KENNER TO NEW ORLEANS (AUDUBON)
We had to drive around the highway to get to the Seventh Ward. It seemed to cut right through a neighborhood, abruptly disconnecting the landscape. We parked along the street and walked to the second story entrance of Angela Chalk’s home. The door was slightly ajar, but we knocked. A voice from the back of the house called out for us to come in, so we made our way inside and waited.
The TV was on in the living room and all the lights were lit as we waited for several minutes, and then Angela emerged. She was smiling and warm, giving us each a hardy handshake, inviting us to sit down. We quickly learned that the house we were sitting in had quite a story in itself. Apparently five generations of her family have lived in this house, and the house was won in a card game. The house also sat in 6 feet of water during hurricane Katrina, and FEMA said all the homes needed to be elevated. However, instead of raising hers up on stilts, she just turned the downstairs into storage and built stairs up to a new second floor as the primary living space. Ta-da!
Now Angela’s own story is also very interesting. Angela’s world is all about family. Cousins, cousins’ cousins, and even “play cousins.” Starting in reverse, the “play cousins” are your friends from school who are like cousins because you spend so much time with them. The cousins’ cousins are basically like second cousins, or they could be “play cousins” of your cousins as well. Then of course your cousins are just that, the children of your aunts and uncles.
But in Angela’s case, this family tree is extensive. I’ll let her tell the story—“My great aunt Fanny,” Angela explained, “my grandmother’s sister, she raised her five boys, and in the course of that she had two sisters who died. So my grandmother died, so she raised her three children, another sister had five and she died, so it was thirteen of them who were all raised in the same house together… and so we have a holistic family, literally in that one house, and then no one ever moved further than a five block radius from anyone.”
This sense of family extended beyond just the number of kids to include the plentiful number of reasons to get together. There were first communions, birthdays, holiday parties, anything you could think of. As Angela described it, you know the people on that Blue Bloods show have Sunday dinner? Well “we had Friday, Saturday, Sunday dinner,” she rattled off.
It takes a village to raise a child—that’s the African proverb Angela quoted when responding to my question about the way she was raised versus how so many people we’ve heard talk about a return to the nuclear family. Angela is facing reality, that modern families are oftentimes blended, with grandparents raising children. She feels that it is incumbent on all of us to raise our kids.
She gave the example of her own childhood when she and a couple of friends attempted to skip out of Catechism class after school. They jumped down behind a bathroom stall to hide out but found they were stuck. The smooth marble stone walls of the stall were unscalable. Mr. Shorty who monitored the kids in Catechism somehow noticed she wasn’t in the line for class nor ever ended up in class, so “the search went out” as Angela relayed to us. She called it “the original amber alert!”
Mr. Peters, the janitor was doing his rounds in the school and found the girls in the bathroom yelling out for help. He had to get a ladder to pull the girls out. Now these girls were in trouble for first of all thinking about ditching Catechism, second, not being in the line, then, people were worried where they were at, and finally, Mr. Peters had to hoist them out with the ladder! Oh, and then they had to go to confession because as Angela says, “why were we ditching God!?” She never ditched Catechism again.
The sense of community. That people would notice three little girls were missing from the line going to Catechism. That is the kind of community she would like to see more of now, but people are afraid because we live in such a litigious society to say anything if it’s not your own child. She says she is not. If she sees a kid littering, she’ll call him out on it, “Baby! the trash can is right there!” We have to engage our children, because not all of our children are bad. We have brilliant children with fertile minds and they just need positive avenues in which to express that, according to Angela.
She considers herself a “CaBaptist.” Her mother’s family was Catholic but her father was Baptist. When she visited her father in Alexandria, she would attend the Baptist church with his family. That church was very animated, gospel choir, shouting and testifying. When she came back home to her mom’s house, she tried this during a Catholic Mass, yelling out “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” and was quickly quieted by the glaring gaze of her mother. Angela still goes to Mass for her ritual, but turns to the scriptural base of the Baptist religion and finds peace and solace in the two. In Louisiana, the only religions Angela knew growing up were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist. She knew nothing of other religions until much later.
In terms of her experience with diversity and racism, Angela has always had a blended friends circle. There were blacks, whites, Italians, she says, always over at their house. And back then you didn’t know about gay people, but the cousin that dressed in the fancy clothes or kept a nice house, these are lessons that they eventually learned. Her reaction to people is just to let people be who they are and love them for who they are. She told a story of transferring to a new seat on a flight to Denver. A gentleman sitting next to her proposed seat told her, “I don’t like black people.” She said everyone around her was very concerned after he said that, but she was like “thank you!”
She didn’t want to end up sitting down next to him and go to sleep then wake up with a knife in her neck! She just went somewhere else. She knows who she is and whose she is, and that just washed off of her. Also she didn’t want to be the black woman on the plane starting a ruckus because the US Marshals would be sending her to jail not the white man. It’s too easy to get into traps, she says. Focus on the good.
