Growing up in New Orleans — A Local Account
by Norman Beecher
The day I interviewed Denver I.P. attorney Daynel L. Hooker, a New Orleans native, at the
Hurricane Rita had circled up the Gulf of Mexico to gut a Louisiana coastline already ravaged by Hurricane Katrina less than three weeks before.
We stood a moment among immaculate furnishings, on spotless parquet, neatly-dressed wait staff discharging their calm service quietly around us, as well-dressed passersby paused to chat outside green-tinted floor-to-ceiling picture windows — and watched a nondescript car in a deluge the color of dishwater swim past a toppled telephone pole on a flat-screen TV over the cocktail alcove. The contrast could not have been more acute.
Daynel Hooker is accustomed to contradictions and incongruities, and not just as an African-American in a region and a profession slow to welcome minorities.
hospitality is genuine." It is also a place, she notes, where "blatantly racist comments go unchallenged." Only a few years ago, a law requiring integration of the Mardi Gras crewes drew strong opposition. The Lower Ninth Ward where she grew up was predominantly black and a mix of middle class and poor families. Yet in many parts of the city, the birthplace of jazz and so many other cultural treasures, members of different ethnic groups socialize together.
"Everyone mixes in the nightclubs and on Bourbon Street," says Hooker. Growing up in a population 65 percent black, she was used to blacks in positions of authority, and not as
The daughter and niece of public school teachers, Hooker nonetheless commuted daily by bus and street car to Ursuline Academy, a private parochial school near the upscale predominantly white Garden District. Then, in successive migrations anticipating the present-day diaspora of Katrina refugees, Hooker lived in Florida (where her mother now resides), Syracuse, Tokyo, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, before coming to Colorado to clerk for Judge Wiley Daniel of the U.S. District Court in Denver.
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Nineteenth Century cynic Ambrose Bierce, a contemporary of Mark Twain, called war "God’s way of teaching geography to Americans." Natural disasters do as much —
While a vacationing George Bush was playing guitar with Mark Willis, Hurricane Katrina pushed a barge from the Industrial Canal over the dike into Hooker’s grandfather’s house. The Ninth Ward flooded and the Convention Center filled. It was days before Hooker’s grandfather and two aunts were found alive and rescued by helicopter from the islanded rooftops.
"It’s an awful place to live, unless you live in Metairie or the Garden District," said Hooker.
The threat of hurricanes and floods were always present. Hooker recalls putting the household up on cinder blocks and plywood regularly during her childhood. "Every time a significant flood came, we got new furniture." Along with property damage, the receding tides left water moccasins and alligators behind in the streets. "It was just part of life." Hooker had been back to New Orleans to visit three times this year alone, and intensely feels the loss from the disaster. It was already a rough year for her family. A great aunt passed away in February; Hooker’s grandmother Violet Singleton, "a true southern matriarch" with eight daughters (including Hooker’s mother), died in June.
"She owned her home and several rental properties. There was no will, so the estate had not been settled." The nostalgia for the good food, the good culture, and teenage drives to the parks on Lake Ponchartrain is palpable in the crisp Colorado atmosphere a thousand miles away from the disaster zone. After she left, when friends came down to visit her old hometown, Hooker enjoyed guiding them through the jazz clubs, the out-of-the-way holes-in-the wall, in particular, and, of course, the French Quarter.
"Maybe Pat O’Brien’s for the Hurricanes. Some had to go to Tipatino’s, a famous blues and jazz club where famous New Orleans musicians, including the Neville Brothers, still play. We’d wind up late at the Café du Monde."
Of course, they will rebuild New Orleans. They’ll pump it dry and get new furniture, although, Hooker notes, there are already signs that some want to rebuild it without black people. In any case, "It won’t be the same."
Ultimately, "the people made the city what it was." The first stop in any vacation was always Hooker’s grandmother’s home, where her grandmother cooked for everyone. "Fried catfish, most likely. Red beans and rice." That is the greatest loss. "When you walked into my grandmother’s house, you faced what she called ‘the Wall of Honor.’" Here were arrayed the graduation pictures of all her daughters, the grandchildren, weddings, births, and most of the family