The Hidden Neighborhood & Development Pressures
Locals know that New Orleans is a city made up of neighborhoods, but chances are you’re not aware of this one, even if it sounds slightly familiar. It’s a neighborhood of people who know each other by first name, have block parties at least once a week, work in incredibly diverse professions, share access to communal toilets located at the end of each block and have a pretty good idea of what the square footage is on all their neighbors homes.
In a city surrounded and heavily influenced by water, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that there is a whole group of individuals and couples who live onboard their sailboats and powerboats out on the lake and in the marinas of Orleans Parish. They have no land-based address, save for a P.O. Box. They have no street address. Their only physical address is slip 2 or 32, pier 1 or 6, Orleans Marina, Municipal or Southshore Harbor.
This is not a new phenomenon to this city, with some having lived aboard for fourteen years straight. Nor is it specifically a New Orleans way of life, although, of course, this being New Orleans, there is a definite local spice to it. In fact, liveaboards can be found in virtually every other city fronting water throughout the country. And unfortunately, in some cities, the local governments are foolishly trying to put a stop to it.
There are several types of residents in the marinas of Orleans parish, as in any neighborhood, and the easiest residential makeup to compare this one to would be the French Quarter. There are full-time residents, habitual weekenders and the transients.
These full-timers, or liveaboards, are mostly natives of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and who, when asked what was the strongest draw for them to move out onto their boat, answered nearly unanimously… Independence and individuality.
How many people out there can untie a few lines and take their home out for an evening sunset on the lake or vanish into the Caribbean to watch sunsets for a few years?
And with this freedom, they don’t give up on many of the amenities available to a land based home. While docked in their slip, they have access to landline telephone service, cable TV, high-speed internet, water, electricity, refrigerators, air conditioning, and showers. Although having some of these items is dependent on the size of their boat, there are facilities providing showers and laundry located onsite in the marina. Interestingly, if their boat is their primary residence and includes a shower, then even tax-deductible mortgage interest is available to them.
They can’t escape all of the modern realities though. They do have utility bills, possibly a monthly note for their boat, and slip fees, which generally range from $300 - $600 a quarter, depending on the length of the boat. There is also an additional $100 a month liveaboard fee charged by the marinas. They do not pay property taxes, but these slip fees easily rise above what they would pay if they owned a similarly priced land-based home and you figure in the homestead exemption.
Their professions run the gamut, from retired ship Captains to PhD candidates, airline employees, retired NOPD officers, attorneys and offshore oil workers. Nearly all work in Orleans parish, have registered cars and actively frequent lakefront businesses. Not one of them living aboard their boat in the year 2000 was counted in the U.S. Census.
Their neighborhood is actually closer to a gated community since they live behind the hurricane protection walls of the Lakefront and have 24-hour security on site, provided by the Orleans Levee Board. These guards have even become part of the culture. While performing their duties, nearly all have developed a rapport with the residents. It has become a true example of community policing. On their off hours it’s not surprising to find the guards, sometimes with their wives, visiting with whatever liveaboard has set up his deck chairs and Cajun air conditioning that afternoon.
To be sure, there is a sort of fellowship out on the piers. Steve Breaux, a retired New Orleans Police Officer and his wife Corey comment easily on the status of their little community. “Years ago the focal point for socializing was Pier 5. These days it’s our pier. We’re sitting out here every Sunday grilling with our neighbors.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, there were close to 25 people hanging out on the pier or sitting in Jazz Fest chairs. Some of the large dock boxes assigned to each slip were converted to food service and bars, while Elvis and Buffett wafted from Breaux’s powerboat home stereo speakers. The talk is of boats and life as the sun slowly drops behind the nearby boathouses. Breaux jokingly responds to the question of what’s the mentality to being a liveaboard, “1st grade.”
Joking aside, there is a commonality here to not only their way of life but also in their statements.
Gary, a thirtish year-old pilot for a small airline who moved onto his boat seven months ago, states, “Boat people are different. I moved from Magazine St., sold all of my furniture, most of my material things. Surprisingly it wasn’t important. It was really all clutter. Out here it’s more social. Atmosphere. Boats. People.”
