Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina Devastated Much of New Orleans, an Integral City Thoroughfare Thrives Once Again
If the French Quarter is the historic heart of New Orleans, and Bourbon Street its most famous—and infamous—strip of pavement, it is the humble, homely Broad Street that serves as the city’s organizational principle, its bellwether and backbone.
Running in a northeastern to southwesterly fashion, perpendicular to the Mississippi River’s crescent-moon shape that gives the Crescent City its nickname, Broad Street measures just under four miles in length but compensates for its lack of breadth with a broadness (hence its name) common to the grandest of urban avenues. A century ago this area, today encompassing the Mid-City, Tremé, and Bayou St. John neighborhoods, would have been geographically, and somewhat pejoratively, labeled the “back of town” for its marginalized, frontier-like quality. The cheap, often swamp-filled, land encouraged a racially and culturally diverse cross section of New Orleanians, and Broad Street became their nearest entertainment and culinary corridor.
For me, Broad Street was home long before I permanently settled in New Orleans fifteen years ago. My grandmother’s house occupied the corner of Broad and Orleans Avenue: a long shotgun-style residence where my family frequently spent weekends, holidays, and long summer vacations. I would often wake up to a box of hot and glazed from the Tastee Donuts (2549 Esplanade Ave.) located a few blocks up Broad. Lunch was fried chicken, red beans and rice, and biscuits from Popeyes down the street. We would walk to dinner, twenty-five steps from my grandmother’s front door to the white-tablecloth steakhouse she owned. The restaurant had a clubby feel: bright lights and boisterous voices. Thick clouds of cigarette smoke draped the dining rooms, yet the scent of meat and butter and fried potatoes hung even heavier in the air. Night after night after night, I watched as the same families or couples inhabited the same reserved tables and slugged back the same stiff martinis and heavy bottles of cabernet sauvignon, while ordering the same steaks and sides—without ever having to open a menu—from the same waitresses, a grizzled and grandmotherly group of service industry vets who called themselves the Broads on Broad.
I remember Broad as a random smattering of small businesses that lined both sides of the street: wholesale seafood markets and fast-food chains, auto mechanics and bail bond agents promising quick release from the city’s prison, which loomed oppressively over one end of the route. It belonged to that category of inner-city thoroughfares that cabbies and other traffic-savvy locals use to get to the airport in record time. I picture the Broad of my youth as dust filled, hotter than the rest of the city; a grand six-lane stretch of pavement incongruously bisecting a Wild West part of town.
It would have been easy to classify Broad as ugly, but the street hardly lacked charm. A stroll around the pair of gargantuan pump stations, the city’s saviors during many a deluge, their lime-green hydraulic tubes writhing from the ground like prehistoric serpents, could be just as exciting as a trip to the zoo. The headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the city’s oldest and most venerated African-American carnival organization, sat catty-corner from my grandmother’s house. From her front stoop on Mardi Gras day, I’d watch wide-eyed with dismay as Zulu members in blackface and grass skirts—a not-so-subtle reappropriation of a once-prevalent racist iconography—paraded down Broad. In my twenties, during my Dylan phase, I took pride in the fact that Highway 61, the legendary “Blues Highway,” begins at the corner of Tulane Avenue and Broad, before winding its way up the Mississippi. When feeling low and searching for a prayer, I’d make a pilgrimage to the F&F Botanica and Candle Shop (801 North Broad Street), where Voodoo practitioners, saint-adoring Catholics, and other spiritualists sort through the menagerie of curios and charms, oils and herbs, to cure everything from health problems to money troubles and heartbreak.
I had little reason to visit Broad Street once my grandmother passed away in 2002. I lived clear across town and was kept busy with college and work. But Broad remained the neighborhood I knew best. I would revisit the old Broads on Broad, my substitute grandmothers for an evening. I discovered new places to eat, like Boswell’s Jamaican Food Store [3521 Tulane Avenue] for plates of soul-searing jerk chicken. Most often, I’d cruise the strip—one of the city’s best—with no destination but the comfort of memories and the quiet pleasures of the street’s changelessness.
On August 29, 2005, any semblance of normality, all opportunities to maintain that stability of sameness, disappeared under the floodwaters that would soon inundate much of the city following the federal levee failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. With the lowest elevation among central New Orleans neighborhoods, the Broad Street area was especially susceptible to flooding. Up to eight feet of water submerged the homes and businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods. At least four feet swamped my grandmother’s home for up to two weeks. Little was salvageable.
I could learn to live through the pain of witnessing the destruction of my grandmother’s home, but the loss of her steakhouse, which would never reopen in the same location, and the scattering of the Broads on Broad to the four corners of this country felt utterly, exasperatingly devastating. A neighborhood without places to eat, including my cherished Popeyes, did not feel like much of a neighborhood at all. Where we eat and drink defines where and how we live. Attempt to tell a story about your life featuring your neighborhood, be it the area where you grew up or the street you live on now, without mentioning the bakery where your mother bought you those special cookies that still ignite Proustian reveries, the café or restaurant you went to on a first date, or even a visit to that favorite fast-food franchise for fried chicken and biscuits. It is an impossible task.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. To that I would add that we live through telling ourselves stories about food.
These neighborhood anchors root us to a place and bind us to each other. And as the weeks following Katrina turned into months, Broad Street, without anywhere to gather and eat, felt empty, completely and agonizingly lifeless.