Angela knows that she stands on the shoulders of those that went before her. She mentioned two names in specific, Leona Tate and Ruby Bridges, two young girls who led the way in school desegregation in Louisiana. Currently, Angela works with young people through her organization Healthy Community Services. Two years ago she piloted a program, a camp to engage children outside of the classroom with learning about coastal erosion and land loss, teaching them about our waters—brackish, salt, fresh and wet that means.
According to Angela, the kids who attend her camp realize all the possibilities of careers in the water industry and get fishing licenses in the process. They learn the proper techniques for fishing and boating safety, meet a water vessel captain, and really just learn how that river at the foot of Canal Street is so globally important—what that means for industries that occur along the river, because we take it for granted she says.
This year she had 14 students focusing in on the Mississippi River watershed, learning how it makes up 40% of the continental United States, spanning as far west as the Rockies and as far east as the Appalachians. She said parents are reporting back to her, “If I have to hear about 40% of the US is the Mississippi watershed one more time!” Angela says, “we did our job!”
Angela’s interest in the environment was sparked by a child, actually. Her great niece was doing a project on water gardens, and Angela became interested. The investigation into climate change, greening of neighborhoods, and eventually coastal issues started from that one interaction, and taking the time to pay attention to a child. She learned something new from a 14 year old and thinks we should all be more open to such things. Kids know a lot, she feels.
Communities of color and at-risk communities are more vulnerable to climate change. When Angela realized just how close to the coast they are there in New Orleans, and how close to the Mississippi River they are, she began focusing her work on coastal issues. She started this work after 31 years of state service in health care. Originally she thought her retirement job was going to be floral design, now she jokes that it’s going to be to save the world. She started Healthy Community Services in 2013 with container gardening, and just recently she testified before Congress. It’s safe to say her mission is growing and having an impact.
There’s a lot more to say about this wonderful conversation we had with Angela Chalk, so stay tuned, but I’ll leave it here for now. If you find your way to the Seventh Ward on a Sunday afternoon during a Saints game, her door might be left a jar and she might welcome you in for a conversation too. It’s well worth it.
We were hungry after our run and our visit with Angela. It was Sunday and the Saints were playing, so nearly every bar and restaurant was packed to the gills. We had to find an out of the way spot for a bite to eat, and boy did we find a gem. Shank Charcuterie on St. Claude Avenue seemed welcoming enough on first glance. A chalkboard sign with a list of the day’s offerings. We walked in without being greeted, but eventually a woman stepped from sitting at the bar to behind the bar and asked if she could help us.
She let us know the owner/chef would be right back. He went to get a coffee. Mind you, it’s right at noon—lunch hour in some locales. We wait, and eventually he comes back. The first two things we try to order are not available, so we opt for the hamburger. Everything looks and sounds like it will be the freshest cut of meat we’ve ever tasted, so despite the service we are still hopeful. We’d also been hoping for a beer or two, as there was a sign outside advertising it, but after the woman searched high and low coming up empty, finally the chef gave a definitive, “no, we don’t have any.”
He did pour me a very tall glass of white wine, and eventually our burger came out—no fries here. Tom deigned to ask for ketchup. Um, big mistake. The chef offered his house made “bbq” sauce which seemed more of an aioli but was also delicious and already on the burger. Oh did I mention this was the most delicious burger I’ve ever eaten. Juicy, savory, perfectly prepared, messy, ate every bite, chef sulking in the kitchen… I felt I had to give him a compliment even if it ran off him like water on a duck’s back. I think I almost got a smile.
After this delightful lunch, we went to the New Canal Lighthouse on Lake Pontchartrain. We met up with Dr. Brady Skaggs and Elizabeth Duett. Brady is the Water Quality Program Director for the Lake Pontchatrain Basin Foundation. Elizabeth is a friend of his who grew up on the “South Shore” in an area called Bucktown not far from the Lighthouse. Her mother still lives just a stone’s throw away, she said, but she now lives in Bay St. Louis.
We began our conversation talking about the various lakes that are hydraulically connected to the Mississippi River, including Lake Pontchartrain, connected through the Bonnet Carre Spillway as well as through the drainage system of New Orleans at large. The Lighthouse where we were meeting was formerly manned by the US Coast Guard who have since moved across the 17th Street Canal into a new campus in Bucktown. Now the Lighthouse is owned by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) and serves a mostly educational purpose. While its light does function, it is no longer used for navigation.
Our tour started in the gift shop, but this isn’t just any gift shop. The space has recently been renovated into a citizen science space including a wet lab. The design of the lab also utilized reclaimed cypress, adding education into the architecture as well. LPBF’s approach to their citizen science program is unique—instead of going out into communities, focusing on small groups of participants, they are attempting to get more people engaged through a central site where people can bring in water samples to be processed and understood.
Brady is not only a water quality expert in a city with big water issues, but he also happens to be my cousin. While I grew up on the southwest side of Louisiana, Brady grew up on the northeast side of Florida. We would meet in the middle, New Orleans and Baton Rouge usually, to see family. We were basically the same age, Brady and I, but while I grew up dancing, Brady grew up swimming. He says swimming was his sport because he was too uncoordinated to do anything else. He was so good at swimming, he even swam collegiately for Georgia Tech all the while studying science.
