Dispatch | New Orleans

One of the many distinctive bungalows in New Orleans’s historic Bywater neighborhood.

“Ten to six, Saints — second quarter,” our server at Elizabeth’s said by way of greeting. “I’ll be right back with your menus.” A lady of a certain age, she wore construction boots, cargo shorts and an oversize Saints T-shirt beneath a pixie crop of salt-and-pepper hair.

At my table, one of the guests sighed with relief. A New York lawyer on a yearlong Fifth Circuit clerkship, she was not known to care deeply about football, but the New Orleans Saints were 12-0 in a town starved for good news. “You know, last week — I was so nervous I couldn’t even watch it,” she said to the older woman. “I had to close my eyes!”

“I love imagining all the crazy rituals people have all over the city,” the young woman who had seated us said. She had the exquisitely rumpled look of bohemians everywhere: mussed hair, check shirt, owlish glasses.

It could be the start of a joke: a lawyer, a hipster and a Yat (or old-time white New Orleanian, from “Where Y’at?”) meet in a down-home New Southern restaurant. What do they talk about? Football, of course. Welcome to the Bywater. If the French Quarter is the Crescent City’s West Village, Bywater is Red Hook — a raffish, working-class waterside neighborhood rapidly filling with artists and stargazers.

Gentrification can feel as prepackaged as frozen pizza: in the Bywater, just like in East Austin or Minneapolis’s North Loop, you can find locally sourced menus that innovate tradition (at Elizabeth’s, it’s sweet potato and duck hash on a cornbread waffle with pepper jelly and a side of praline bacon); artist studios enlivening threadbare blocks and developers planning green condos; and shifting demographics.

But this is New Orleans, a city that still ails and one that hardly enjoyed good management even before the Storm, as Hurricane Katrina is called around town. From the downriver edge of the Bywater (New Orleans doesn’t do cardinal directions), you can see the Lower Ninth Ward, or the heron- and egret-patrolled near-wilderness that it has become. Artists like Travis Linde, a transplant from Wisconsin who runs the Rusty Pelican Gallery on St. Claude Avenue, work almost exclusively with materials desposited around town by Katrina: piano frames, pipes, headlights. And the Bywater’s signature social collectives are neither performance troupes nor book clubs. EngageNOLA, which meets upstairs at Elizabeth’s, promotes civic engagement among young professionals; Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and the Innocence Project both have their offices here.

Sculpture at the entrance to the Rusty Pelican gallery.

“There’s more social consciousness here,” Tony Nozero, a painter from Wisconsin who passed though New York and Austin before landing in the Bywater in 2002, told me. “New Orleans is so bare. You’re just starting from ground zero with everything, and the Storm only exacerbated it. It makes people want to do something. And the city gives it back to you. People here buy art more than any other city I’ve lived in, including New York. I didn’t know any artists who were making a living just from their art in New York.”

Bywater started in the 19th century as a Creole suburb of the French Quarter, free blacks and white working-class European immigrants eventually joining the mix. (The close-set Creole cottages that survive from this period have earned the neighborhood National Historic District status.) Priced out of the French Quarter and other areas, artists began moving into the Bywater in significant numbers in the late 1990s, when “you could find whatever you wanted” on the streets at night, according to Christopher Porche-West, a photographer who moved from Southern California in 1995 because he wanted a place with “more tooth and soul.”

By the early 2000s, the drugs and crime had mostly moved north of St. Claude and real estate prices had begun to climb. Because the Bywater is on raised ground near the Mississippi, it escaped the worst of the storm, which only quickened the neighborhood’s rise. Porche-West, who does large studio portraits of Mardi Gras Indians, bought his side-hall shotgun — knob-and-tube plumbing, cypress molding — in 1997 for $60,000. Today it might cost four times as much.

The Country Club restaurant and bar, a Bywater hangout.

But make no mistake: this is still a loose-limbed, provisional and deeply weird place. Bywater is home to an ordained voodoo priestess (her shop, Island of Salvation Botanica, is on Piety Street, and she is a Ukrainian-Jewish transplant from Maine, natch); a neighborhood bar and restaurant called the Country Club that just happens to have a pool complex out back; and Vaughan’s, a shaggy old bar where the great jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins got his start and still plays every Thursday, because that’s how you mark your debt in this town. Where else can you find an intersection like Royal and Desire, the names tiled into the pavement?

After walking off our brunches the Sunday afternoon of the Saints game, my friends and I wandered into Markey’s Bar just in time for the game’s closing minutes. With the Saints up 26-24, the Atlanta Falcons were driving hard down the field. The standing-room-only crowd hummed with an unhappy anxiety. I heard teeth working on the edge of a fingernail.

Fourth down and two, near midfield. Matt Ryan, the Atlanta quarterback, completed the pass — a gasp all around me — but well short of first down. When the Saints defense brought down the Falcons receiver, Markey’s erupted into a clamor that surely they could hear up in Atlanta. People who hardly knew each other embraced and leaped. And then, by invisible consent, the patrons started up a chant that has become New Orleans’s version of huah, an all-purpose affirmation in a city that badly needs it: “Who Dat? Who Dat? Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

Bywater Address Book

Elizabeth’s 601 Gallier Street; (504) 944-9272
Rusty Pelican Gallery 4031 St. Claude Avenue; (504) 218-5727
Markey’s Bar 640 Louisa Street; (504) 943-0785
Christopher Porche-West Gallery 3201 Burgundy Street; (504) 947-3880
Island of Salvation Botanica 835 Piety Street; (504) 948-9961
The Country Club 634 Louisa Street; (504) 945-0742
Vaughan’s 800 Lesseps Street; (504) 947-5562

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