Harris McFerrin, a doctoral student at Tulane who’s been living aboard for nearly three years, agrees. “We know everyone out here. There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s great. We can take the boat out anytime we’d like. We’re outside in the environment, it’s inexpensive and eco-friendly.”
Ron Mobley, a hairstylist, lived and worked in the Quarter for 25 years until he finally decided that he wanted “something totally different. I had a desire to be more in control of my lifestyle. I gave away most of my antiques to my children, bought a sailboat, and now I’m approaching my one year anniversary. I have no regrets. It’s not a place to raise a family, but this is a middle-class neighborhood. On any given day I can walk off of my boat wearing a tuxedo, a suit or a t-shirt and shorts.”
Gary adds, “You have to be able to handle the space constraints though. It’s definitely not for everyone.”
According to the Editors of LiveAboard and Living Aboard magazines the U.S. liveaboard population is around 50,000. That’s an increase of nearly 30,000 people in only a decade. But it’s hard to count a group of people who don’t necessarily wish to be counted. In fact, many of the New Orleans liveaboards expressed apprehension about participating in this article for fear of negative publicity, or, for that matter, even publicity at all.
Al Guc, an owner of North Sails, a nearby sail business and an individual who happens to live on land, has no issues with liveaboards. He says, “It’s OK within reason. I have a liveaboard across from my boat and it adds to the security for my boat.”
Another local maritime businessman, Michael Mayer, the owner of M.G. Mayer Yacht Sales and Service has a similar opinion of liveaboards. He says, “As long as the proper standards are maintained, they’re fine. They add to the mix.”
Walking aboard a typical 30-something foot sailboat, it’s interesting how many creature comforts there actually are, but what strikes you first, is that yes, this is a small space, barely 100 square feet.
On a 32’ footer, which is the primary residence for two, they have a micro-oven, full galley, retractable table with settees, fridge (smaller than a college dorm fridge), TV, a car stereo with weather resistant speakers, bathroom, and a V-birth bedroom. With the space constraints, it harkens to what life would be like on the International Space Station, though probably more comfortable and homier.
In the galley or kitchen, there is no glassware; everything is plastic save for the bottles in the bar (which is a shelf). Dining is probably best described as al fresco. Generally meals are taken either outside in the cockpit of the boat or sitting on the settee’s below deck. There is no media room, the TV onboard had a seven inch screen, and don’t expect walk in closets. The closet space resembles maybe the square footage of two bankers boxes. There is also a constant rocking to their home.
As any homeowner knows, owning a home is all about the upkeep and maintenance. But because the liveaboard’s homes are boats, there is a whole different world of maintenance necessary, and this adds to the camaraderie. When two liveaboards meet on the pier, instead of a typical neighborly conversation about how great their lawns look. These conversations will tend towards the lessons learned over years on the water. Things like, the best means of working an AC unit’s exhaust out of the boat or where did you get to get your winches re-chromed or I ran into a buoy the other day and it scratched the heck out of my port side bow and ripped straight through the gel-coat, what would you recommend?
“You have to like tinkering around with stuff,” McFerrin states. “You have to get a kick out of boat maintenance. It’s not like camping. But I enjoy the challenge of it.”
Mobley says, “It’s a rustic, nomadic lifestyle and we all have a tan way before Jazz Fest.”
They live out in the elements, and all have ridden out recent hurricanes onboard. For these, they take a tremendous amount of precautions. These people are dedicated and meticulous when it comes to their homes. Do something wrong, and your home could sink with you in it.
There are also environmental rules that they must follow. Once a week or so, they must untie their boats and dock them up with a nearby pump-out station. By law, boat owners cannot dump raw sewage into the marinas or lake. Part of the charm and draw for the liveaboards is the fact that they live out in the environment and because of this, they follow these guidelines enthusiastically. The marina is their yard.
Andrea Calvin, the Program Coordinator for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, states that “the LPBF has no stance on liveaboards as long as they use the pump-out stations.”
