At the center of St. John Court in Mid-City is a triangular-shaped park where various colorful, children’s playthings are generally strewn across the grass and a toddler’s swing hangs from a tree. Henry Breen, 3, whips around the park on his tricycle; it’s perfectly safe because a car rarely comes through. The boy’s birthday was recently celebrated on the court and everyone invited for hot dogs off an umbrella cart.
“It’s just like an old New Orleans neighborhood,” said resident Steve Breen, Henry’s dad.
Diane Badeaux remembers the neighborhood 50 years ago was full of families. Her relatives were the first owners of three houses built along the narrow alley abutting Bayou St. John. As a kid, she visited her cousins and played on the water in a pirogue. Now, families with young children have returned, attracted to its enviable proximity to the bayou and City Park. Neighbors held a New Year’s Eve party in the tiny park and occasionally throw a crawfish boil.
“It’s kind of come full circle,” Badeaux said.
Denny Le Boeuf, a capital defense attorney, bought a house on St. John Court 10 years ago after residing in the French Quarter and other parts of the city. “As I’ve lived here, it’s become the most supportive neighborhood that developed post-Katrina,” Le Boeuf said. “People know you by name and stop to visit.”
St. John Court sits on a parcel of land so well hidden from main roads that residents drew maps for police and fire fighters to be able find it. Yet those who live there describe it as a peaceful oasis.
“It’s a little fairyland,” Le Boeuf commented.
The area west of Bayou St. John was historically a swampy cypress forest until mechanical pumps, invented in the early 1900s, drained the low-lying land. The area’s development was also stalled by a record-setting, 60-year lawsuit over the estate of the American Consul, Daniel Clark, which was not resolved until 1891.
Real estate developer J.F. Lafont acquired the property and built the quaint subdivision on a cul-de-sac in 1917 for workers at the nearby American Can Company. He numbered the houses A through P.
The 16 bungalows had identical floor plans, including front porches and double sets of French doors and transoms, pine floors and coal-burning fireplaces. Though only 900-square-feet, the cottages were designed to accommodate two families each with two sets of baths and kitchens. Most current owners have removed the walls to create single units, but the living spaces are still quite small.
A cozy space can have a lot of appeal, however. Badeaux wanted to downsize from her suburban home after her children were grown. In 1992, she completely renovated her mother’s house, so now her bedroom, living and dining rooms are all one bright, open area.
Le Boeuf also wanted a smaller home. “I like the simpler life and I don’t have a yen for a lot of possessions,” she said. She places more importance on being close to the bayou, surrounded by nature.
After Henry was born, Steve and Karen Breen put on an addition. “It gets tight in the smaller house,” he said. The couple has lived there eight years. If they needed a larger home, they would move with regret. “It’s definitely special here,” Steve Breen said.
In the 1950s, St. John Court was a blue-collar neighborhood. Badeaux recalls her uncles working shifts at the can factory. As a child, she would bike to Parkway Bakery to get French bread for sandwiches, which they’d take to work along with thermoses of coffee in big, black metal lunch boxes.
The children walked over the bridge to Saint Rosary Academy on the east side of the bayou and families attended mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Church. Families bought groceries at Terranova’s Supermarket on Esplanade Avenue.
“I don’t think my mother and her friends could ever have foreseen what’s happened,” Badeaux said. Now, her neighbors are all professionals – including a college professor, an attorney, a mediator, a musician and a writer.
The surrounding neighborhoods are full of activity. The Mardi Gras Indians annually gather on the banks of the bayou for the Super Sunday parade and thousands of runners in the Crescent City Classic will pass close by.
The bayou is a vital part of residents’ quality of life. “I see people reading the paper or having a glass of wine on the bank,” Badeaux said. Couples have even been married on Magnolia Bridge, she said.
“It is its own ecosystem with pelicans, turtles and ducks,” Le Boeuf said. “I fell in love with living on the bayou.”