Thursday, October 06, 2011

Gretna is Seemly!

Someone shared with me a devotional article in which the author makes a theological point by mentioning the City of Gretna, Louisiana - by name.  He made specific references to bail-bondsman businesses in Gretna.  In fact, he mentions one by name that is on my street (4th Street), whose sign is visible from my front porch.

He also used the adjective "seamy" to describe the scene.

I have no reason to believe the author was being malicious or intentionally disparaging Gretna nor the historic neighborhood where the bail-bondsman businesses are located.  But sadly, I think some people might read his description and could well inadvertently draw a "seamy" conclusion about our city and this neighborhood.

And that would be most unfortunate!

So I would like to take the opportunity to tweak the author's adjective, and replace "seamy" with "seemly!"  Gretna is a "seemly" place.  It is a joyful place to live.  It is a happening place.  I've lived all over the country, and I am more comfortable here than anywhere else.  And this neighborhood (Old Gretna) is - in my opinion - the best of the best.

First of all, one finds bail-bondsmen near courthouses.  Courthouses attract attorneys, and their offices and homes are often located nearby.  So, in the neighborhood the author speaks of, one routinely sees well-heeled men and women rushing on foot from law office to courthouse or driving luxury cars.  One will also find strolling about judges, prosecutors, city officials, parish officers (we have "parishes" instead of "counties" in Louisiana), and others.  Gretna is the parish seat of Jefferson Parish, and our local parish courthouse is actually a handsome stone and glass edifice with a beautiful statue of Thomas Jefferson out front.  The grounds are kept up nicely, with the lush tropical foliage that typifies our region.

Second, "seamy" implies that there is a lot of crime and/or blight.  Not so in this neighborhood!  The Old Gretna neighborhood is on the national historic register.  Homeowners in my neighborhood are prohibited from making structural changes to our homes without government permission.  I'm not in favor of such restrictions to private property, but it does go to show the care the City of Gretna has for this very special neighborhood.  You do not find graffiti, litter, or any other such blight.

I have a t-shirt that says: "Gretna: the safest 3.5 square miles in the world."  Sure, it's hyperbole, but Gretna is extremely safe.  The courthouse complex is teeming with city and parish offices and officers.  It's located about a quarter-mile from me on one side of 4th street.  A quarter mile the other way (on 5th street) is the local Gretna police station.  This is a safe place to live, work, walk, ride a bike, jog, or just hang out.  A police officer lives a less than a block from my house.  There are times when I go out at midnight and stroll between my house and my office at the church - sometimes still in my slippers.  I often take six-year old Lionboy for a half-mile midnight walk to go buy milk at the Circle-K a half-mile away.  Mrs. H. goes out to walk or run along the river levee at the crack of dawn without fear.  The average time for the police or fire department to respond to a 911 call is sixty seconds.  If you are going to commit a crime, Gretna, Lousiana is not the place to do it!

We don't have any gated communities in Old Gretna - because we don't need them.  Instead of particle-board McMansions built on top of one another in crowded communities, there are actual mansions in our neighborhood: century old homes constructed of cypress wood and made to take the pounding of hurricanes, elegant, some with iron balconies, many with classic New Orleans ornamentation.  Just a block away from the bail-bondsman is the lush, airy, oak-lined Huey P. Long Avenue with its huge grassy neutral ground where elderly people toss Frisbees to their dogs and kids fly kites. Nothing "seamy" about any of that!

In Gretna, neighbors look out for one another, talk to one another, and actually live as neighbors.  And it is a racially and ethnically diverse area.  While "limousine liberals" talk the talk about diversity but actually live in self-imposed segregation, Old Gretna is an urban gumbo bowl of ethnic backgrounds.  There is a comfort and ease about race and ethnicity that I have not found anywhere else that I have lived.  Large historic mansions are in the same neighborhood as small shotgun houses and humble apartments.  We interact with each other - sometimes quite intimately - and we all get along just fine!

In Gretna's 3.5 square miles, we have a large city park, two basketball courts, and seven other parks.  We have 12 schools, 49 restaurants, and 41 churches.  We have a branch of the Jefferson Parish Public Library.  We even have an observatory, a BMX track, and a Rugby club!  We have the oldest continually-operating volunteer fire company in the United States, an old historic home with a working blacksmith shop, and several places within walking distance to buy seafood and po-boys - not to mention a 24-hour fitness center if you hit the food a little too hard.  We have a farmer's market (a stone's throw from the "seamy" bail-bondsman) in full swing every Saturday, and a monthly outdoor art-walk in the same neighborhood.  There is also a German-American Cultural Center and museum a block away.  Our city's visitor's center is also right across the street with its distinctive railroad car and statue of baseball legend Mel Ott.  Mel Ott was born and raised in this very neighborhood of Old Gretna, is fondly remembered by elderly Gretna folk, and was a member of Salem Lutheran Church (where I serve, also on 4th Street in the heart of the historic neighborhood).  Even our City Hall is worth a look, and is for all practical purposes, a Gretna museum inside.

Once a year (this coming weekend, in fact), Gretna welcomes a couple hundred thousand of our closest friends to participate in the Gretna Heritage Festival - where seven musical stages are set up, as well as a complete midway with carnival rides, and tons of great food!  This year's performers include Lynyrd Skynrd, Grand Funk Railroad, Louis Prima, Sara Evans, Molly Hatchet, Brian Howe (of Bad Company fame), and local faves Frankie Ford, Rockin' Dopsie, and Amanda Shaw.  Brass bands will also parade around the grounds.  There will be about 77 musical performances over the course of the weekend!

We even have riverside concerts apart from the Heritage Festival, including free seating at our amphitheater.

We are a small city with a responsive and easily-accessible local government.  We have the ease and friendliness of a Mayberry but with the benefits of living in an urban setting, complete with bicycle trails and public transportation.  From my front door, I can walk four blocks to the Mississippi River, take a free ferry, and arrive in minutes over on Canal Street in New Orleans - right where the Central Business District meets the French Quarter.  This means that I can walk to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Insectarium, browse at the Quarter's antiquarian bookstores, window-shop at the antique dealers on Royal Street, take in some jazz on Bourbon Street, hit the Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait, lounge around the French Market, have lunch at the Napoleon House and take the streetcar to the Audubon Zoo - all without need for an automobile.  Now, how cool is that?

The Old Gretna neighborhood also attracts a lot of Hollywood film crews.  It is absolutely ordinary to see movie trailers and film personnel on 4th and 5th streets.  Our local restaurant/coffee shop, Common Grounds, is used regularly in movie shoots.  And yet there is no pretension.  You can walk right past all the regulars at Common Grounds, wave and exchange greetings, stroll on over to the post office (with a mural of Gretna on the wall and an old fashioned tin roof) and do postal business with Brenda - who knows just about everyone in the neighborhood by name.

I decided to go out on foot and take a few pictures of the seemly neighborhood of Old Gretna.  Here they are.  And be sure to check out the video above that truly captures the seemly essence of Gretna, Louisiana!

And I believe a shout-out to Mayor Ronnie Harris is in order!

1 comment:

Okiebud said...

The Chamber of Commerce owes you big time, Pastor! When my brother was in the Navy, back in the 1980s, he served four years in your neighborhood. He regularly attended services at Salem, as well. Even though he came back to live in Oklahoma after his service, he regularly makes trips down your way. He always speaks very fondly of Gretna and the Westbank.