Faces of Holy Cross: Sarah Fontenelle and Alex Smith
Sarah Fontenelle can often be spotted pushing a double baby stroller along the crest of the levee. She's silhouetted against a big sky while a breeze whipping her skirt also tosses her great volume of hair. Her twin daughters enjoy these forays when their mother might chat with fishermen, while a flock of white pelicans flies overhead and huge cargo ships pass by. Sarah wants these magical images to become part of their childhood experience.
“It’s magnificent - the most unexpected, epic view,” Sarah says. “It’s like living in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel,” she muses. “I’m just waiting for a team of human-sized butterflies to pluck us up and over the river.”
A couple of years earlier, Sarah and her husband, Alex Smith, were visiting a friend on Deslonde Street, and thought how lucky she was to be living so near the Mississippi.
“The sunsets are extraordinary,” she says. “The best view of the city skyline is from the Holy Cross levee.”
The couple owned a shotgun in the Irish Channel, but planned to trade up to a bigger house once they started a family. After looking in their price range, they found themselves further and further away from the city. Alex, who had grown up in a tiny, 16th century cottage in a village near Oxford, U.K., did not want to live in the suburbs.
“I didn’t move to the States to live in a neighborhood distanced from all the cultural happenings,” he says.
Searching online, they independently saw the same listing for a stucco, 1930s, 3,000- square-ft., Foursquare house, and drove across the Industrial Canal to take a look.
“We were immediately just struck with it,” Alex says.
Holy Cross was still lacking conveniences and many houses remained unoccupied or damaged by Hurricane Katrina. A new fire station, NORD recreation center and high school had recently been built with a CVS pharmacy on the horizon.
“There was nothing here, but the charm of the people was enough to overcome that,” Sarah explains.
As they casually mentioned their interest in moving to the neighborhood, some suggested they might not feel welcomed by longtime residents - since Holy Cross was most recently predominately African-American. The couple decided to find out for themselves whether that was a possibility by introducing themselves to surrounding neighbors.
“Everyone could not have been nicer,” Sarah says definitively.
“That perception was completely wrong. I can honestly say our neighbors are like family.”
Their 70-year-old next-door neighbor Eva often drops by for coffee or to share dinner, for example, and Eva’s grandsons often join them for a walk on the levee. Another neighbor, Rene, brings her newborn grandson and granddaughters over for visits. Mr. Randy, who helped renovate the home, lives two doors down, and his wife, Barbara, often brings them something delicious she has cooked.
When Sarah became pregnant, two months after moving in, their neighbors were rapt. Now, as they push Poet and Cecil up Caffin Avenue in the stroller, people often stop their cars to inquire about the identical twins. “How are my girls?” they ask.
“In what other neighborhood would that happen?” Sarah happily wonders.
Alex and Sarah appreciate the peaceful, country feel of Holy Cross, as well as the friendliness of its residents.
“We like that it is really quiet, but awash with the sounds of the city - musicians practicing brass music and jazz off the riverboats.” Alex plays with a local rock band and Sarah sings in a local yacht rock cover band.
But moving to Holy Cross was not just about finding a house they could not afford anywhere else in New Orleans, it was also about making a positive contribution.
Once the girls are old enough, Sarah, whose doctorate is in developmental psychology, would like to offer free consultations for parents with children who have behavior or learning problems. Sarah and Alex have already met most of the neighborhood kids and everyone living along Caffin Street.
“There’s like a joy out here,” Sarah says.
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]