Denver Bar Association
November 2005
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Growing up in New Orleans — A Local Account

by Norman Beecher

The day I interviewed Denver I.P. attorney Daynel L. Hooker, a New Orleans native, at the
fashionable Cherry Creek trattoria NoRTH, CNN was reporting that storm surge from Lake Ponchartrain had breached levees along the Industrial Canal and water levels in the Ninth Ward were rising again.

Hurricane Rita had circled up the Gulf of Mexico to gut a Louisiana coastline already ravaged by Hurricane Katrina less than three weeks before.

We stood a moment among immaculate furnishings, on spotless parquet, neatly-dressed wait staff discharging their calm service quietly around us, as well-dressed passersby paused to chat outside green-tinted floor-to-ceiling picture windows — and watched a nondescript car in a deluge the color of dishwater swim past a toppled telephone pole on a flat-screen TV over the cocktail alcove. The contrast could not have been more acute.

Daynel Hooker is accustomed to contradictions and incongruities, and not just as an African-American in a region and a profession slow to welcome minorities.

Daynel Hooker stands in the middle of her family in the New Orleans’ Ninth Ward in February  2003.
"New Orleans was always a mixed bag for me," Hooker says of the city that is still home to much of her extended family. "It’s a people city. They really like people there. The
hospitality is genuine." It is also a place, she notes, where "blatantly racist comments go unchallenged." Only a few years ago, a law requiring integration of the Mardi Gras crewes drew strong opposition. The Lower Ninth Ward where she grew up was predominantly black and a mix of middle class and poor families. Yet in many parts of the city, the birthplace of jazz and so many other cultural treasures, members of different ethnic groups socialize together.

"Everyone mixes in the nightclubs and on Bourbon Street," says Hooker. Growing up in a population 65 percent black, she was used to blacks in positions of authority, and not as
intimidated by the prospect of high-level responsibility as another minority group member might be.

The daughter and niece of public school teachers, Hooker nonetheless commuted daily by bus and street car to Ursuline Academy, a private parochial school near the upscale predominantly white Garden District. Then, in successive migrations anticipating the present-day diaspora of Katrina refugees, Hooker lived in Florida (where her mother now resides), Syracuse, Tokyo, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, before coming to Colorado to clerk for Judge Wiley Daniel of the U.S. District Court in Denver.

Daynel Hooker (right) and her cousin pose in a mall photo booth circa 1975.
"When David Duke became a candidate for governor during my senior year at LSU," Hooker says, "I made up my mind to leave Louisiana for good." She never looked back. As cosmopolitan, lively and eclectic as the city she left, Hooker speaks French and Japanese, has worked as an award-winning reporter for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (having won a New York Times journalism scholarship in college), is vice president of Colorado Lawyers for the Arts, chair of The Docket committee, and an enthusiastic skier, among other things.

* * *

Nineteenth Century cynic Ambrose Bierce, a contemporary of Mark Twain, called war "God’s way of teaching geography to Americans." Natural disasters do as much —
elementary students in Colorado can now be expected to locate Louisiana on a map — and more. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have given us a month’s course in meteorology. We have become better educated on the oil industry, and have learned about the demographics and economics of southern Louisiana. Americans now know that unemployment in the New Orleans area exceeds the national average, public housing and school facilities there are among the worst in the nation, and — surprise — the birthplace of Satchmo, Fats Domino, Pete Fountain and the Marsalises, is peopled primarily by citizens of African-American descent. Our political knowledge has been considerably expanded, having seen the government’s response to such disaster.

While a vacationing George Bush was playing guitar with Mark Willis, Hurricane Katrina pushed a barge from the Industrial Canal over the dike into Hooker’s grandfather’s house. The Ninth Ward flooded and the Convention Center filled. It was days before Hooker’s grandfather and two aunts were found alive and rescued by helicopter from the islanded rooftops.

Daynel Hooker is surrounded by her family, in her grandmother’s kitchen during a holiday celebration.
Before the hurricanes, Hooker never contemplated moving back to New Orleans.

"It’s an awful place to live, unless you live in Metairie or the Garden District," said Hooker.

The threat of hurricanes and floods were always present. Hooker recalls putting the household up on cinder blocks and plywood regularly during her childhood. "Every time a significant flood came, we got new furniture." Along with property damage, the receding tides left water moccasins and alligators behind in the streets. "It was just part of life." Hooker had been back to New Orleans to visit three times this year alone, and intensely feels the loss from the disaster. It was already a rough year for her family. A great aunt passed away in February; Hooker’s grandmother Violet Singleton, "a true southern matriarch" with eight daughters (including Hooker’s mother), died in June.

"She owned her home and several rental properties. There was no will, so the estate had not been settled." The nostalgia for the good food, the good culture, and teenage drives to the parks on Lake Ponchartrain is palpable in the crisp Colorado atmosphere a thousand miles away from the disaster zone. After she left, when friends came down to visit her old hometown, Hooker enjoyed guiding them through the jazz clubs, the out-of-the-way holes-in-the wall, in particular, and, of course, the French Quarter.

"Maybe Pat O’Brien’s for the Hurricanes. Some had to go to Tipatino’s, a famous blues and jazz club where famous New Orleans musicians, including the Neville Brothers, still play. We’d wind up late at the Café du Monde."

Of course, they will rebuild New Orleans. They’ll pump it dry and get new furniture, although, Hooker notes, there are already signs that some want to rebuild it without black people. In any case, "It won’t be the same."

Ultimately, "the people made the city what it was." The first stop in any vacation was always Hooker’s grandmother’s home, where her grandmother cooked for everyone. "Fried catfish, most likely. Red beans and rice." That is the greatest loss. "When you walked into my grandmother’s house, you faced what she called ‘the Wall of Honor.’" Here were arrayed the graduation pictures of all her daughters, the grandchildren, weddings, births, and most of the family
photographs. Hooker saved a few favorites on a recent visit, but with the estate unprobated and the house empty, most of the photographs, the memories of a New Orleans past, floated away in the storm surge of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or sank into the muck now covering New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

 

Local Movers and Shakers Who Wouldn't Sit Still in a Storm

Volunteer Efforts Through the CBA
Colorado Legal Services and Metro Volunteer Lawyers have partnered with the Denver legal community to help solve legal problems associated with Hurricane Katrina. The Katrina Helpline is (303) 866-9355 and is open 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Even when they cannot take the case, they often give legal advice, referrals, and information.

Colorado Attorney Helps with Search and Rescue
Bonnie Schriner, attorney and mediator, and Delta, her search dog, deployed with Colorado Task Force I DHS/FEMA Urban Search and Rescue to New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina, to help with house-to-house search and rescue efforts. CO-TF1 evacuated more than 200 people, assisted more than 400 sheltered in place, and located 17 deceased.

Local Lawyers Band Together for Hurricane Victims
Opponents in the courtroom, the Colorado Defense Lawyers Association and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association joined to raise $97,270. The two organizations sent their joint donation to the Mile High Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Colorado Law Firm Organizes Relief Effort for Legal Professionals
Lorri Salyards, the executive director of Moye White, created a program to assist the law firms and personnel ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in putting their livelihoods back together. She is serving as a national clearinghouse for business equipment, supplies, etc. and has thus far collected in excess of $60,000 in computers, furniture, and other items.


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