I’ve never met Macon Fry but I often meet his goats, Inky and Dinky. Every weekend—at least before Hurricane Ida shipped us on an all-expenses-unpaid vacation to Alabama—my young son and I take a bike path that begins at the corner of Audubon Park and follows the ridge of the levee upriver. The path is part of the Mississippi River Trail, which runs three thousand miles to Lake Itasca in Minnesota, but our destination is only two miles away. There, just past the US Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans headquarters, we reach what my son calls the “crazy houses.” Or as the local newspaper once put it, “A Queer Little City Built on the Batture, Where Society Is Divided, Where Queer Beings Live, and Where the Society for the Protection of Children Has Found Considerable Work to Do.”
All that remains of this bustling city are a dozen houses, half-swallowed by the thickets of willow trees that shadow the riverbank. This row of houses, or camps as they’re locally called, is the Southport colony, named after the bend of the Mississippi on which it is situated. The camps do not appear on Google Street View, because they are not visible from any street. They stand on stilts on the batture (rhymes with catcher), the riverside slope of the levee. When the Mississippi is low, the camps are surrounded by lush gardens, sloping yards, and the occasional kayak or propane tank. When the Mississippi crests, the homes appear to float on it—or in it. My son and I rarely see any of the residents but we always encounter Inky and Dinky, freely roaming the batture. He likes to imagine that they are the Billy Goats Gruff, and that among the willows, hiding beneath one of the rickety catwalks that lead to the shacks, lives a troll.
This is more or less how the public has perceived batture residents for the last two centuries. In the 1830s the English novelist Frances Trollope lamented from the safety of her steamboat the sight of the “sad dwellings” on the riverbank that were inundated half the year, dooming their “wretched inhabitants” to an “assurance of early death.” Edward Henry Durell, who would become mayor of New Orleans, referred to this “distinct class of beings, livers on the water,” as “savage, wild and lawless.” In the following decades, the river dwellings took different forms, but their occupants remained pariahs. After the Civil War, desperate northerners and freed Blacks washed ashore on the batture, where they converted their makeshift barges, or “shantyboats,” into homes. They fished, gardened, collected moss, and gleaned; editorialists condemned the “unnamable shanties” and the “wretched misery” of those who lived in them. By 1895 the Daily Picayune was ridiculing the “unique class among the large horde of poor” who lived in such “squat, rickety, weather beaten hovels.”
A decade later, the paper described stilt-house people as “a law unto themselves”: “They are not unhappy, for their life is utterly without responsibility and the wanderlust is in their blood.” In the 1930s, when the riverine population swelled, the New Orleans City Guide called it “Depression Colony.” After World War II the Red Cross demanded that the “deplorable” camps be condemned “to prevent epidemic and loss of life.” To this day, writes Fry, New Orleanians consider batture dwellers “an anachronism—‘river rats,’ living a pre-industrial life,” if they consider them at all.
They Called Us River Rats, a labor of love more than two decades in the making, is many things—memoir, natural history, geography, cultural and political history—but above all it is an effort to redeem a way of life that exists under perpetual threat of annihilation. As the batture goes, so goes New Orleans.
For years, despite living and teaching at a high school a few blocks away, Fry had no idea that anybody lived on the other side of the levee. One night in 1985 he took a stool at the Maple Leaf Bar beside a guy named Rob who was going on about local mafia ties to Lee Harvey Oswald. After Fry bought a round, Rob divulged that he lived “just over the levee.” Fry, in disbelief, accompanied him home—across the train tracks, past the levee, and down a plank walkway to a shack on stilts that cost seventy-five dollars a month in rent. Utilities weren’t included, because Rob’s shack had no utilities. Fry was in heaven: “No electricity. No water. No gas. No toilet. Perfect!”
Fry was drawn to the batture by the same qualities that had drawn him to New Orleans: wildness, beauty, eccentricity, self-reliance. Freedom. After a “suffocating” suburban upbringing in Virginia, he had dropped out of society, stepped “on the economic ‘down’ escalator,” and moved to the nation’s cheapest, “most un-American” city. In the no-man’s-land of the batture, however, Fry discovered a society that most New Orleanians don’t even know exists—the fringe of a fringe. “I would do anything to live here,” he declared at first sight. The price of taking over the shack, Rob told him, was a couple of months’ back rent. He moved in that night.
