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Escape to rural New Orleans

Last week we ran the newest “Voices” series, Voices of the Lower 9th Ward, a set of features in which we spoke with some of the residents of the Lower Nine, about their lives, the people, and community in the neighborhood.

Of course, since the Lower Nine is but one of many neighborhoods that make up the multi-faceted New Orleans landscape, we want to examine and hear from other NOLA communities. We asked you to email us comments and suggestions about not only the Lower Ninth, but also other areas and people within the coalescing network of New Orleans spaces.

Freelance writer Andrea Dewenter wrote to us about moving from Uptown to the West Bank.

Just across the Crescent City Connection lies the "Green Acres" of New Orleans.

Just across the Crescent City Connection lies the "Green Acres" of New Orleans.

Rural New Orleans does exist. There are deer that frolic in the daybreak fog, wild boar that trot across the dirt roads, giant owls and packs of coyotes that hoot and howl in the night, and snakes … snakes so large they could eat a purse puppy whole. There are citrus farms, cattle ranches, buddhist temples, an artist’s retreat, horse riding lessons, and Audubon Nature Institute’s high-security “species survival” facility (cough -- Jurassic Park -- cough). There are house trailers along ditches, plantation-style mansions overlooking the river, and farmhouses that are actually on farms.

And it all exists within a New Orleans zip code.

This adventure began shortly after my husband and I had children. My enthusiasm for being an urban parent in our Uptown neighborhood ended rather quickly upon discovering urban parenting is uncomfortable. Go figure, there’s a good reason running to the suburbs after you have kids is a cliché. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in the swampy suburbs of St. Bernard Parish and had a preconceived idea of what a fun childhood looks like. All I knew was that living on a busy street in a densely populated area with scarce parking, no yard, and no nature to interact with, was not working for us anymore. Plus, we weren’t exactly frequenting fusion bistros and album release parties on a nightly basis anymore, nor were we trekking around our highly walkable neighborhood, since bric-à-brac boutiques and grad student-occupied coffeehouses are not toddler friendly. Finally, after another episode of driving at idle speed but still nearly squishing a tourist pedestrian and three expat bicyclists, I found myself not only missing the suburbs, but dreaming of moving to the country.

When we began looking for a new place to live, we knew we wanted acreage and no visible neighbors, but just how far away to move was an issue. I was looking far north of Lake Pontchartrain, while my urbanite husband was looking much closer and along the Mississippi River. I wound up taking his side fairly quickly after realizing that we’d have to take our kids out of the French immersion program due to the exceedingly long commute. But also, we still wanted the city to be accessible, just not in our laps anymore.

So we began searching the farthest borders of our own parish, which included the possibilities of Bayou Sauvage (east bank) and Lower Coast (west bank). Bayou Sauvage’s ‘land’ has a more open water, coastal living feeling to it. There are boats parked in backyard docks, and a normal day includes fishing out of your kitchen window, or watching the sunset from your 30-foot high deck. While that lifestyle certainly has a place in my heart, Lower Coast won me over with its densely forested wetlands.

Lower Coast, also known as Lower Coast Algiers, English Turn, and planning district 13, is the dead end of Orleans Parish. Probably best known by outsiders for the English Turn golf course, the peninsula is a mere 15 minute drive from downtown. It’s across the Intracoastal Waterway, and was only connected to the rest of Algiers by a draw bridge until the 1980s when the Intracoastal Waterway bridge was built. With the exception of two suburban-style gated communities (we’re talking medieval fortress walls), the land around here is rural. Most of the houses are on acres, not lots, and these bottomland hardwood forests make for cozy homesteads. While the area has suffered from illegal dumping in the past, and it’s not unusual to find the husk of a car or a pile of old garbage, the ecosystem is gradually recovering thanks to modern conservation efforts.

“You moved to the WEST BANK?!” folks ask me as though I’ve gone completely mad; it usually comes from Uptowners who think I’ve moved to the Beasts of the Southern Wild set, or from Mandevillans who seem baffled that I escaped in the wrong direction. I can nearly read the headline now: Uptown Family Goes ‘Green Acres’ Without Leaving the Parish. I’d swear Eastbankers’ own curled parchment maps that label everything across the river “here be dragons”. In my experience, people seem to know more about Metairie or Madisonville than they do about Marrero. But when they dare wander across the CCC bridge they usually find it’s refreshingly old school over here.

When you make groceries on the West Bank anyone blocking the aisle will move aside with a “‘scuse me dawlin’,” not standing their ground with that frozen death-stare you often get in the sliver by the river these days. It’s refreshing to venture out to Algiers and Belle Chase, both just a quick drive from our home, and enter the pharmacy or garden center without pausing to evaluate the hipness of the clothing I’ve selected to buy a box of band-aids or tomato vine. I choose restaurants based on whether they’re open for business. Cajun or Southeast Asian make up the majority of cuisine in this vicinity, and it’s all served without pretension, among smiling chatty families that aren’t nervously handing out iPhones to silence their children. As my grand-mère would’ve said, no one is putting on airs here.

We’ve been in the new place for four months now, and we’ve adjusted better than I thought possible. None of us miss “the city” yet, and the kids spend their summer days exploring, wild and unscheduled, while I plan my garden and my husband bushwhacks a walking trail. I love to wake up before sunrise and go running on the levee or just sit on the porch with my coffee. Looking out over the wetland woods I can hear the wildlife chasing their breakfast or the soft drone of ships in the distance as they navigate that final hard turn in the river. I know this isn’t for everyone, but for the few who’ve dreamed of it…

Yes, you can live the rural life in Orleans Parish.