase with our red wine. Together we return to the house to begin our night urban camping in the bright New Orleans moonlight. Shannon has a story to tell, one she tells so well.
- Our vacant house of the night was on Rocheblave Street, between St. Ferdinand and Port Street. Our night squatting in one of the many abandoned houses of Hurricane Katrina begins.