Like all batture dwellers, Fry had to undergo a grueling initiation. A couple of months into his stay, the root ball of a sycamore tree swept out the pilings under a neighbor’s camp, causing a room to collapse into the river. A few weeks later, a twenty-foot cottonwood tree jammed beneath Fry’s floor, sending books falling from shelves and glasses shattering into the sink. He grew accustomed to such sudden convulsions: batture shacks, Fry’s history shows, are always crashing into the river. Such precarity might seem terrifying, but risk calculation is relative. New Orleanians understand that every hurricane season may be the city’s last, though hurricanes are not one of the most urgent dangers facing those living on the batture. Their houses are among the most elevated in the area, standing nearly as high as the levee (twenty-four feet), and the river level is precisely controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Fry slept through Hurricane Katrina; in the aftermath he had only to negotiate a giant pecan tree that had fallen across his pier. The batture camps also escaped Hurricane Ida largely unscathed. The Mississippi flowed backward under their homes, but because the river was low, there was no threat of flooding. Thanks to the camps’ proximity to a major hospital, they were among the first houses in New Orleans to have their electricity restored. Only Fry’s camp suffered significant damage—this time by a fallen sycamore, which punctured his tin roof, and will serve as next year’s firewood. Inky and Dinky, Fry reported to his publicist, were not only safe but “thrilled to have so many branches and leaves cast about.” Fry himself, a “stayer,” was heartbroken to have missed the storm. He was out of town, at a writers’ retreat.
The batture houses are not merely on the river. They are of the river. They demand of their residents a life of spontaneity, perpetual vigilance, a forager’s serendipity, and specialized knowledge acquired through generations of miscalculation and cataclysm. Residents must maintain camps on stilts that are built on shifting silt; depending on the season, they can be either twenty feet off the ground or inches above the water. Contractors won’t go near them. No building permit has been issued on the batture in half a century. Many of the camps are constructed from river detritus. A floating log that one day threatens to knock out a camp is the next day repurposed for the building’s foundation.
Until recently most “septic systems” were like the one that a previous tenant, “Shoe,” had installed beneath Fry’s camp: a pipe that descended through the floorboards to a salvaged fifty-five-gallon drum, weighed down by shells, resting on the batture. When the river was at a high stage, if a ship passed too close, its wake sent muddy water spurting through the floor. Fry’s neighbors taught him how to coat his pilings with old motor oil to protect against termites; to bolt boards into a horizontal shield to prevent the house from sinking into the sand; to brew beer with rainwater; and to use worn-out spark plugs to catch catfish larger than leopards.
New Orleans is commonly described as a bowl, with the Mississippi tracing its southern rim. New Orleanians cannot see the river unless they climb to the rim—the levee—and look down beyond it. The batture camps are therefore hidden from the rest of the city. This, Fry came to realize, was for many of his neighbors the whole point. When he first set out to write a history of the batture, none of the former residents he tracked down would speak with him, at least not politely. Typical responses included “Please don’t call me again,” “I have NOTHING to say,” “I ain’t talkin’ to no stranger,” and “GO AWAY!” Fry didn’t take it personally: hostility to outsiders has been a hallmark of batture life for centuries. It was, for some, the manifestation of a survival instinct: public attention only increased the likelihood that authorities would meddle with their unsanctioned community. But Fry’s history suggests that many batture settlers just didn’t like other people.
Fry discovered the identity of his colony’s founder in a classic example of riverine serendipity. While dumpster diving two blocks from the levee, he came upon an odd rectangular wooden cage, subdivided into three screened compartments. He kept it alongside other salvaged river ornaments: glass bottles, bonelike fragments of driftwood, and actual bones. Years later, while searching the archives of the Times-Picayune, Fry came upon a 1942 profile of a batture resident named Seymour Geisenheimer, who had built his house in 1883. In his youth Geisenheimer had helped his three brothers make a fortune, capturing animals in the wild to sell as pets. The Geisenheimers’ specialty was songbirds. The cage that Fry had excavated from a neighborhood dumpster matched exactly the one that Seymour showed to the reporter in 1942.
Though the Geisenheimers’ wild animal trade was hugely profitable, growing into a national business, Seymour remained on the batture, eking out a subsistence living off the sale of river shrimp and driftwood. His name cannot be found in municipal records, because he did not live in the city of New Orleans, or any other. Were it not for the curious Times-Picayune journalist, the batture might have erased Seymour from history altogether. When Fry sought out the family’s descendants, none of them knew that a fourth brother had even existed.
