"They Called Us River Rats"
A fascinating new book by long-time resident Macon Fry explores life along the last batture community in New Orleans.
- by John Sledge
- photos courtesy Macon Fry, Betsy Shepherd and University Press of Mississippi
What on earth, a casual reader not from these parts might ask, is a batture, and who would want to live in such a dangerous place? The batture is the stretch of alluvial land between the Mississippi River's low tide mark and the base of the levee. The word is from the French "battre," meaning "to beat," and denotes land or shoals beaten by the river.
As the etymology suggests, it is a dynamic environment, subject to floods, maritime accidents, spills, bureaucratic meddling, and other calamities. It is usually wooded or industrialized, and its legal ownership is, in the words of Oliver A. Houck, a Tulane professor, author, and frequent batture stroller, a "briar patch for lawyers." As to who would want to live there: only a bona fide river rat.
Macon Fry, a New Orleans public school teacher and 30-year batture dweller, happens to be just such an animal, and in his absorbing new book, They Called Us River Rats: The Last Batture Settlement of New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, $25), he examines the history, culture, and people of what he calls the Crescent City's "living edge."
Fry comes by his passion honestly. His formative years were spent at his family’s retreat beside Virginia's Rappahannock River, where he rambled the banks and adjacent woods. "I always wanted to live in a place where I could imagine, find, and forage everything I wanted," he writes. "I can't remember not knowing that I would live on a river."
After he finished graduate school in 1981, Fry contemplated the suffocating suburban existence that awaited him and instead opted to "step on the economic 'down' escalator and move to the country's easiest economy." It was not a propitious time to live in New Orleans. A global recession and an oil glut were hammering Louisiana hard, and the state's unemployment rate was 8% and rising.
There was also another downside for a water-lover like Fry, namely that the storied Mississippi River was hard to reach. Unlike the Rappahannock's open bluffs, the Father of Waters' twisted course was hemmed by levees, walls, warehouses, railroads, transmission lines, and massive maritime infrastructure. There were a few "windows," to be sure, where one could experience the river, including various bridges, Audubon Park (the Fly), and the French Quarter's Moonwalk, but generally the river was inaccessible.
So, Fry made do in a little Riverbend shotgun house where he could see big ships ghosting above the levee. At least until one night in 1985 when he met a man named Rob at the Maple Leaf Bar, who said he lived "in a camp” on the other side of the levee. This was a revelation.
“Four years in New Orleans and I had heard of no one living on the big river,” Fry admits.
Fascinated and curious, he visited his new friend's abode on a foggy evening. It was one of a baker's dozen "camps," more accurately shacks, that were clustered – in riverboat parlance – on the "left bank descending,” at the juncture between Jefferson and Orleans Parishes.
The quarters were Spartan at best, "a sleeping pallet, a crate of bike repair tools, and a wooden spool table served by one rusty lawn chair," along with a plywood kitchen counter, unplumbed sink, and a Coleman stove. There were none of the amenities most modern Americans would consider mandatory. Fry, however, loved the ambience, especially the open river off Rob's "sagging deck," with its sweeping vistas, magical lights, exotic sounds, and limitless possibilities.
Soon Fry had his own camp, for which he paid rent to someone who claimed to be the owner. Despite the uncertain legal status of his new digs, he gloried in the "drifters and dreamers, artists and writers, kooks and craftsmen" who were his new neighbors. He liked the sense of community and lived an authentic riverine life.
Unfortunately, his girlfriend was less enamored of a place where creature comforts were few and swirling water, pungent muck, poison ivy, boozy guests, and endless improvisation defined the hours. "If you want to live like Huck Finn, go right ahead," she quipped on her way out the door.
Fry's intense interest in his quirky settlement prompted him to delve into its history and people. Its story was underrepresented in city histories, but he didn't have to look far to find references to it. Mark Twain knew about the batture and like many observers then and since, held unflattering opinions about its residents.
They were, he wrote, "jeans-clad, chills-racked, yellow-face male miserables roosting on the top-rail, elbows on knees, jaws in hands, grinding tobacco and discharging the result." The women were clad in raggedy shawls and bent under chores and children, the eldest of whom haunted the wharves and scavenged around the steamboats.
During the early 1900s, a Times Picayune reporter was more politic when he remarked that such people were "not stifled by convention." Official attitudes toward the batture camps and their denizens have varied over the years, from benign indifference to threats and clearance campaigns. Of the hundreds of camps that once existed up and down the batture, only the dozen stilt houses of Fry's little community remain today.
Fry excavates some amazing stories, like those of John Cudney, better known as Brother Isaiah, a 1920s shanty boat holy man and healer who drew throngs to the batture for his "cures," and the Morrises, a mixed-race couple murdered by a racist white mob during the 1890s. Their son, Patrick, recalled the ghastly scene for the newspaper afterwards.
"Well, about 11 o'clock mamma, papa and I were sitting in the boathouse talking. Someone crawled down the batture and set fire to the bow of the boat, where the front door was," he related. "As soon as we saw the flames, papa told us to get out quick as the boat was on fire." They could flee the flames, but not the bullets. His parents were gunned down, and Patrick slipped across the levee in his night clothes and hid under the "Company Canal office" until dawn.
The book’s latter chapters feature oral interviews Fry collected from batture old-timers, most of whom lived there from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. These folks were not always easy to find or willing to reminisce, but enough of them shared their experience to make the effort worthwhile. If Fry's girlfriend found late 20th-century batture life too basic, one wonders how she would have reacted decades earlier when the edges were even sharper.
"We didn't even have no bathroom," one codger recalled. "We had cardboard around the pilings under the house. That's where we used the bathroom, on a piece of paper and threw it in the river." Amazingly, the family regularly drank riverwater out of a bucket, "let it settle, didn't boil it or anything."
This was unhealthy, as the man learned when he and his brothers contracted yellow jaundice and had to go to Charity Hospital.
But there were also good times, as when a dredge boat captain joined the family for Sunday dinner. They all feasted on pig tails and cabbage, and afterwards "the whole family would sing" to the accompaniment of an uncle's guitar. Only later, the man admitted, did he realize "how rich I was, having the Mississippi River as a back yard."
Given his experience and sleuthing, Fry is well positioned to write about all these things and he does so in nicely descriptive and occasionally elegiac prose. Overall his book mixes memoir, narrative history, and oral history to generally positive effect, though sometimes it feels a little diffused. Fry’s tripartite approach may stem from the fact that the volume was 20 years in the making, during which time his intent appears to have shifted from a straightforward oral history into the present arrangement.
Fry closes by noting that the 21-century batture has attracted yet another kind of resident, enamored of teak decks and more camp amenities. These are folk for whom the paved bike path atop the levee is de rigueur. While a far cry from the destitute "miserables" described by Twain, not to mention off-the-grid boomers like Fry, they too are river rats, irresistibly drawn to the "wild and irrevocable frontier" that snakes and winds through New Orleans, just across the levee tops and flood walls.
Fry has served them all well in this deeply-felt book.
John S. Sledge is senior architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is the author of seven books, including “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Journeys of the Heart,” “The Mobile River,” and “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” all from the University of South Carolina press. In 2021, Sledge won the Clarence Cason Award for Nonfiction Writing from University of Alabama. He and his editor wife, Lynn, live in Fairhope, Ala.
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