WHERE I’M WALKING: The 100 and 200 blocks of Ocean Avenue in Gretna, on the east or odd-numbered side of the street, between the Mississippi River levee and First Street. The block (they run together without a street separating them) is just on the edge of McDonoghville, one of two Gretna neighborhoods that fall under the jurisdiction of the city’s “Historic District Advisory Committee,” which protects the historic fabric of the area. Ocean Avenue ends at the levee, where a paved path offers cyclists, joggers and walkers an opportunity to enjoy a view of the New Orleans skyline and catch a breeze.
WHY I’M HERE: Historic Gretna is my favorite place to walk on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish because of its wealth of appealing historic houses and commercial buildings, landmark churches and government buildings, old cemeteries and small-town feel.
But I have a second reason this week — the upcoming Gretna Heritage Festival, slated for Friday to Sunday, Oct. 3-5. That’s when the levee and city streets turn into a fair grounds, animated by live music and delicious local foods.
Although the festival action will center around the Mechanikham-Gretna Historic District, it’s a short walk along the top of the levee to McDonoghville and Ocean Avenue. Named for philanthropist John McDonogh, the area was originally the site of “Monplaisir,” a 1750s plantation.
McDonogh purchased the property in 1813 and subdivided it in 1815, making McDonoghville Gretna’s earliest subdivided development. According to a brief history of McDonoghville on Gretna’s website (www.gretnala.com), a portion of the area called Freetown was founded by former slaves.
SEEN ON THE STREET: I choose the 100 and 200 blocks of Ocean because of their rural feel and quiet beauty. There are six houses on the east side of the street, but what is as important as the houses are the spaces in between.
Unlike the pattern of many historic areas, houses here are situated on large lots and have plenty of room to breathe. The green incline of the levee is as much a part of the street scene as are the houses and their large lots.
Of the six, all but two are in the Craftsman style. The two exceptions are both cottages with front porches supported by columns. One has Italianate details; the other expresses a modest amount of Eastlake style.
HOMING IN: A cypress in front of the first house makes it hard to see, so I move on to the cottage that follows. It has a steeply pitched, side-gabled roof and derives its Italianate style from arched-top windows, complemented by drop-lap siding and quoins on the edgeboards.
A leafy crape myrtle obscures my view of the second cottage, situated across a wide green space from the first, but I can see enough to say that the simplified open frieze with turned spindles hints at the Eastlake style.
A second field separates the house from the next two, a pair of shotguns in the Craftsman style huddled closely together. The first appears to have been converted from a double to a single, based on the fencelike railing that blocks off the front porch on both sides.
A sign on the gate practically shouts at me to go away (go around, no soliciting, beware of dog), but I take my time and study the home’s flared half-columns atop masonry pillars, bracketed front gable, gable window and exposed rafter tails. Details are similar on the house to the right, a lemony single shotgun with a metal awning that looks like a stiff petticoat.
I traverse another field until I get to the last house on the block, a narrow blue Craftsman shotgun single. Brilliant colors call attention to the window in the gable, and a dark blue highlights the front door and its shutters. Chairs on the front porch suggest the residents understand the inestimable value of porch sitting.
HEARD ON THE STREET: As I finish my walk, Calvin Burmaster and his 8-year-old twin granddaughters, Hailey and Gracey, walk toward me and the levee. I learn the girls have talked their grandfather into an adventure, now that the Saints game is over and the team scored its first victory.
“ ‘No win, no levee,’ I told them,” Calvin jokes.
He has lived in Gretna for 15 years, but before that it was Algiers and any number of West Bank neighborhoods. Now he works at John W. Stone, an oil distribution center on First Street, almost across the street from his house.
Gracey and Hailey, polite but restless, have only one thing in mind.
“We want to go to the levee so we can blow bubbles,” one of them tells me, and then they’re off, plastic bottle and bubble wand in hand.