Historical records suggest, however, that the wealthiest brother, Emile, took a protective interest in Seymour’s fate. After making his fortune, Emile bought the land adjacent to the batture where his brother squatted. He was also granted a seat on the levee board, which supervised the levee system, and therefore the batture. There is no proof that Emile shielded his outcast brother from public or private encroachment, but during the six decades that Seymour lived in his camp, he was unmolested by authorities and joined by a growing community of people who, like him, wanted to be left alone. Left alone—together.
One wonders how Geisenheimer got along with his neighbor William E. Prather, the final captain of one of the last Mississippi River steamboats. Prather’s charge, the Cotton Blossom, was the inspiration for Show Boat, the Edna Ferber novel that was adapted by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein into the Broadway musical (itself thrice adapted into film). With the advent of motion pictures, the floating vaudeville theater fell into disfavor. After a 1932 performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Blossom was sold at auction for twenty dollars and left to rot on the batture beside Geisenheimer’s camp. Foragers picked the ship clean, and its captain went missing. After Prather’s panicked family placed newspaper ads, a Times-Picayune reporter discovered him on the batture. The captain was still living on the Blossom, after a fashion: he had constructed a home “on a three-sided platform built from driftwood and pieces he pried from the rotting showboat.” Like Geisenheimer, he supported himself by selling driftwood and shrimp. As the Hammerstein lyric goes, “I’m tired of living and scared of dying/But Ol’ Man River/He just keeps rolling along.”
The world moves on but batture life barely changes. Each generation suffers the constant cycle of collapses and repairs, the rats “as big as a small poodle dog,” the necessity of “foraging” for “abandoned” goods in freight trains parked on the tracks, the bonfires of rotten driftwood. Batture children live like Lost Boys. “For a child it was just ideal,” a resident tells Fry. “There were many, many snakes.” A neighbor who kept two cows tied to a stake invited the children to “get that milk hot, right out of the tit.” At the river’s edge, kids played a game called “cow-belly”:
You’d stomp on the ground and keep going down. We’d get down to our knees and stop ’cause we couldn’t get out. We had to get a friend to pull us out. Somebody would shout “go further” but I don’t know—you might go down to your neck.
When the occasional corpse beached on the batture, its eyes devoured by river shrimp, the kids bounced rocks off it “like a trampoline.” Though children inside the levee are warned that the Mississippi will drag a swimmer swiftly to the bottom, batture children were blissfully oblivious to such threats, diving into the river from their corrugated rooftops. A former resident recalls a childhood pastime of swimming to the west bank, a full day’s activity: the current would deposit him several miles downriver, he’d have to hike even further upriver, and if he timed it right, the river would carry him home.
Every decade or two, the owner of a levee-adjacent property or a municipal authority threatens to clear the camps. But with the exception of the levee board’s demolition of dozens of them in 1953 (recounted in Fry’s chapter “Batture Apocalypse”), lawsuits typically founder, in part because of the challenge of defining the boundaries of properties that are often underwater. Local officials, in a spirit of empathy perhaps singular to New Orleans, also tend to look the other way, like the levee board president who advised Fry how to falsify an official document when he had to rebuild his camp.
Like most New Orleans transplants, Fry is inclined to emphasize the romantic qualities of his chosen home, though he learns that former batture residents didn’t always appreciate the charms of a life without running water, refrigeration, or structural integrity. “What a rough life we had,” sighs one old-timer after his cousin recalls getting jaundice from drinking river water and complains that biting bark off willow trunks to make cheap furniture gave him permanent tooth damage. Many residents ended up on the batture not out of a sense of escapism but because of extreme misfortune, poverty, or bigotry. About a mile downriver from Fry’s community, there stood for decades a batture colony occupied by Black employees of a marine contractor headquartered next door. Fry names this community “Mahalia’s batture” for Mahalia Jackson, who grew up just inside the levee, was baptized in the Mississippi, and sang in the youth choir of the Noah’s Ark Baptist Church. In interviews she recalled pulling driftwood out of the river and hauling coal from a wharf a mile away to heat her home. “I used to dream I could live better,” she said. At the time of her death in 1972, the residents of Mahalia’s batture were still using outhouses, heating their homes with driftwood, and carrying drinking water from the city. A couple of years later, after a destructive hurricane, the marine contractor demolished the batture camps and seized the land.
