Bayou St. John at the Center

Strangers often approach me to ask about the wavy line tattooed along my upper arm, usually with a guess. The Mississippi River is common (though it’s way too small for that), the elevation of a mountain range, a fault line. I’m always happy to oblige, happy to tell them about Bayou St. John and how it’s the reason that we’re – New Orleans, that is – that we’re here. By here I mean specifically at 29.9511 degrees N and 90.0715 degrees W, at this specific bend of the Mississippi River, at this specific and ever-nearing distance from the Gulf of Mexico. 

Perhaps you know the story, too -- when the French came looking to claim the Mississippi and the prosperous futures it promised, they were stymied by the shifting birdsfoot mouth of the river. The native people –long familiar with the waterways of the Southeast – showed them the Bayou Choupic (Bayou St. John) portage route. This route connected the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River by way of Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain and then through the little bayou that meandered from Lake Pontchartrain’s Southern shore to a spot where a short walk landed you on the banks of the Mississippi. And so the port city of New Orleans was founded here, in the shortest stretch between the river and bayou and roughly one hundred miles upstream of the mouth of the Mississippi. 

Foggy bayou

By proxy, then, the bayou is also why I’m here -- a New Orleanian whose origin has everything to do with the iterations of the city that grew from and by way of that bayou’s connecting route -- and it’s been a near constant in my life. In elementary school, my dad and I walked the one block every night for a month to sit on the bayou and draw the moon overlooking it – an assignment to learn moon cycles. An ever intrepid explorer as a kid, I climbed under, over and through every climbable ledge of the blue bridge (aka Cabrini bridge, Magnolia bridge), entranced by the murky watery world lapping underneath. That bridge is more protected now – it’s much harder to clamber under and pretend to be a bridge troll as a friend and I once did. Neighborhood bayou clean-ups dotted my childhood, as did stories about the time so-and-so wrangled a gator on the banks with a dog leash, or about the latest car to go over into the water at the tight curve by the convent. 

In teenage years it was a safe getaway to gossip and plot out of adult earshot, until 2005 when the bayou abruptly became one of my top “most missed” places, as I was flung thousands of miles farther than the one block walk I had always been. I caught up with friends in the concrete banquettes on the bayou whenever I came to visit, drew my name into fresh concrete poured somewhere on Moss St.

When I first began to trust the pull to come home, I sat on the blue bridge one evening and watched a spider build its web, a reassurance that I could also rebuild home in the place that it’s been all along. I haven’t lived more than a mile away from the bayou since returning, and it remains a near-daily fixture. I’ll route my early morning run there, where my path might overlap with majestic pelicans, turtles with their heads bobbing at the surface, the scent of Parkway roast beef, Pal’s bartenders winding down after closing. It’s the backdrop to various life vertices, the site of birthday celebrations, a New Years canoe paddle through homespun fireworks, the now-annual

Flying Jenna's catch

Cabbage and Black Eyed Pea-rade, a flying Jenna, a recent late-night fight, the place my high school friends and I gathered to share in anxiety the night before Hurricane Ida. One of those friends has the same tattoo as mine - a mark of a lifelong friendship with the bayou as one of our many common threads.

I love knowing that the bayou isn’t as polluted now, and that festival goers, bold swimmers, paddle boarders, my dog get to have a familiarity with the water that used to be more off-limits.  I admire the ceramic adornments on metal poles made by a neighborhood ceramicist, and the cheekily transformed Beware of Gator signs. It may be a modest waterway, but it teems with activity far beyond what its stature might suggest.

Whoever did these is my hero

Maybe I don’t tell inquiring strangers all that, but I do always recommend Cassie Pruyn’s book Bayou St. John: A Brief History. She tells the stories of the bayou’s uncertain birth and its many evolutions over the years of this city’s existence. She includes treasures like the description of one of the first documented Mardi Gras celebrations, which traveled to the bayou’s banks, and details the puzzle of engineering a reliable connection to the Lake. 

So many of my orbits have the banks and banquettes of the bayou at the center. As an urban planner and a community member, my deepest and core dedication is to New Orleans. To doing what I can to support the city’s vitality to grow and be ever more vibrant and loud, to be a place where people who know New Orleans as home can keep living and building in traditions, in this way of life - our way of life - for generations to come. Sometimes I feel scared for what will be made of us, like our fate has already been written, like it’s folly to believe in this place, to do this work. I find myself cursing our location in those moments - subject to the perilous trinity of sinking ground, nearby rising seas, a likely target for more frequent and stronger hurricanes.  Why are we here, at this spot, why this location for the most special place on earth?  But in the fulcrum of that why is the bayou, and somewhere in that overlap - of the bayou as the reason for this city’s placement, and the bayou as my habitat and a part of me, now drawn on me - I find re-orientation and get back to it.