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Faces of Holy Cross: Backyard Gardening in Holy Cross

Calvin Alexander sells produce at the St. Claude Avenue farmers market.

Calvin Alexander sells produce at the St. Claude farmers market.

On Saturday mornings, Calvin Alexander sells fresh eggs, herbs, vegetables and homemade preserves at a farmers market along St. Claude Avenue - continuing a long tradition of backyard farming in Holy Cross where he and his wife Nathalie have lived since 1978.

Calvin and his wife were initially attracted to the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for its proximity to downtown as well as it's ability to also have a distinctive “country” feel. Subdivided about 1850 from sugar plantations, land parcels in Holy Cross are more expansive than those in Bywater and Marigny with homes set back off the street - many with backyard gardens.

“Many residents had truck farms and sold produce in the French Market,” he recalls.Calvin's eggs

Calvin moved to New Orleans from Memphis after studying electronics to work as a telephone cable repair technician. He got a real estate license and purchased several residential properties in the Lower Nine, including a 2,500-square-ft., two-story Eastlake-style Victorian where the couple raised their five children.

"I am heavily invested in the Holy Cross neighborhood," he remarked.

Nathalie was a public school teacher and wanted to stay close by in a family-centered neighborhood. She taught for 32 years.

“This is really a quiet, friendly, open neighborhood - though it is urban living. There is not a large amount of through traffic, and it’s not on the way to anything,” Calvin chuckled.

As a graduate student at the University of New Orleans years ago, he would recline on the levee to write term papers as cargo ships passed by. As he recalls, “That was fantastic."

Based on its 18th and 19th century architecture, including shotgun houses, Creole cottages, Greek Revival, Italianate, Eastlake and Arts and Craft-style homes, Holy Cross was listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1986 and given a local Historic District designation in 1990. The architecture is similar to other old New Orleans' neighborhoods; in fact, at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue, is located a house identical to theirs in Holy Cross

The Catholic order of Holy Cross had established an orphanage there in 1849 and built an all-boys high school in 1895. A diverse population in need of affordable housing, including African-Americans and immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany and Italy settled in Holy Cross. St. Maurice Church, constructed in 1857, served more than 1,500 Catholic residents, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Calvin's real estate experience and longtime involvement in the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association led Mayor Mitch Landrieu to appoint him to serve on the Historic District Landmarks Commission where he assists homeowners trying to renovate historic homes and sometimes intervenes when historic buildings are in danger of demolition.

As commissioner, one of his toughest challenges has been mediating with homeowners who want to demolish decrepit properties and help them find a way to market and renovate older homes that might require significant investment. If a homeowner wants solar panels on his historic home, but they would be highly visible, for example, Calvin must explain they cannot be permitted. For current residents, maintaining the neighborhood’s historic appeal is extremely important.

“My responsibility as commissioner is to maintain the properties the way they were built,” he said.

Many incoming residents learned about Holy Cross from Hurricane Katrina news coverage. Though some real estate speculation is occurring, by and large, people from around the city and across the nation are attracted to the neighborhood for the same reasons individuals have in the past - to live in spacious, affordable and tranquil surroundings right next to the Mississippi River.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]