Yet Jackson, like most of Fry’s interview subjects, never lost her reverence for the wonders of life on the river. The batture has an ecosystem of its own. It is, by Fry’s account, the coolest place in New Orleans. The cold river water, the collected precipitation of the middle third of the country, lofts gentle breezes over the levee; Fry claims not to have once needed air conditioning in thirty years. Wild blackberry bushes cover the batture in the early summer (Fry had a side hustle of selling berries at a local farmers’ market), and in the winter the fog piling against the levee parts to reveal, on the stands of broken willow trees, “fungal condominiums” of oyster mushrooms. In spring the rising river wipes clean the batture as a wildfire renews a forest. Escaping earthworms crawl up in such frenzied concentrations that their writhing can be heard from the levee. When the river drops, it deposits whatever seedlings have happened to hitchhike down the river that year. Novel combinations of fauna rush in: rabbits, raccoons, armadillos, turtles, snakes, coyotes. The ecosystem—like the river, like the batture colony—is in a perpetual state of frenzied motion.
Fry is careful to emphasize that there is nothing remotely natural about his batture idyll. The view from his back porch is of grain elevators, a sewage disposal facility, a small mountain of river sand, and a natural gas plant, at least when the view is not obscured by tugboats, dredgers, barges, tankers, and cargo ships. Electric wires strung over the Mississippi connect to a pair of two-hundred-foot-tall transmission towers—twins of the one on the west bank that fell into the river during Ida—that bracket the colony. Beyond the lower transmission tower, a massive yellowing pipe extends from the levee along a pier into the river, drawing the water that will, after no small measure of flocculation and disinfection, flow from the city’s taps.
The Mississippi receives more pollutants than any other American river, though this does not seem to bother Fry, a prolific fisherman of catfish and river shrimp. (He refers only to the river’s “faintly sulfurous” smell.) When the river falls it deposits not only seedlings but gas cans, steering wheels, ship ropes, truck tires, and washing machines. On the bike trail, joggers and bicyclists crane their necks to gawk into the windows of the batture houses. Over the levee, freight trains ferrying industrial toxins between the Port of New Orleans and the chemical plants that line the river above the city rattle the tracks at all hours, honking at outrageous volumes.
The Mississippi itself, in its current form, is less a river than a highly engineered shipping canal, a product of human cunning, avarice, and political compromise. The construction of permanent residences on the batture would be inconceivable were it not for the Army Corps’ tenacious control of the river: the sturdier the man-made levee, the better suited it is for housing. Fry quotes Paul Hartfield, a marine biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who describes the river as “an engineered wilderness.” The landscape’s artificiality does not detract from its enchantments, however. It suggests rather that the lessons of the batture should be extended to the rest of the city, if not the world.
New Orleans, after all, is as much a creation of engineers as the Mississippi and the batture. Slung between estuary and river, built on sinking marsh, much of it below sea level, the city has no rightful claim to habitability. Since French rule, its governing class has prioritized defensive measures, often ineffectively, with little regard to the life of the city. Every time a swamp has been drained, a levee heightened, a bayou paved with cement, a stretch of the river imprisoned behind a wharf, New Orleanians have grown more distant from the voluptuous splendor of its ecosystem.
Though New Orleans is unofficially an island—one enters by bridge no matter the approach—you’d never know it. The Mississippi is largely invisible within the city limits, Lake Pontchartrain is an afterthought, the Gulf of Mexico is more than an hour away, and the foreshortened Bayou St. John is all that remains of what the geographer Richard Campanella has called a “labyrinth of bayous.” Generations of city planners have performed a remarkable, and ultimately suicidal, magic trick: they have made water disappear from a city born of swamp, estuary, and river. New Orleans is, by any conventional definition of the term, unnatural, but the erasure of the environment from which it sprung is perverse.
During the last decade, in a spirit of contrition, the city has begun to reverse centuries of reckless water management policy. A series of rotting industrial wharves, running from the French Quarter through the Bywater, have been converted to a riverfront park. The former Carondelet Canal, later covered over for use by an industrial rail line, is an ever-lengthening park and bike trail. New canals, bioswales, and water gardens have been designed to absorb stormwater rather than pump it out to sea. This urban strategy, called “Living with Water,” is motivated by worsening problems of flooding and subsidence—and helped the city avoid flooding in the aftermath of Ida—but even the official mission statement acknowledges a collective desire to regain a lost identity. As David Waggoner, one of the strategy’s leading architects, has said, “We’ve forgotten where we are.” Fry and his neighbors on the batture, it’s safe to say, have not.
If New Orleans survives the century, it may be as a true island, detached from the Gulf Coast by sea-level rise and the continued deterioration of the southern swamps, set adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The batture’s river rats may not be relics from a lost past so much as emissaries from a watery future. We’ll all live in crazy houses soon.