John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2008

New pavement hits Laurel St.

Laurel Street is getting a makeover according to signs first posted about a month ago.

“No parking 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.” warned signs nailed to every utility pole for blocks.

Could it be that the most pot-holed street in the most pot-holed city in the nation is really going to be repaved?

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Annunciation Street, which parallels Laurel, and Upperline Street, which intersects Laurel at our block, is also scheduled for repaving, a worker posting the signs told me.

They first worked on potholes, partially smoothing the worst offenders. We’d grown to consider them built-in speed bumps, but Laurel and portions of Upperline had become continuous speed bumps. I had learned to navigate them cautiously on tires almost my age.

After that, they worked on sidewalks at street corners, breaking apart old concrete and building forms that sat waiting to shape the new concrete as it flows liquid from the truck. During a later visit I noticed that concrete had been poured and shaped into a nice, new curb with street level access that would allow a wheelchair to roll easily onto the sidewalk. Never mind that once the wheelchair’s operator leaves the new curb, he will face on the often broken and uneven old sidewalk surfaces a navigation challenge greater than the motorist in the street.

Not that the wheelchair driver will try to stay on the sidewalk anyway. It has become not uncommon in New Orleans to see motorized wheelchairs that resemble three-wheel and four-wheel scooters riding along the edge of the street. Since Medicare started buying wheelchairs, they have proliferated on these city streets.  Pedestrianism here is quite common, either from choice of lifestyle or force of circumstance. I often see drivers’ self-satisfied smiles as they zip with apparent impunity between parked and moving vehicles. It’s the pride that comes with new ownership of individual, motorized transportation, albeit a scooter, made possible for the first time in the driver’s life through the generosity of Medicare.

This weekend at the corner of Annunciation and Lyons Streets, I noticed more old sidewalk corners demolished and new forms awaiting concrete. So the project continues, even at what appears to be a piecemeal pace.

Meanwhile, the space across the street in the Wisner Playground languishes after its most recent stint as a FEMA trailer park. All the trailers have been gone since early this year. Infrastructure remains — the landscape cloth and gravel that were layered over the entire softball field to provide a foundation bed for the 30-plus FEMA trailers and fenced-in, above-ground sewer and water lines built to service the rows of trailers.

City leaders urged FEMA to restore the park areas in time for summer youth recreation programs here. Didn’t happen.

In the house next door that has been mostly vacant since Katrina, a new guy has moved in. He’s the son of the widow lady who lived there until the storm. We think he’s showed up after all these months due to a new city ordinance that threatens owners of unoccupied structures with fines of $100 to $500 a day for allowing property to remain unsecured and derelict.

J. Monque’D, the blues singing, mule-carriage driving neighbor on our other side, discovered the newly-arrived neighbor one day and recalled him from childhood. In his booming baritone, J. Monque’D inquired about the man’s mother and recalled her with praise that drew only a silent, deadpan reaction from the man. So J. Monque’D raised the effusiveness of his praise. Still no reaction.

Then J. Monque’D told the man about how he had been watching over her house while she’d been away. His words still drew no different reaction from his hearer, so J. Monque’D kept embellishing his role in what he had done to protect the man’s mother’s house. The final version included himself single-handedly running away vandals or thieves that he’d found one day in their yard.

Still no reaction except that the man’s expression had changed to one of utter contempt.

Fortunately, J. Monque’D was slightly wiser than Brer Rabbit. He chose not to slug the character who chose to remain mute in the face of his eloquence and thereby became no further entangled with him.

And that’s a report from Laurel Street in New Orleans where since Katrina the neighbors now outnumber the hoods. But that doesn’t mean that they always get along.