Did I mention, our uncle, who lived in New Orleans, was a microbiologist, a water scientist, and it seems to have passed down to Brady. So much so that when looking for a major professor—because you “go to school with a person not an institution,” as Brady tells us, he found someone through our uncle that was connected in a way his mind works. From Florida to Georgia to Louisiana, Brady landed at Tulane to earn his PhD in Public Health and hasn’t left.
The tour continued outside the gift shop, as Brady pointed out the new gardens on the property. He tells us they are trying to go more of a model where everything you see and touch is a learning experience, so the garden is all natives, a lot of Louisiana iris and Texas star hibiscus. They have a rain gardens and cisterns, working to make it more of a living, functional, as well as beautiful landscape.
In this moment, Kate (the woman “tending” the Lighthouse that day) ran out to tell us that there was a big dead alligator gar in the water. This area of the lake, explained Brady as we walked over to see, is one of the only areas in between here and the airport, where it’s all armored. There’s no natural shoreline, except Bayou St. John, which has a very backward flow of water. Where we found the gar was tucked in the shoreline, the only right corner, such that a certain directional wind will pile a lot up in this corner, debris and trash, giant salvinia and hyacinth.
This is compounded by the salinity levels. According to Brady, salinities have been extremely suppressed. It’s been mostly freshwater with the Spillway opening. Historical expectations, say for the last 20 years, are 5-8 parts per thousand salinity, and when we met with Brady salinity was 1-2 parts per thousand on the “South Shore”, but salinity was as low as .2 parts per thousand for most of the Spillway opening, he said.
Where does LPBF come into play with all this, I wanted to know. Brady explained that they are an NGO, with approximately 20 employees, and they try to relay the information about different environmental impacts. There are a ton of plastics in the lake, and one thing they are doing is trying to get data and metrics around plastics and plastics use. They are also sampling around algae to try to answer questions around safety of water, such as “will my dog die if in the water?”
LPBF was formed in 1989 in response to a disruption in the water column due to shell dredging. Through a partnership amongst four state agencies—Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Natural Resources, Environmental Quality, and Health—they were tasked to help clean up all the increased suspended sediments from shell dredging. This has grown, from what I understand, into an overarching water quality program for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.
A big part of this involves the fact that the basin was listed on the Impaired Waterways List (303D or 305D) due to fecal coliform issues and dissolved oxygen issues up until 2006. This means it was unsafe to swim in the lake during that time, but in 2001 LPBF started an around the lake sampling program and applied pressure to Metairie, Kenner and New Orleans to sample discharges to places other than Lake Pontchartrain as well. In the end they were able to change the direction of sewerage away from the Lake toward the Mississippi River.
In general, because the Mississippi River is on high ground, everything that goes into a storm drain ends up running into Lake Pontchartrain, on low ground. But the real challenge the lake is having comes from the “north shore” in St. Tammany Parish. There’s been a massive population growth over there practically overnight, Brady says, where the infrastructure did not keep pace with the population growth.
The homes don’t have septic tanks, they function on something called aerated treatment units, or ATU’s. They are basically miniaturized wastewater treatment systems that have a pump, and then a discharge, but because it’s a home, it creates a kind of household hazardous waste. This waste can end up going to a nonhazardous landfill but it doesn’t mean it’s not hazardous if the ATU isn’t functioning properly. All of that ultimately finds its way into some bayou, into some larger river, and then into Lake Pontchartrain.
Brady’s team at LPBF has been going door to door on the “North Shore” to offer inspections of people’s ATU’s and to educate them on how to properly run their systems. He says “it’s like a light bulb, just let it run,” and a lot of other more detailed advice about what NOT to put in your toilet—but we won’t get into that here. In the end, though, LPBF helps people elevate their pumps and get them running, and through this methodology they’ve gotten eight different waterways delisted for fecal coliform impairments or dissolved oxygen impairments. And as Brady says, once you go on the Impaired Waterways list, you don’t usually come off.
The latest partnership in response to these issues is between LPBF and the St. Tammany Mosquito Abatement District. They are discovering that mosquito resilience is directly tied to these ATU systems, and that the mosquitos may be carrying dangerous diseases due to the hazardous nature of the wastewater. “A water quality problem with wings,” is what Brady likes to call it. And yet the flip side of the problem is that more people are apt to change, or want to change, their practices in regards to ATU management now that they see a direct impact on their lives with mosquito born illness.
LPBF has a host of other programs going on, and we probably could spend a lot more time hanging out with Brady and Elizabeth—for educational purposes and just for fun. It’s been too long since I’ve seen my cousin. Regardless, the interview portion of the day had to end and it was time for dinner just a few doors down at the Blue Crab Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Brady and Elizabeth joined us, and we met up with my parents as well as my Uncle Henry of scientific lineage and my Aunt Patty. It was fun.
Afterwards, Tom and I made it back to the Marigny where we were staying the two nights in New Orleans. The place was nice, but the night was noisy. Guess we should have gone out and partied!