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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Six plates, seven water glasses, four cups and saucers, a platter and a tureen with a broken handle--these were the only possessions that are senior editor, Gwendolyn Thompkins, could salvage from her family home in New Orleans the other day. She grew up in an area called Pontchartrain Park. The neighborhood survived Hurricane Katrina, but when the levees failed on that blue Monday, August 28th, the lake soaked every house as far as the eye can see. She brought back these impressions.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on.

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Come on, let me show you where it's at.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on.

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Come on, let me show you where it's at.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on!

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Come on, let me show you where it's at.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) The name of the place is...

Unidentified Man #1 and Back-up Singers: (Singing in unison) ...I like it like that.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on.

GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS reporting:

Pontchartrain Park made news as one of the biggest, most luxurious Negro developments ever undertaken in the South. It was the 1950s, and we were proud Negroes. In fact, the whole city was catching on to racial pride. Every day there seemed to be a first Negro this or a first Negro that. It wasn't just our local hero, Louis Armstrong, making history with Bing Crosby on the radio, or Mahalia Jackson on "The Ed Sullivan Show." It was also people like retired schoolteacher Audre Woods(ph). She was the first Negro in town to have a baby in the all-white maternity ward at Sara Mayo Hospital. She remembered that small step for mankind on a sad morning recently as workmen gutted her house.

Mrs. AUDRE WOODS (Retired Schoolteacher): And I just took my little self and I walked over there and found me a room, opened the door and went in and got in the bed.

(Soundbite of workmen gutting Mrs. Woods' house)

Mrs. WOODS: And the nurse said, `Who's going to serve you?' I said, `I only had a baby, and all I need is my food and put me a glass of water and some aspirins in case I have a headache or something.'

(Soundbite of workmen gutting Mrs. Woods' house)

THOMPKINS: When Audre and Melden Woods(ph) moved to Pontchartrain Park in 1958, it was so quiet and so tucked-away that her father gave them a shotgun, just in case.

Mrs. WOODS: This was the only area for blacks to go that you could find some peace and harmony, so all of us have been here for forever.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Do you believe in love at sight? Believe that dreams come true, dear? I was in doubt until tonight. But when we met, I do.

THOMPKINS: The Woodses were among the first to buy houses on an elegantly named street in Pontchartrain Park called Providence Place. While New Orleans has always been an integrated city, perhaps more so than any other city in the nation, Pontchartrain Park was, at the same time, a step forward and a step back. It was a product of segregationist thinking, that black people should live separately and equally someplace on the outskirts of town and away from white people. But the Park, as we call it, also gave black New Orleanians all the benefits of suburbia within city limits: brand-new brick houses, freshly planted geraniums, the latest Tappan and Amana appliances and off-street parking. In 1960, electrician Elmo Dix came and built one of the grandest houses in the neighborhood.

Mr. ELMO DIX (Electrician): It took us two years to build it. All the bricklayer friends that I had and friends that I've worked for, we would swap out favors. Our word was our bond. If the bricklayers was coming to my home and laid bricks, we would feed them gumbo and fried chicken and cold beer and just give them a good meal. And when I went to their homes, I would get the same thing. That's basically the way I had my home built. It didn't cost a lot of money. It was a lot of favors that made it happen.

THOMPKINS: There's a vast and stately park in the neighborhood with a handsome golf course, lagoons, a Little League stadium, football tackling dummies and swings that go really high. And surrounding the park are more than a thousand modest homes. Mostly working people came to live here, young couples on the GI Bill with little babies and big dreams.

Mrs. WOODS: We only paid $15,500 for the first part of the house, but we have added on, let's see, one, two, three times, yes. You know, we stayed up night putting down the floors, and he did all of the Sheetrocking and the--What you call that other stuff?--paneling, ceilings and...

(Soundbite of workmen gutting Mrs. Woods' house)

Mrs. WOODS: ...we're watching it leave us piece by piece.

Mr. DIX: We lost everything that we worked for our entire lives.

THOMPKINS: Elmo Dix.

Mr. DIX: You get stuff in bits and pieces. You know, we get a little this year and a little next year and the year--a little the year afterwards. We can't possibly tell anyone just what a dollar amount is worth in terms of personal properties that we've lost.

THOMPKINS: This was the kind of neighborhood where the postman rang the bell if he'd thought you'd gotten a letter with money in it. Every weekday the dry cleaner came by, and the ice cream and mosquito-control trucks rolled through in the summertime. In the 1960s and '70s, Andy Robinson was a hipster in the Park. He calls the neighborhood `sa'diddy,'(ph) which is hipster talk for `bourgeois and boring.'

Mr. ANDY ROBINSON (Former Hipster): Well, it was nice and quiet and, you know, kind of on the sa'diddy side. Yeah, you know it was square. Don't even come with that. You know good and well it was square.

(Soundbite of song)

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Ugh!

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn. On the side in Rampart Street, the combos play with a mambo beat. The Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo...

THOMPKINS: Every year, residents of Pontchartrain Park took part in Carnival Cruise, but we didn't show out like black folks in other neighborhoods, the 13th Ward, for instance, where the Neville Brothers come from, or the Lower Ninth, or Backtown. Park people rarely chanted or danced with the Mardi Gras Indians, black performers from the rougher parts of the city who bristle and parade in elaborate sequined costumes. Tribes like the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas thought we were too stiff, and our parents thought they were just too damn wild.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Wild man run ...(unintelligible) white boy (unintelligible).

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Hoochie-coochie my leg.

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Wild Magnolia put a spell on you.

Back-up Singers: (Singing) Hoochie-coochie my leg.

