We walked a lot in the Ninth Ward. We had no choice. Most of the people in our New Orleans neighborhood had no cars; and those who had them, with the notable exceptions of the Elam and Shelton families down the street from our house on North Roman Street, guarded them jealously.
Mostly, we relied on public transportation. This was no boost to our morale. Perhaps, somewhere, there is an old New Orleans bus, circa 1950, that could tell the story.
Those old buses were outfitted with tubular bars atop the backrests of seats. Each bar contained two drilled holes, into which went the "screen." But it wasn't really a screen, at least not in the normal sense of a partition preventing you from seeing the person on the other side. It was just a wooden sign with two metal prongs on the bottom. Blacks could not sit in front of the screen. Whites could not sit behind it.
It was a humiliating practice, but it wasn't totally without humor. If the bus stopped first in white neighborhoods, blacks usually found the screens all the way in the back of the bus, where they had to stand or sit when the screens were in place. It didn't matter if most of the seats up front were vacant. If you were black, you stepped back behind the screen.
But this silliness worked both ways. When we blacks boarded the bus first, we returned the favor. We placed the screens as far forward as possible, leaving little room for the whites up front. The bus would stop. Whites boarding the bus would see the location of the screens, hurl racial epithets, turn around and get off. We blacks laughed with delight.
Racial hatred may be ugly. But no one said it couldn't be fun; except, well, sometimes it wasn't so funny. Sometimes there were fights, usually between black and white high school students struggling for supremacy over the segregated bus.
I was in a lot of those fights. I even started a few of them. I was proud of myself then. I'm not so proud of myself now. I could have killed someone. Someone could have killed me.
There is one race fight in particular that stands out in my mind. I engineered the whole thing; and it had nothing to do with the bus. But it had everything to do with a walkable community.
My family is Roman Catholic. In the 1950s and early '60s in New Orleans, before Hurricane Betsy blew a hole in its roof in 1965 and rendered it uninhabitable, Holy Redeemer Church near Elysian Fields Avenue, just outside of the city's French Quarter, was our church. As a family, we always took the bus from the Ninth Ward to Holy Redeemer for Sunday Mass. Sometimes we hooked a ride with the David Shelton family, which was Catholic too.
I was an altar boy and a member of the Holy Redeemer youth choir, which meant I was at the church a lot on Saturdays practicing with the choir, or trying to figure out which side of the altar I would serve at Sunday Mass. My parents always gave me the necessary bus fare; but I would save half of it by walking home to the Ninth Ward from the church, which usually meant walking through some white neighborhoods, where I would be insulted, taunted and sometimes pummeled unmercifully.
I grew tired of that treatment, and devised a plan to get even. The worst of the racial treatment usually would come just before I reached the Galvez Street overpass and crossed into Ninth Ward territory. White boys and girls would meet me on their side of the overpass and start the harassment; but they would never attempt to chase me over to the black side.
I resolved to make them give chase, and to have my gang waiting on the black side if and when the whites crossed over. It turned out to be an easy provocation. The usual insults began as I approached the overpass. Normally, I would hang my head and try to ignore the nastiness. But this time I returned the insults with choice comments about their mothers, fathers, sisters and girlfriends.
The whites became an angry mob and chased me across the overpass -- into the waiting anger and violence of my black gang. It was a quick, horrible fight, broken up by some black adults before someone was killed. One of my gang fingered me as the instigator. One of the adults asked me if I were proud of myself. But the thrill of my "victory" had already turned to chagrin and regret. I wasn't.
I never walked through that white neighborhood again. I couldn't walk through it today, because it disappeared years before Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters washed it and most of the rest of the city away in late summer.
The Civil Rights movement finally made it to New Orleans in the late 1960s. De jure segregation ended. De facto segregation took its place. Blacks who could afford better housing, including my family, moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods. Whites moved out into neighboring Jefferson Parish. The Ninth Ward, now bereft of even the few middle-income and upper-income black families who once lived there, became poorer and blacker in a city where both characteristics historically placed you at a tremendous disadvantage.
It did not surprise me to see all of those poor black faces crowded into dismal shelters in Katrina's wake. They were all from my old walkable community. They had no way to get out in a city where one-third of the households, the vast majority of them black, have no access to a car or truck. None of them could walk on water.