I left the city for a short spell in New York, returning in 2008—Katrina Year Three, some called it. I marveled as New Orleanians, new and old, rebuilt and transformed their neighborhoods. Streets that once held little promise, marred by blight and long neglected by the powers that be, became trendy restaurant rows, shopping districts, and havens for modern cocktail bars and coffee shops. The geography of my city shifted, and the new Freret Street, the revitalized St. Claude Avenue, the improved French Quarter became my frequent evening destinations. I rarely, if ever, returned to old Broad Street.
Not until several years later, in an attempt to avoid a surge of rush-hour traffic, did I detour for a drive down trusty Broad. At the corner of Palmyra Street I spotted a sun-yellow building trimmed in red neon. The Ideal Market (250 S. Broad St.) stood out like an elephant on a hog farm. Astounded to find something new on unchanging Broad, I entered to find a Latino grocery, deli, butcher, and bakery swarming with customers. I was familiar with similar markets in the suburbs, but never one of this size and scope in central New Orleans. Ideal, I would come to learn, alongside a handful of nearby groceries, opened to provide home-style comforts to the neighborhood’s burgeoning Latino population, manual laborers mostly, who had come to rebuild the city. Flags from a dozen-plus nations hung from the ceiling, and a whole aisle dedicated to dried peppers and spices sat opposite the bustling buffet counter. At that first visit, I bought what would become my go-to takeout supper: a whole pollo asado combined with a half pound of toothsome chargrilled barbacoa, a bag of tortillas, and a quartet of fresh salsas and pickled vegetables.
I returned often to Ideal, for the cheapest avocados in town and for bags of citrus during the Great Lime Shortage of 2014, and soon Broad Street began to reveal its layers, open itself to further exploration. I met Triet Tra, a Saigon-area émigré turned Vietnamese soup and sandwich shopkeep at Eat-Well Food Mart (2700 Canal Street), where the window seats, accompanied by a pork-filled bánh mì, provided an unparalleled panorama of modern Broad Street. The iconic Sriracha-red streetcars, jam-packed with tourists on their way to and from the French Quarter, slowly clanged past the pedestrian parade that represented just about every stitch of the city’s fabric, from businessman to small-time hustler.
At the corner of Broad and Bayou Road, hidden behind the reopened Tastee Donuts, an enclave of black-owned businesses, including a record shop and bookstore, each rebuilt after Katrina, offered a new area to uncover. There I found another survivor of the storm, Coco Hut (2515 Bayou Road), a Jamaican jerk emporium, run by a woman who calls herself Mother Nature. A native Colombian who married an islander, Mother Nature grills her Scotch bonnet-jerked chicken, fish, and shrimp over pecan and lime tree cuttings. Around the block, I learned to sate my Popeyes cravings at McHardy’s Chicken & Fixin’ (1458 North Broad Street), where the yardbird arrives just as it should: cheap, fresh from the fryer, and subtly suffused with salt and spices.
A decade after Katrina, Broad Street has not only maintained its unpretentious patchwork of small businesses, but the neighborhood’s demographic diversity has gracefully superseded its pre-storm numbers. Others were discovering or rediscovering Broad Street just as I was. New Orleanians casually mentioned that this would be the next neighborhood to see an economic revitalization. Some called it a symbol of the city’s renewal, a post-Katrina rebirth, while others named it gentrification, or even exploitation. Whispers circulated of a Whole Foods taking over a supermarket abandoned since Katrina, a notion that struck me as comical. What is a nice store like you doing on street like this? But when the grocery opened in early 2014, with the promise of downscaling their prices for the area’s low-income shoppers, I began spending even more time on the new Broad Street.
The district is still a bit rough at the center and edges, hardly the image of New Orleans promoted in television commercials and magazine advertisements, but it prevails as the city’s broad backbone, a reminder of the past and indicator of the future. Broad Street is New Orleans’s unheralded soul.
Broad Street survives, and I have returned to stay. And as we enter Katrina Year Ten, the damages and traumas left over from the flooding of the city remain. Broad Street, like the rest of the city, will continue to change, likely for the better, but the scars will never permanently heal.
There remained a single Broad Street institution in which I had never stepped foot, a rival steakhouse three blocks down from my grandmother’s restaurant. I had long admired Crescent City Steakhouse’s neon sign (1001 North Broad Street), Broad Street’s most iconic symbol, a glowing ribeye steak, flashing on-off, on-off, in neon red. Now it was finally time to heed that neon call. I recognized the scent of meat and butter and fried potatoes as soon as I stepped into the dining room—all wood paneling and mosaic tile floors—which must look much the same as when John Vojkovich opened Crescent City in 1934 (thirty-one years before my family entered the business). Along one wall, three private, curtain-drawn booths offered privacy for those patrons whose carnal appetites went beyond platters of blood-rare prime beef. Windows offered a view of Broad Street.
The menu was much the same as the steakhouse I grew up in, and I ordered from memory. A porterhouse steak to share, cooked medium rare, a simple salad of iceberg and tomatoes, flour-battered fried onion rings, Lyonnaise potatoes sautéed in plenty of sliced onions, cheesy spinach au gratin, and peas swimming in butter.
Anthony Vojkovich, son of the founder, stopped by the table to tell me my grandmother often ate here with my grandfather, well before she opened her own place. Our waitress pointed out the waterline, a faint line running along the bottom of the imposing oak-wood bar, a lasting reminder of Katrina’s floodwaters. Outside, in the twilight hours, a steady stream of cars cruised up and down Broad Street—locals en route to late-night cocktails, cabbies shortcutting across town, and, I’d like to think, at least one other New Orleanian searching for something new to eat on old Broad Street.