There’s something special about New Orleans food.
When that bowl of gumbo, po-boy sandwich or a piping hot platter of chargrilled oysters, drenched in savory garlic and butter, arrives at your table, the aroma seduces you first.
The anticipation builds as you take in the colorful presentation, the flakiness of the French bread and the sumptuous scent of the spices wafting through the air. You take a swig of iced tea (sweet, of course) to prepare the palate.
When the delectable dish finally hits your mouth, it’s the taste of it — yes the flavor — that sends your taste buds into overdrive. You’re immediately reminded of why New Orleans is internationally renowned for its cuisine.
I couldn’t help but think about that during my recent reporting trip back to Pontchartrain Park, the historic suburban African American community in New Orleans where my mother, aunt, uncles, cousins, close friends and I grew up.
As I was wrapping up a two-hour interview with lifetime residents Paula Hartley-Moise and Sharon Hartley-DeLay — sisters whose mother 88-year-old Josephine had called “The Park” home since 1958 — I decided to throw out one last question. “So,” I asked Sharon, “do you think that what made Pontchartrain Park so special for nearly five decades before Hurricane Katrina, is back 10 years later?
She paused, appearing to be mulling over the question much in the same way that you’d expect from someone translating from one language to another. “You mean, does it have the same flava,” she asked, pointedly.
“Yeah,” I responded.
“Does it have the same flava?”
She’s not convinced that it does yet, but her question intrigued me, as that issue of “flavor” came up several times during my interviews with city and state level leaders, along with longtime residents and community leaders alike. Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association President Gretchen Bradford says that she and other community stakeholders have been so proactive in their rebuilding pursuits, because they wanted to “do our part in making sure Pontchartrain maintains its flavor.”
She’s referring to the close-knit, nurturing, family atmosphere (steeped deeply in African American and New Orleans pride), that helped Pontchartrain Park emerge as a place where the American dream was a reality for multiple generations, many moons before Hurricane Katrina hit.
She’s right. Pontchartrain Park was always a place where people knew each other well and neighbors were more like family. It was common for several generations to reside in the same house and for many family members to live in the neighborhood all their lives (or very close by). There was always a sense of pride and a feeling that you were a part of something bigger than your individual family.
Pontchartrain Park had maintained a solid 90 percent home ownership rate, even during times of recession. It had its own golf course, tennis court, ballfields, schools, churches and an HBCU to boot. It yielded many famous residents including actor Wendell Pierce of HBO’s The Wire and Treme, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, two of the city’s black mayors and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson among many others. I’m convinced the community has — and will continue to — produce a new generation of brilliant, passionate and committed leaders.
Is Pontchartrain Park exactly like it was before Katrina?
But as the saying goes, “the only thing that is constant in life is change.”
What will ultimately become of The Park remains to be seen. What is apparent, however, is that the same pioneering and resilient spirit that helped Pontchartrain Park emerge as the “Mocha Mayberry” of New Orleans well before Hurricane Katrina, is the same one that is charting its progress after.
There’s no way to bring back those who lost their lives, their homes and an overall sense of peace and community when the levees broke 10 years ago this week; but what a fitting tribute to the many Pontchartrain families who helped build it up as one of the most stable neighborhoods in America.
If you ask me, that’s some Pontchartrain Park flavor you can savor.