There are a handful of world-stage cities that outsiders assume they not only know but deeply understand — even if they’ve never once set foot there. Subsumed in myth, these boldfaced locations include Paris, New York, London and most certainly Los Angeles.
New Orleans occupies its own specific place in that constellation, says writer Sarah M. Broom. “When you come from a mythologized place as I do, who are you in that story?”
Broom was born and raised in New Orleans East. That is east of the Industrial Canal and across the Danziger Bridge from the glamorous notion of New Orleans — of French Quarter gaslights, street musicians and laissez les bon temps rouler seduction — that feeds the world’s imagination. In her tough yet tenderly wrought book “The Yellow House,” she explores that dissonance, the long-term effects of erasure and the price of staking a claim on unpredictable territory.
“Who has the rights to the story of a place?” Broom asks. And when that story is told, whose version is more accurate, most authentic?
For better or worse, the region has had its hold on the Brooms’ large and fiercely attached family (she is one of 12 children in a blended household) for generations. That said, the label “memoir” doesn’t quite contain — or honor — the entirety of what Broom has accomplished. “The Yellow House” is both personal and sharply political; it’s an attempt to redraw not just the map of New Orleans but also the city’s narrative — to reset it on its foundation.
Meticulously observed and expansively researched, Broom’s inquiry is an excavation told in four parts. She reaches back, past her brother Carl’s thrice-weekly ritual of sitting sentinel in the now-vacant lot that once held the family’s distinctive crowned yellow home, past the house’s demolition and Katrina-related ruin. She plunges into the family’s deep, uncertain history; stories pieced together about her maternal grandmother Ameilia (“Lolo”), her Auntie Elaine and her mother, Ivory Mae, are touchstones, pins in the new map. “These women who lived in close proximity, composed a home,” writes Broom. “They were a real place — more real than the City of New Orleans.”
These elder voices, thick with the rhythm and texture of time and place, are a chorus of narrators, the forebears who navigated a stratified, racially segregated map. They weigh in, testify, spin tangents. It’s the book’s music. Broom transports readers to postwar, Jim Crow-circumscribed black New Orleans, Uptown, to the Washington Avenue night spots where singer Ernie K. Doe performed “long before he had a name ... his permed hair made mythic.” She also introduces men like her father, Simon Broom, as he drives to work along the fast and tricky road, Chef Menteur Highway, to his maintenance job at NASA. She reveals a New Orleans of yard parties, twice-a-week church services and the sleight-of-hand of making loose ends meet.
The yellow house, which stood at the “short end of Wilson Avenue,” was Ivory Mae’s resurrection, her reason to be. She bought the home in 1961, after her first husband, Edward J. Webb, died in a freak roadside accident while in the Army in Texas. The “modest shotgun” home, then painted light green, cost $3,200. It would take years to renovate (and eventually acquire its yellow siding) and become the family’s hearth and heart. The structure grew with babies and whimsical add-ons and abandoned schemes, tended to by Simon Broom (Ivory Mae’s second husband). Ivory Mae was determined to not just make do but, like her own mother, “make a beautiful home.”
Even after a devastating bout with “the water,” 1996’s post-Katrina flood, the yellow house was still standing, though broken. It did not, however, survive New Orleans’ bureaucracy. Who delivers a final demolition notice to an abandoned house?
New Orleans East enigma
Library shelves sag with stories that New Orleans likes to tell about itself: pirates and courtesans, voodoo rituals and parlor parties. If New Orleans is the bacchanal that never stops, the city’s East community is an enigma, a last-century folly, now deemed a failed experiment.
In 1959, the development took its name from its Texas-based investors, New Orleans East Inc., who purchased 40,000 acres of cypress swamps. The plans were considered game-changing. Local and national newspapers marveled at the possibilities. The nearby NASA plant, where rocket boosters for the first stage of the Saturn launch were constructed, become a draw for workers. Back then the East’s population was mixed, more white than black, and Ivory Mae and her family were considered pioneers. “[My mother’s] attraction to the Yellow House,” writes Broom, “was nothing resembling love; it was more like dreaming.”
Hurricane Betsy churned through in 1965, punching holes in the “man-made improvements,” and so too the lofty desires for New Orleans East. After the late-1980s oil bust, Broom notes, nothing about the development’s grand plan had come to pass. “The East slipped into stasis”; it was a dream dying slowly. “Even when I tell New Orleanians I’m from New Orleans East, they say, ‘Baby, don’t tell nobody that.’”
By the time she fled the East for college at the University of North Texas — her head full of James Baldwin, her notebooks full of vivid observations of home — this new distance brought clarity, a chance to discern a gap in her own understanding of place. A college friend asked that she capture her hometown in photos. She reflexively traveled west across the Danziger Bridge into the French Quarter: “I took no photos of New Orleans East, whose landscape was not what [my friend] imagined when he asked for New Orleans,” she writes.
Was that her friend’s imaginings? Or her own?
Reclaiming her past
In New Orleans, there is a parade call-and-response refrain — a funky roll call, if you will — that asks revelers to shout out their provenance — the New Orleans neighborhood from which they hail. Where you from? “The Yellow House” is Broom’s luminous, literary answer to that appeal.
She couldn’t always raise her voice and claim it. For years she drifted, cycling through experiences — to Texas, California, New York, Burundi, back to New Orleans. Reflecting on the wound of the lost house, her family’s post-Katrina scatter, triggered a personal reframing.
When she began her book research, posing uncomfortable questions to herself and kin about the past, her eldest brother, Simon, confessed apprehension. They’d already lost so much, he worried “that by writing all this down here, I will disrupt, unravel and tear down everything the Broom family has ever built.”
The opposite is true: Broom’s work is a shoring-up, a strengthening. It’s the result of tenacious naming and claiming, revisiting all the histories — formal and informal, polished and rough. She worked with great care, and with a resolute honesty leavened with grace. Readers may hear echoes of James Baldwin in the relentlessness of her inquiry, and in the sinewy cadences of her sentences. “Calling places by what they originally were, especially when the landscape is marred, is one way to fight erasure.”
Pared down to its studs, “The Yellow House” is a love story. It is a declaration of unconditional devotion and commitment to place. Broom also pays homage to the relationships we protect, the ones we yearn for and circle back to; the ones that hold us and don’t give up on us, that are our living and breathing foundation.
“The Yellow House”
Sarah M. Broom
Grove Press; 384 pp., $26
George is a Los Angeles writer. She is the author of “After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame” (Angel City Press), and won a 2018 Grammy for her liner notes for “Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go.”