June 27, 2022

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Where New Orleans natives to go fall in love with ‘The End of the World’

7 min read

Along the edge of the Gulf, Nathaniel ‘Natty’ Adams details the people, places, culture and moments that make New Orleans one of America’s most colorful and vibrant cities. 

At the far eastern end of the Bywater neighborhood, past Poland Avenue and below St. Claude, lies New Orleans’ most beloved unofficial public park. Across train tracks, through collapsed barbed wire-topped fence, and uphill atop a scruffy levee is how locals reach what they call “The End of the World.” The spit of land curls—beckoning fingerlike to the boats on the Mississippi—at the mouth of the Industrial Canal, where small ships are waved past a rusted lock by the Army Corps of Engineers. Here the industrial and the natural abut and overrun one another, concrete covering earth, pierced in turn by scrubby marsh grass and skinny shadeless trees. 
    
Canal-side, herons and cormorants stalk at water’s edge as the absurd pelican sits on the edge of a bollard with the hauteur befitting an official state bird. The city side of the levee is dominated by a hulking brutalist naval base, shuttered since 2011, that’s now home to squatters, transients, scrap metal-hunters who have stripped it down to the window frames, and battalions of feral raccoons. Inscribed along the base’s great barrier, a message in graffiti two stories tall: “OPEN YOUR EYES.”

Open your eyes at the End of the World and you’ll find lots to look at. In true New Orleans style, this is a syncretic space—what a city planner might call “multi-use”—but its beauty is in being a place bereft of city planning, a featureless gray mass on Google Maps, coy with its true verdant charm, more wild than manicured Crescent Park nearby. 

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‘I’ve climbed trains and watched the sunrise at the End of the World.’


    
“I’ve climbed trains and watched the sunrise at the End of the World,” says New Orleans native Victoria Barkley. “I’ve been to bonfires. Crescent Park is a cookie cutter. This fits better with New Orleans because New Orleans is a bit f–ked up and that’s what makes it special.”
    
The contrast between beauty and blight extends beyond landscape—at any given sunset you’re as likely to hear the crack of a pistol in the distance as you are to interrupt a marriage proposal (“I said yes!” the fresh fiancé exulted to all passers-by.) 
 
The End of the World, its various segments comprising an area of roughly 12 acres (not including the naval base) has evolved based on how locals have used it. A graffiti wall intersects the levee at angles. Someone occasionally whitewashes it but within a day there’s fresh spray paint again. About 400 feet from the wall, toward the canal’s mouth is a concrete platform with a corrugated tin shack known as “The Hobo Hut.” Someone has painted a walking labyrinth on the ground, mandala-like, with stones along its path. Two handmade shrines to dead people have been left; pyramids possibly carried along the levee by the Anarchic Mardi Gras Krewe of Eris—named after the Greek goddess of discord—during its rogue carnival parade that concludes at dawn at the End of the World. 

"The Hobo Hut" at "The End of the World."

“The Hobo Hut” at “The End of the World.”

Emily Kask/Chron

Another shrine has been constructed in the memory of a beloved dog, now deceased. Decorated in New Orleans black-and-gold, it is a rudimentary dog house and includes, alongside faded photos of pets, a painted stone bearing the words “To All Our Best Friends.”
    
Apart from the taggers and picnicking punks who bonfire at levee’s edge (a tight Venn diagram), the most visible World-Enders are the dog owners, who gather daily around five in the evening. There are more mutts and rescue dogs here than at the more “civilized” dog runs around New Orleans. Here the beautiful bastard breeds nip and wrestle and swim, brindle pit bulls leaping and splashing, shaggy domestic wolves fetching tossed driftwood, little sausagey dachshund mixes trotting across the muddy beachhead at low tide. 
    
