John Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 19, 2007

To Bay St. Louis via the “Boss Liar” way

By John Howell Sr.

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We took the back road from New Orleans east to the Mississippi coast — Highway 90. In pre-interstate days, it was the main drag.

Where today’s I-10 runs further north and west, the old route threads its way through estuaries, swamps and history.

It’s called the Chef Menteur Highway as it leaves New Orleans. I have seen several versions of what that French name means, none of them good. “Boss liar” is’s version.

The recovery of the single-family homes along “Chef Highway” in New Orleans gives the route a feel more distant from 2005 than the I-10 route through New Orleans East. Along the interstate, large tracts of multi-story apartments still stand vacant, giving it an abandoned look sometimes lasting several blocks.

When my granddaughter from Hattiesburg is with me, we always look for a certain apartment along I-10 that she spotted the first time we rode through after Katrina. On the roof of a three-story apartment complex, next to the hole the apartment’s occupants had chopped through for access, they had sprayed-painted in large letters H-E-L-P.  The words were still there when we drove through there last month.

Back along the Chef heading east soon brings us to the the Vietnamese section with shopping centers and stores signed in familiar letters of unfamiliar groupings of the Annamese alphabet.

The Vietnamese — refugees from the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and their descendants — returned as soon as the flood waters in New Orleans East abated, rebuilding, repainting in traditional, bright colors.

Further east, Chef Highway is a single thread between the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Catherine, both shallow estuaries once plied by Choctaws and their subtribes, Lafitte, his pirates and the British in the War 1812, smugglers, rum runners, bootleggers and an assortment of other commercial and recreational boaters and fishermen.

The lure of this waterside life is too strong for Katrina to have squelched. Great homes and whole developments now rise on piers of creosote and concrete about 16 feet tall. Apparently that’s been determined to have been high enough to have withstood Katrina’s storm surge, the new standard that replaced that set by Camille in 1969.

The traffic of Chef Highway still funnels across an old, narrow bridge across the Rigolets, the narrow waterway connecting Lake Pontchartrain with the Gulf. Further east, a new bridge is almost complete which will replace another narrow old structure still in use to traverse Chef Pass, another of those lake-to-Gulf connections.

Finally in Bay St. Louis, we find the late Alice Moseley’s home on Bookter Street restored to its pre-storm vibrance, reflecting the life of the folk artist who once loved living there.

In Olde Town, enough remains to identify some of the old landmark buildings in that tiny commercial district.

On some of the foundations of the grand old homes which once overlooked the Gulf, grand new homes have risen. Their beauty is only slightly compromised by the homogenity that happens when structures rise all at once in the same year. It will never be the same, but there are folks there who think it will eventually be better.