SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
(Reading) The Mississippi River winds past the city of New Orleans between enormous levees and a rim of land and trees. This is the batture, where the water beats against the land, and it is where the river breathes.
That's the opening passage of the book, "Down on the Batture," by Oliver Houck. The subject is the netherworld between the levee and the river. In a city renowned for its bohemian neighborhoods, there's nothing quite like the small community built on stilts on the batture. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT: They're easy to miss. You have to be on top of the Mississippi River levee, just beyond the Orleans-Jefferson Parish line. Then you see them: the camps, as they're called. A dozen eccentric structures - some rundown, some handsome, all handmade - clinging to the river side of the great dike.
JEAN BRADY HENDRICKS: I think the French would be batture, B-A-T-T-U-R-E. But we all call it the batture. Everyone knows what that is.
BURNETT: Jean Brady Hendricks is 88. She wears long dresses and gaudy jewelry, and rides a pink Schwinn. Her home is a ramshackle thing swallowed by river vines and visited by night creatures for whom she puts out cat food. She's happy here.
BRADY HENDRICKS: It's a very unusual place to live. Somebody did an article in the paper, they referred to it as a very whimsical place to live. People want to live here.
BURNETT: Hendricks used to be a torch singer in the French Quarter at places like Poodle's Patio Lounge and the Gunga Din Club. For most of her life she lived in New Orleans. She moved to the batture about three years ago.
BRADY HENDRICKS: And when I first saw this house I started to say, (singing) a shanty, a shanty, an old shanty town, the roof is so slanty it's touching the ground. I think it's the worst looking house up here, but I don't mind. If I was younger I'd mind. It's funny how you become more tolerant as you get older.
(SOUNDBITE OF FROGS)
BURNETT: Life on the batture becomes a different world at night. The breeze is always cool. The willow trees come alive with tree frogs calling out for casual sex. Giant freighters outlined in navigation lights glide past in the gloom. They're surprisingly quiet, until their wake hits the earthen levee.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES SPLASHING)
BURNETT: Macon Frye sits out on his deck, sipping a cold beer, over the water.
MACON FRYE: I love the sounds here. The place seems alive to me all the time; not just the frogs but there's always movement, whether it's ships, or trains, or the water moving under us.
BURNETT: Frye is a wiry, tanned urban farmer and educator who teaches kids about agriculture. He lives in a house he built from salvaged wood. There's a goat named Sweet Pea on the porch. With spring floods this year, the Mississippi rose almost to his floorboards, but it never flooded his house. Macon Frye says he likes living on the edge.
FRYE: It's an edge community. It's not in the city, and it's not really in the river. But it's on the edge, and there's a lot of interesting things that happen on edges. Things wash up, things show up, animals show up, and different plants grow on edges. That's the way it feels, it feels like a really different kind of place.
BURNETT: Once upon a time, camps lined the batture, all along the great crescent of river that gives New Orleans its nickname. After the historic flood of 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to enlarge the levees and almost all the camps, teetering on their pilings, had to go.
OLIVER HOUCK: So what we have now is a little appendix of about a dozen houses up there, which are the remnants of what once lined the banks of the river from downtown New Orleans all the way up here to the parish, a good six, seven miles.
BURNETT: For his book, "Down on the Batture," Tulane environmental law professor Oliver Houck spent a lot of time exploring its history. He came across a landmark case from the early 1800s that decided the fundamental question - who owns the batture?
HOUCK: The end of it was the American idea won. This was private. And that eliminated the publicness of the batture.
BURNETT: So the batture is private property. But who owns it? A New Orleans lawyer named Ashton O'Dwyer Jr. has been fighting in the courts for years to prove that his family is the rightful owner of this riparian neighborhood.
ASHTON O: I don't want to have anything to do with anything that belongs to these squatters and trespassers. Get off my property, remediate it, and give it back to me and pay me damages.
BURNETT: O'Dwyer takes me to the kitchen of his St. Charles Avenue manse. He's a picture of southern gentility in a blue blazer, pink oxford shirt and a tie with little pheasants on it. He covers the counter with legal papers which purport to show that his great uncle George, a casino owner, originally bought the batture property from an oil company.
DWYER: It demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that George acquired this property from the Texas company in July of 1945.
BURNETT: The Jefferson Parish tax office, in fact, produced records that show that the O'Dwyer family has been paying annual property taxes of about $1,500 a year on the disputed batture land.
DWYER: Who else do you know lives rent-free and tax-free on land owned by other people? These people are scumbags. Get off.
BURNETT: Ashton O'Dwyer's epic struggle to regain what he claims is his family land has run off the tracks, as he has. Once a leading admiralty lawyer in New Orleans, O'Dwyer has been disbarred and banned from all state and district courts for using abusive language and threatening judges. He's filed for bankruptcy, and he faces charges of threatening federal officials.
For the moment, the batture lawsuit and his other prolific litigation, have been administratively closed by the courts. Which is why the batture dwellers don't seem overly concerned.
STEVE SCHWEITZER: Nobody really worries or even thinks about that, you know. It's a dead issue as far as everybody up here. Nobody up here feels like they're squatters. We're owners of our own property.
BURNETT: Steve Schweiterz is an architect who lives with his wife, Sandra, in a modern house they completed last year that's painted a brilliant blue and orange, nothing like the tumbledown camps of old. They moved to the batture after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home and their printing business in town.
SANDRA SCHWEITZER: It was bad enough that Katrina hit, and then you spent two to three years dealing with insurance companies. And it was just not a fun time. We built this one not to lose it, so hopefully we won't.
BURNETT: They have decided it's safer to live outside the bowl of New Orleans, down on the batture, with the Father of Waters in their backyard. John Burnett, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can see historic images of the batture in New Orleans from Oliver Houck's book on our website, NPR.org.