The House on First Street

The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story By Julia Reed Ecco 208 pp., $23.95

The house on First Street may have been a practically dilapidated mansion in the garden district of New Orleans, but finding it, and fixing it up, represents a significant homecoming for journalist Julia Reed.

The city of New Orleans has always been a magical, mysterious place, and for Reed it held the perfect mix of city grit and Southern charm.

Originally lured there by a reporting assignment, Reed quickly found herself drawn in – first by the pace and lifestyle, and then by the food. And so she decided to stay, get married, and happily begin work on her fixer-upper. Simple story, right? It would be if hurricane Katrina hadn’t hit two weeks after she moved in.

In her first memoir, The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, Reed gives us a press pass to tool around with her in a city struggling to right itself after the devastating storm. With her reporter’s instincts, Reed offers her own observations from the center of town before Red Cross or FEMA were able to mobilize.

It’s a sobering look, to be sure. The city was strewn with its heartbreaking scenes – bodies wrapped in sheets and streets of houses with no roofs. And then Reed faced her own wreckage on First Street: one broken window. Her worst cleanup task was cleaning out a smelly fridge filled with 10-day-old goo.

But as insignificant as that may seem, sharing stories with neighbors about such minor setbacks had a unifying effect. Or, as Reed writes, a reason “to celebrate our very existence.”

Despite the angst that comes with a new marriage and remodeling an old house, not to mention the emotional after-effects of the hurricane, the bond Reed makes with her adopted city proves to be steadfast. Not even smooth-talking and infuriating contractors who seem to excel in getting every detail wrong could convince her otherwise.

Reed shares this sliver of her life with a light, conversational tone, and though somewhat tangential, she conveys the richness of pace and flavor of the Big Easy as life gets back to “normal” without pretense.

The short book is peppered with decadent food references and interaction with a range of characters only New Orleans could muster. From to Antoine, her drug-addicted handyman, to Ruthie the “duck lady” who marches around town with ducks in tow, it’s easy to see how the city and all its scruffy, enchanting ways has won her heart for good.

Jenna Fisher is a staff editor.

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