Rob M. brings his dogs, Bubba and Stella, every day, rain or shine. It’s the only place where Bubba can swim while Stella occasionally wades gingerly like a dignified lady. Just a few feet from where the dogs typically frolic, people fish; mostly middle-aged and older Black men who wade near the mouth of the canal and heave four-foot catfish out of the river two-handed before gutting them and tossing them in their bicycle baskets, bound for a pan of cornmeal and a pot of oil at a Friday Lenten fish-fry. The dogs, intrigued by the entrails, give themselves a good roll in the filth. Rob shrugs: “They get back in the water and then I give them a little beer shampoo,” he says, indicating the two cans of Founders IPA he brings to sip at sunset as the dogs play. 

Dogs frolick while people enjoy a beer at "The End of the World."

Dogs frolick while people enjoy a beer at “The End of the World.”

Emily Kask/Chron

The land once belonged to the Convent of the Ursuline Sisters, but it was bought by the city in 1919 and—in the grips of canal fever provoked by Panama—local authorities tore down the convent to connect the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain. The inauguration of the Industrial Canal in 1923 was an event of great fanfare—riverboats and tugs chugging up and down the canal to the excitement of straw-hatted men with crinolined wives. 
    
Recent history begins with Hurricane Katrina, when surging water inundated the canal, flowing back on itself and ultimately topping the levy meant to protect the surrounding neighborhoods. After the storm in 2005, the adjacent neighborhood began to gentrify, and sometime between then and the abandonment of the naval base locals named it the End of the World. 
    
The source of the name is a mystery. Several other areas downriver had been called World’s End and similar things in the past, so it could be that newcomers, unfamiliar with the geography, heard that term and applied it to the local levee, (especially because the semi-apocalyptic landscape fits the moniker so aptly.) A more critical look notices that the name is referring to the land between the more recently white-majority Bywater and the Black-majority neighborhoods across the canal. 

David Melerine’s family has deep roots in the area. His mother grew up in the Bywater and for a time worked as a secretary at the Naval Base in its heyday. His ancestors owned a part of the land in the 19th century. David has been going to the End of the World since as early as 2008, long before dog walkers were typical. He and many others noted a spike in its popularity during the pandemic.
    
“It was one of the only places with enough physical space,” Melerine recalls. “Since then it’s become a sanctuary for many people. I go there and meditate. I’ve been there to weep for lost friends. It’s an urban Nirvana.”
    
Early in lockdown, someone set up a “Free Store” in a structure that used to be part of an old gas station, swapping and giving away clothes and home goods. In May of 2021, after the city’s second Covid wave had subsided, taking that year’s Mardi Gras with it, one of the first widely-attended public parties was a gallery show in the station featuring DJs and a neon light show. It was catharsis. People danced and drank, sweaty and grateful to be alive in this city at that moment. 

Water from the canal overflowed the levy at "The End of the World" during Hurricane Katrina. 

Water from the canal overflowed the levy at “The End of the World” during Hurricane Katrina. 

Emily Kask/Chron

 

Many people discovered it for the first time in those days, including Susan Hecker, who was first invited there on a Tinder date. Her date proposed the location and Susan— reasonably confident that she wasn’t about to be murdered and dumped in the canal—agreed.
    
“For me there is no better date than sitting by the water, having some wine, having a chat,” Hecker says. In those respects the date was perfect, and she fell in love—with the End of the World. “It’s the best thing that came out of the date,” she admits.
    
Despite living on the other side of town with its own riverfront levees, Suzan prefers to drive all the way to the End of the World, setting up a folding chair, with neither dog nor fishing pole nor can of Krylon paint, just to enjoy the peace and not get around to reading the books she always brings. 

‘I look at the ships and I wonder about them—where they’re going, where they’ve come from.’

“I like to see the movement,” she says. “All the boats on the river waiting to get into the canal. I look at the ships and I wonder about them—where they’re going, where they’ve come from.”
    
Melerine also took his first post-lockdown date to the End of the World and, overwhelmed by the location, started to cry.
    
“I was thinking about my relationship with New Orleans and my family’s connection to this land. And I thought ‘Mm, she’s not going to call me back.’ And she didn’t. But that’s OK. I still go there and put my feet in the river. It’s a place that calls to you. It gets into your dreams.”



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