Ten years ago, Bayou St. John was not such a coveted destination as it is today. The grassy banks were overgrown, and pools of trash lay stagnant on water that wouldn’t flow due to dams that severely limited any southward movement.
“Anyone who remembers Bayou St. John before Hurricane Katrina remembers that it was never used, that people were afraid to walk on it at night and that it was dirty because people who came by had no respect for it,” says Jennifer Farwell, a Mid-City resident since 2002 who is also the president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization.
Fast-forward to today, and the bayou is experiencing resurgence — a kind of renaissance that has brought the waterway’s banks teeming to life. Some Bayou St. John and Parkview residents say the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that new measures are needed to control the area’s activity — and their proposal is drawing mixed reactions from different neighborhood groups.
It all started the year after the storm, residents say. If the bayou was unsightly before Katrina, it was even bleaker right after. Floodwaters were pumped out of the city, but sluice gates were still closed, which caused low water levels in the bayou and high salinity, according to the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. That wrought damage on the bayou’s already compromised environment, and exposed the tires, drowned cars and shopping carts that had been trapped in the water.
The area has come a long way since then. Projects to restore the bayou’s wildlife included dredging the mouth of the waterway to the removal of a dam on Robert E. Lee Boulevard that blocked the flow of water from Lake Pontchartrain — a restriction scientists have likened to a clogged artery in the watercourse system.
Today, residents and dogs can be seen running and playing on the banks, which now harbor a channel filled not only with speckled trout but also with the kayaks and canoes used to catch them. When it’s warm, people paddleboat, play volleyball and hold outdoor parties. Over the summer, the bayou saw its second annual July 4thBoat Parade, one of many new festivals and events that seem to be popping up on the bayou’s banks. “The entire city has come to rely on the bayou for recreational activity,” Farwell says. “The vibrancy the bayou is currently experiencing is due to people coming and using it.”
But is the bayou’s recreational renaissance too much of a good thing?
“Our idea is to have some reason to the bayou,” says Jean Lichtfuss, president of the Parkview Neighborhood Association. “To protect it environmentally and residentially and historically, because it is an historic bayou.”
Lichtfuss is part of a brand-new organization called the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, made up of residents surrounding the bayou and some members of neighboring associations. Organized by Bayou St. John resident Musa Eubanks, the coalition’s goal is to preserve and improve Bayou St. John and its environs, and also to address issues regarding the “thoughtful and sustainable use of the bayou’s banks and surrounding public land,” according to its website.
According to Lichtfuss, that means limiting the amount of “active recreation” that she says is wreaking havoc on the bayou’s grassy banks — including volleyball games and other seasonal sports.
Most importantly, Lichtfuss says, the city should reduce the number of festivals being held on the bayou, from the summer boat races to Praise Fest NOLA, a three-day gospel festival that attracted as many as 50 gospel artists and up to 5,000 attendees in 2013, its third year. As many as 35,000 people at a time come to other festivals, like the longstanding Bayou Boogaloo.
“When you’re going to make festival grounds on property across from gorgeous historic homes, I do think the neighborhood should have something to say about that,” Lichtfuss says. “These are our homes along the bayou. We’re the ones who are affected by everything going on.”
Lichtfuss wants residents to come up with ideas about how to restrict use of the bayou and present them to the New Orleans City Council, in hopes of getting stricter zoning laws established for the waterway — at least for the parameters from where Carrollton Avenue meets Wisner Boulevard to the end of the bayou at Lafitte Street.
Ultimately, Lichtfuss says, she’d like to see the bayou be more like Lakeview, and have special zoning designation preventing large-scale events and other activities.
“It’s a real grassroots effort,” Lichtfuss says. “Everybody in the city can enjoy the bayou, but they will in certain parameters.”
To set those parameters, Eubanks, the coalition’s founder, is putting together a two-part Bayou St. John Master Plan: “Health of the Bayou” and “Uses of the Bayou” — neither of which carries any official or legal imprimatur, but Eubanks envisions a conservation organization stewarding and protecting Bayou St. John for its health. So far, he’s suggested the Land Trust for Louisiana and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He wants to re-create the Bayou St. John Conservation Alliance, a coalition of 20 businesses, schools, churches and other associations that aligned in 2008 to help rescue a degraded bayou battered by the storm, he says.
To determine the bayou’s best recreational uses, Eubanks organized a December meeting of neighborhood organization presidents that did not include members of the public or New Orleans City Council. Members of the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association and the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization joined Lichtfuss and Eubanks, as did Veda Manuel, Eubanks’ wife. In the meeting minutes, Manuel was listed as president of the Bayou St. John-Lafitte Neighborhood Organization.
Eubanks says that the coalition is still trying to figure out how to get input about how the bayou should be used, and he’s encouraging neighborhood associations to ask their members.
“Nobody knows where it’s going to go from here,” Eubanks says. “But people were frustrated, and they don’t want to go to the city. They want to talk about it first — make a plan.”
Other residents say they’re in opposition to any restricted usage, however.
“I’m in total disagreement with taking activity away from the bayou,” says Diane Chaine, whose home faces the bayou. “I think things should be done with respect, but I haven’t seen anything get out of hand.”
And Farwell, the MCNO’s current president, points out that the Bayou St. John Comprehensive Management Plan, created in 2006, calls to “increase and facilitate recreational access and use of Bayou St. John.”
That’s exactly what’s happened, says District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes the bayou. But Guidry thinks there’s a better balance to be had.
“It’s meant for the public,” Guidry says. “But I do want to balance the heavy use of those banks with the quality of life.”
To that end, Guidry recently announced that the city will begin charging next year for festivals to rent out the space — a change she thinks will naturally thin out the bayou’s use.
Jared Zeller, founder of Bayou Boogaloo, says that not every festival is the same. He says he’s given back to the bayou in countless ways since starting in 2006. Recently, his Mothership Foundation invested $30,000 into a project to replace live oaks lost during hurricanes.
“The infrastructure is there to make this a great, open public space,” Zeller says. “And sustainability is a big part of the festival. It’s always been part of the mission.”
Zeller agrees that there are some issues to be addressed, including litter from other festivals, and boats being moored indefinitely on the bayou. But he adds that the Mothership Foundation is “deeply concerned” about the attempts to put restrictions on the bayou — including what he calls “significant” charges the city is proposing for usage of the space next year.
He says he could be charged as much as $10,000 or more next year to hold Bayou Boogaloo – a cost that would actually hurt his ability to give back to the community.
“It takes money to green a bayou,” Zeller says.
At the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition’s first meeting, members decided that each neighborhood association will be responsible for getting input from their community about what to include in the master plan. The neighborhood associations will pick one person for the “Health of the Bayou” working group and one person for the “Uses of the Bayou” working group. Those selected group members will hopefully meet at the end of the month, Eubanks said, to discuss a plan for surveying residents who live near Bayou St. John, and learn how they want the waterway to be used.
Although there are many opinions about how to best use the bayou, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on. The bayou first became invaluable to New Orleans about 300 years ago, as a commercial and transportation corridor. Today, the land is just as important, because it’s become a place to settle.
“This is an important piece of land. When you dig into the history you realize this is where it all started,” Zeller says. “We should take pride in it, we should take care of it and we should restore it.
“It’s the best place in the city to live.”
A version of this article was first published in Gambit through our news-reporting partnership.