THOMPKINS: By the early 1970s, we were no longer proud Negroes in the Park, we were proud black people--and in quick succession, proud African-Americans and proud people of color. That is no small feat. Louisiana has more variations of black, brown and beige than any other place in the nation. And for the longest time, people here made distinctions. There may have been an undercurrent of what we call `color consciousness' in the Park, but more so with the parents than the children. In the Park, every child was officially treated like a saltwater pearl just waiting to be polished.

Ms. GLORIA MITCHELL (Retired Schoolteacher): It was not `if' you go to school, but `when' you go to college such and such a thing will happen. Aspirations were very high. Expectations were high.

THOMPKINS: That's retired schoolteacher Gloria Mitchell. She and her husband, Peter, came to the Park in 1965. They raised four sons and a daughter here.

Ms. MITCHELL: All of these were working people. You had to work, so these children grew up knowing you can't sit on it. You have to work hard.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Somebody told The Times-Picayune recently that growing up in Pontchartrain Park was like growing up in "Leave it to Beaver" land. I remember complaining as a teen-ager in the 1980s that nothing ever happened here. But there was a lot going on that I didn't see at the time. More than 90 percent of the people here owned their own homes. Nearly every kid I knew did go to college. One resident, Ernest Morial, went on to become the first black mayor of New Orleans. His son, Mark, also became mayor of the city. Eddie Jordan, who grew up on Congress Drive, became the US attorney who finally put Governor Edwin Edwards in jail--he's now the DA--and during his campaign touted Pontchartrain Park as a model for the rest of the city.

Mr. EDDIE JORDAN (New Orleans District Attorney): During the 10 years or so that I lived there, before I went to college, the worst thing that happened, I think, was my bicycle was stolen. But other than that, it was really a virtually crime-free neighborhood.

(Soundbite of song)

Back-up Singers: (Singing in unison) Drip, drop. Drip, drop. Drip, drop. Drip, drop.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) It's raining so hard. Look like it's gonna rain all night.

THOMPKINS: Pontchartrain Park rarely, if ever, floods. My house, on the corner of Mithra Street and Press Drive, never had a drop of water in it that wasn't mixed with Pine-Sol or Mr. Clean. The other day I ran into my friend, Paul Dix(ph), who asked me how I made out in the flood. Then he stopped himself and laughed, saying, `Wait, I know how you made out. I passed your house in my boat.'

(Soundbite of keys jangling; door being unlocked)

THOMPKINS: Well, let me walk inside the house. I'm not going to wear my mask, so I'm actually not going to stay in the house very long. But I want to mention a couple of things that are in here. In the hall closet there was a china set--beautiful white porcelain with a thin gold band around the edges. That was my mother's wedding china. And the whole set of leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare. What else do I find in here? Our Christmas ornaments, which--oh, they have seen their last Christmas--and a vacuum cleaner. I'm afraid to touch half of this stuff.

In my bedroom, I found an old Billie Holiday poster that I used to love to look at in college. It was on the floor next to a party dress that my mother used to look so pretty wearing. In the dampness, they were both dirty and spotted with mold. But it was easy to make out Lady Day. There she was in black and white, standing at the microphone with a jar of hooch in her hand. She looked about as forlorn as the house, as my one and only copy of "Catcher in the Rye," as my desk, now swollen shut, which contained all the love letters of my youth. This is what catastrophe looks like. Outside my house, at the top of what used to be my sister's bedroom window, I found a dead fish stuck to the blind.

(Soundbite of drums)

THOMPKINS: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has had a series of town meetings to answer questions about what happens next. He looks haggard and worn-out, and so do a lot of people in the Park these days. Many of them are people in their 70s. They had expected to spend their retirement years seeing the nation in an RV or a nice heavy American sedan. The Woodses' lawn has just been measured for a FEMA trailer. That will be there new home until the house gets fixed. But before launching into repairs, residents of Pontchartrain Park are holding out for some good news from the insurance companies. Mrs. Woods says that she was just offered a 30-year loan to repair her house.

Mrs. WOODS: I said, `Miss, I'm 71 years old. Thirty-year loan? Whoopie-doo!' She said, `But it's only 10 1/2 percent interest.' I said, `Whoopie-doo!'

THOMPKINS: Gilda Dix and her husband, Elmo, may not come back.

Mrs. GILDA DIX (Pontchartrain Park Resident): I moved there a young woman with my children. They grew up there. We were happy. I don't think Pontchartrain Park will ever be like it was. I think it may be just as good with young people with children, and that may be a very good thing.

THOMPKINS: I was in line at the Whitney Bank uptown the other day, and the man ahead of me said, `The flood came to New Orleans for a reason,' that our debauchery and libertine ways offended God so much that he rose up and smote us like Sodom and Gomorrah. I've heard that before. But I can't help thinking it's a lot of hooey. What has kept New Orleans together for nearly 300 years is neighbors doing the best they can. That rarely gets as much attention as the allures that draw the entire world to our doorstep: presidents and revelers, princes and conventioneers, deacons and even a pope. People like to say that good fences make good neighbors. But if you ask the folks of Pontchartrain Park, of Girt Town and Backtown, of New Orleans East, Gentilly and Lakeview, areas that were soaked to the ceilings, they'd say something different. In New Orleans, good levees make good neighbors. Always have, always will.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Let me take you down, baby. Let me take you down, yeah.

SIMON: Gwendolyn Thompkins is our editor. Sarah Beyer Kelly produced this story. You can see photos from their visit--Gwen's visit home--you've got to see the family photos; they're adorable--and hear the songs in this piece on our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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