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Katrina Destroyed 'The Yellow House' — But Inequality Eroded Its Foundation

When Hurricane Katrinastruck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, writer Sarah M. Broom was living in New York City, far away from her hometown and her family. In her extraordinary debut, a memoir called The Yellow House, Broom quotes from interviews with her mother and some of her 11 siblings to piece together the story of what happened when "the Water" roared into their neighborhood of New Orleans East and rose, up, up, up until it edged the tops of the houses.

Their fragmented recollections — immediate, raw, sometimes profane and even funny — add to the growing archive of testimonies about the Harrowing of New Orleans. After "the Water" receded, there were two belated casualties: Broom's grandmother, Amelia, fell ill during the exodus and died a month later. The other casualty was the Yellow House itself, a much-tinkered-with, camelback, shotgun house where Broom and almost all of her siblings grew up. Here's a snippet from Broom's description of the post-Katrina visit she and family members paid to that house:

The house looked as though a force, furious and mighty, crouching underneath, had lifted it from its foundation and thrown it slightly left; as though once having done that it had gone inside, to [my sister] Lynette's and my lavender-walled bedroom and extended both arms to press outward until the walls expanded, buckled and then folded back on themselves. ...

The house had split in two, ... the original structure separated from the later addition that Simon Broom, my father, built.

We did not enter, even though the house we knew beckoned. We stayed outside, looking through the one big crack.

Broom's memoir itself is a force that cracks open that little Yellow House and exposes the decades of life lived within: the meals; the fights over the two bathrooms; the dreams; the indestructible flying cockroaches; the parties and weddings and out-of-the-blue tragedies.

One of the most compelling presences in this book is Broom's mother, Ivory Mae, who bought the Yellow House in 1961 with insurance money after the death of her first husband. A 19-year-old widow with two children and pregnant with a third, Ivory Mae quickly remarried; her second husband, Simon Broom, had a steady job in maintenance at the nearby NASA plant. But Simon died six months after Sarah was born. That's when something began to gather strength, fester and spread throughout the house.

As the youngest child, "the babiest" in this large family, Broom was too young to witness what she calls the original "shifty settling in of shame," but she lived with its consequences. After her father's death, the house, which was always in disrepair, grew more dilapidated and stayed that way: Electricity would erratically cut off; rooms were framed, but walls were never inserted; and repairs relied heavily on masking tape. The children caught on quick that no one but family should be invited inside. Along with everything else it illuminates, The Yellow House offers a searing evocation of the long-term toxic consequences of shame.

Outside the tight confines of Broom's house, her neighborhood of New Orleans East, promoted in the booming postwar era as a middle-class suburban section of the city, was, by the 1980s, overrun with salvage yards, drugs and prostitution. Investors had pulled out. This was now a majority black and poor section of the city that was ominously hemmed in by water, where environmental problems known to city planners went unattended.

Broom exposes how the ground the Yellow House was built on was pockmarked with sinkholes --geographic and economic — long before Katrina came along and blew the place off its foundation.

Broom eventually left for the wider world, got a graduate degree in journalism, and honed the research and writing skills necessary to craft this sweeping memoir that situates her family's personal story within a larger narrative about race, class and the unlevel playing field in America. Broom exposes how the ground the Yellow House was built on was pockmarked with sinkholes — geographic and economic — long before Katrina came along and blew the place off its foundation.

In the summer of 2006, the city of New Orleans finished the job by demolishing the Yellow House. Broom's mother was sent one letter warning her of the destruction, but because that letter was delivered to the doomed house itself and Ivory Mae was necessarily living elsewhere, she only learned after the fact that her house was gone. Out of the materials of memory and archival history, Broom's memoir solidly reconstructs what the forces of nature and institutionalized racism succeeded in knocking down.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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