A year ago today, fire destroyed 80 percent of a decaying old warehouse near the train tracks in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, and with it the lives of 8 young people who sought shelter there. This was a terrible tragedy for the families of the 8 who died, as well as for their friends who lived in the 9th Ward, a collection of mostly rootless young people who have made a home in the ragged edges of the country’s crumbling industrial heartland. Today my story about what led up to this conflagration is published online by The Boston Review.
Two weeks after the fire, I went to New Orleans with my daughter as my guide. She had hopped trains for a year and a half, and during that time I was frantic for any scrap of knowledge about her well being. When I heard about the squat fire, I gasped. During her travels, that was the number one way I feared she would die. I believed that if I wrote about the lives of those who died in the fire, I might be able to explain what drew young people to this life. I asked my daughter to come with me on this journey to NOLA and, to my surprise, she agreed. What I found there, with her guidance, is a world with its own rules, customs and hierarchy, a world that depends on secrecy for its survival.
The story of the fire is the focus of the piece in The Boston Review, but the personal histories of the eight who died that night, I believed, were worthy of their own stories. I was lucky enough to get cooperation from seven of the eight families and friends of the deceased. Those profiles I published here on my website. Each person who perished that night is a fascinating tale of yearning for freedom, for love and for acceptance.
I have written many stories in my long career as a journalist, but this one has had the strongest affect on me. Not only did it bring me closer to my daughter, but it opened my heart to the struggles of her and her friends, as well as to the unique kind of joy they seek and how they are willing to risk everything to get it.