If you’ve never traversed the Crescent City by foot, you are missing out. You can really dig in the cracked pavement and tiered landscape, plus there’s a whole host of scents to engage traveling by bike or car one is likely to miss. Just the other night a group of us walked from Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop over to the Marigny and the wafts of equal parts liquor, urine, and pot made for a less-than-appetizing nasal gumbo. But while one wrestles over the legal and the sanitary, in the French Quarter the street surfaces historically remain level. To say the least, it’s refreshing, especially if one is familiar with any other stretch within New Orleans where the mature oaks that pepper the streets over time have broken new ground, so to speak, giving the citizenry, say it with me: more broken sidewalks.
What a label! It’s right up there with “More Fun Comics” over on Oak Street. Are the comics they sell more fun or do they have fun comics in greater quantity? This is a riddle to which I think the world may never know the answer. Like a sign I read while driving in Houston once that read: Giant Truck Sale. I couldn’t be sure if they were selling giant trucks or if their truck sale were so massive? Again, a riddle for the ages. Enter: More Broken Sidewalks. And the riddles roll on. Are New Orleans’ sidewalks more broken than other metro areas or is it just that we have a greater amount than again, say Houston? And the answer is yes and yes. Because it has to be. For one thing I don’t believe you can get too far on foot in Houston, and from what I can tell a lot of cities don’t have any sidewalks to speak of anyway. So they’re not even competing! You can’t have a broken version of what you don’t have to begin with.
For me, navigating our blocks by foot always makes me feel like I’ve done it before, like I’m genetically predisposed to have to do this. My mother grew up at 6878 Canal Blvd in Lakeview, and her parents lived there until the early 90s. It’s a vacant lot now but when I was a boy and we’d visit her folks, my grandfather and I walked up and down Canal Blvd every day. To get the paper at Meme’s. To pay the light bill next door at the hardware store. To visit my aunt and uncle nearby on Vicksburg. The oaks canopied over the boulevard and busted up the storied pastiche of concrete that was once a whole and possibly (ok, likely) level sidewalk. The patches were tagged to no end with foot prints, names, and dates. Like a curated open air cave wall, these surfaces told the stories of the lives nearby. My neighborhood growing up in the West End of Beaumont, Texas, did not have this; sidewalks were missing from our block. So these moments were in a word: fascinating.
My folks named me after my grandfather, sort of. His name was Paul, and I have his last name as my middle name. I am told by some this is very Southern. To me, it’s just a nice reminder of him. I never saw him ride a bike, and I wonder if he even knew how to, though he did drive. They had an old light-blue 1970something Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight; those cars made Volvos look like Corvettes. But mostly, Paul walked. And he didn’t dally. I dally, but I walk too. His steps were purposeful and steadfast. And he didn’t need no stinkin’ car to make his groceries neither. That’s what your wheelie cart is for. Long after Paul stopped driving, the sidewalks of Lakeview served his most every need. And while I’m pretty sure an old timer like Paul never would have intentionally left a foot print or felt the need to wield a stick and scrawl his name in fresh concrete, the majority of his walks he did alone, and who knows what mischief he may’ve taken to his grave.
Like the rampant potholes that remind us of the shifting soil beneath us, as our cars bottom out and stretch the limits of our struts and shocks, New Orleans’ sidewalks glacially shift from function to shelves of displaced concrete, often without notice or reason. Do I want them fixed? Not necessarily. It’ll happen again. I don’t make my bed everyday, either.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.