Around Seattle on the Puget Sound, there is another large concentration of liveaboards and their way of life was being attacked. In 2000, the state agency mandated to protect and provide accessibility to the states waterways tried to remove all liveaboards from their slips and moorings. Their argument was that these people were hogging the availability of water access for the rest of the population. After a long court battle and an election, the liveaboards eventually prevailed.
To the New Orleans liveaboards, that type of thinking is hilarious. Nearly all of them are incredibly frustrated with the lack of activity on a large number of boats in the marinas. From each of their own boats, they can, without hesitation, point out a few mildew-ridden sail and powerboats of all sizes and dollar values that haven’t moved in years, let alone be visited by an owner. For them, and to any casual observer, it is a true waste.
To them, these are the real people hogging access. The Orleans Marina, run by the state, has a slip waiting list of over four years. The New Orleans run Municipal Harbor, the largest with 485 slips, has a waiting list of over a year and a half. Feasibility studies have been completed researching the expansion, much needed reconstruction and the dredging of Municipal Harbor, which would add 300 slips to the marina while utilizing the existing space, but no real action has been taken to move it forward. The liveaboards are equally frustrated by the lack of progress for the Bucktown marina.
The demand for all of these potential slips is so pent-up that either expansion would not only be filled quickly, it would be a huge boon to the Lakefront and New Orleans economy. Sail lofts, boatworks, fuel stations and area grocery stores are all clamoring for the economic boost these boats and owners would bring to the area. Big dollars follow these boats, and these boats need to be docked somewhere. That somewhere is the Northshore and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Boat owners also happen to like to live near their boats (some on them), and that is easily evidenced by the numerous waterfront access developments popping up all over southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
Al Guc, of North Sails in Bucktown, would like to see these expansions completed. “There’s a real need for slips. And a 10% expansion of slips would probably increase our business by 10%.” North Sails currently employs ten people, and that is only one of a myriad of boat servicing businesses located in the Lakefront.
New Orleans’ Other Waterfront
Years ago in Newport, RI a lack of boat slips was not the problem. Condo expansion was. Today on the Lakefront, the city has seen one massive multi-story condo rise with plans for another 28-story development next door. There are also active plans under way for at least three smaller complexes on the Orleans Lakefront. Bucktown has experienced similar growth.
The issue in Newport was limited space. Because of rampant growth, most boat facilities were gobbled up by developments, forcing all boat owners to lose the conveniences of having nearby fueling docks and repair shops. They were forced to travel further up the bay, eliminating one of the reasons for paying for a slip in those marinas in the first place.
According to an article published in the Newport Daily News in 2003, “Development pressures have changed the face of Newport's waterfront over the past 20 years, with condominiums, timeshares and hotels pushing much of the working waterfront away from the harbor.”
The problems with this happening here in New Orleans, are again space, with the real estate price pressures and taxes forced on these businesses, they could have nowhere to go except miles away to the Industrial Canal, leaving Orleans and Municipal Harbor boat owners ‘up a lake’.
This hasn’t happened in New Orleans, yet.
According to Michael Mayer, the owner of M.G. Mayer Yacht Sales, “There are specific limitations built into the commercial leases around the marinas that offer protections. This new money isn’t a threat. I’ve watched places like Destin and Orange Beach grow, and every year it seems to get harder, not easier to do business here.” M.G. Mayer employs 15 people on the Lakefront and 15 people in St. Tammany parish.
Al Guc agrees that these developments “ are positive, it increases property values, but also adds to congestion.” But in regards to the loss of boating facilities, “It would be detrimental to boat owners.”
Ron Mobley laughs when asked about the high-rise condos staring down at him as he stands in the cockpit of his boat. “I love the high-rise condos. They actually would probably give us some wind shelter in the event of a hurricane.”
The activities on the piers go on. A man in the market for sailboats wanders around, checking out the for sale signs. Captain Al’s caged parrot squawks. Several liveaboards work on the constant tinkering that is part of life on the water, and Harris and Spencer relax on the deck of their sailboat having a cocktail before going to dinner in the Quarter.
Outside the hurricane protection wall, the traffic for the volleyball courts at Coconut Beach begins to pick up along with the nightly business for The Dock restaurant and bar. They drive by what they probably think of as a marina, not realizing there’s a whole little world going on in there.