Confession :: Why I’m Sad Our Neighborhood Pothole Got Filled
In the bleak, early sunset days of Pandemic December 2021, my daughter and I spotted a large sparkling object in the middle of the street on our drive home. It was a Christmas tree — right in the middle of the southbound lane, just a few blocks from our house.
Naturally, I stopped the car and squinted my eyes to get a closer look. While it was definitely a Christmas tree, it wasn’t real one. In fact, it wasn’t even a fake tree. What was decorated with garland, ornaments, and strings of lights was a Sewage and Water Board traffic barrel perched in a sizable sunken pothole the size of a circular table for six.
“It’s a pothole tree!” my daughter exclaimed. “And there’s presents too!” Sure enough, perched next to the “tree,” were several wrapped “gifts,” courtesy of the neighborhood Saint Nick. (We would later discover that “Pothole Santa” was our neighbor Shannon Walsh Sanders.)
Over the 2021 holidays, my family and I would walk, run, scooter, and drive past the pothole tree, just a few blocks from our house. The twinkling lights, gaudy garland, and cardboard star made us laugh even though Omicron was surging, and our faraway family was still faraway.
Pothole decorations aren’t new to New Orleans– and neither are potholes. Our city is littered with them — nearly every street has at least one (or “only one,” if you’re lucky). In New Orleans, the silty soil sinks, and our city infrastructure stinks– which means there’s ample opportunity for pothole art, satire, and shenanigans. “Making lemonade out of lemons,” or finding humor in tough times, is one of the things New Orleanians do best. Why cry at a funeral when you can dance? Why stress about daily life when you can costume yourself year round or mask at Mardi Gras? Why complain about a pothole when you can decorate it?
The lighthearted spirit of both celebrating and satirizing the inconvenience of a sinkhole-like pothole in our neighborhood, showed off a sense of humor that is quintessentially, uniquely New Orleans.
The “pothole tree” was the first of dozens of future traffic barrel adornments created by Sanders, most of them seasonally themed. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the neighborhood pothole transformed into a festive Mardi Gras tree, strawberry snoball, enthusiastic Minion, imaginary Saints player, Thanksgiving turkey, Mr. Bingle, crawfish boil, rainy day umbrella, and most recently, Sponge Bob’s pineapple home.
Each design and expression invited my neighbors and I to slow down, laugh, and take ourselves less seriously. It wasn’t unusual to see a car stop in the middle of the street (another very New Orleans thing to do) to get a closer look or snap a picture. Often that driver was me.
Soon our pothole became locally famous. During last year’s hurricane season, Nola.com featured the pothole and famed weather reporter Jim Cantore’s response to an Instagram photo of the barrel (this time “she” was covered with blue tarp and a sign that read: “A Hole Hearted Welcome to This Guy: Jim Cantore,” a “generator” perched at her side).
The Cantore barrel was featured on @lookatthisfuckinstreet — a memorably named local Instagram that celebrates and satirizes potholes and New Orleans’ crumbling streets (boasting 110,000 followers). Our neighborhood pothole (soon dubbed “the Eton Street Pothole”) became a regular feature. Sanders and her designs, and the history of Eton Street sinkage woes were recently featured on WWL-TV. My son even recently used the pothole as an example of relative location when studying for a Human Geography test: “We live near the pothole tree, not far from the river.” A few times the pothole even came up in conversation with friends from other parts of the city.
“Oh! You live by that pothole?! I’ve seen it on the news!”
Despite her claim to fame, the Eton’s St. pothole’s life was also sadly short-lived.
A week ago I turned down Eton St. to find it was completely blocked off by construction posts and traffic cones. My kids couldn’t believe it.
“They’re fixing the pothole!”
“They’re taking down the tree!”
I gasped and saw the Sponge Bob pineapple-decorated traffic barrel placed off to the side, on the sidewalk. As I turned the car around, I truly felt sad. Disappointed. The same feeling you have when you lose a ratty-but-beloved toy at a young age, or when a thread-born but cherished sweatshirt finally falls apart. Our neighborhood pothole was so much more than aggravation and spectacle. It was hope and laughter.
“It was about to be a ninja turtle coming out of the hole,” said Sanders, when I contacted her recently. “But I guess I’ll have to wait until the street caves in front of my house, again!”
Sure, it will be nice to have a smooth(er) street, to finally be able to drive fully in that lane, and to not have to dodge the pothole. But it will be a lot less interesting, a lot less fun.
Perhaps I’m stretching things a bit, but I really see this whole experience as a metaphor for choosing to live in this city. There are so many other places New Orleanians could live with better streets, not to mention better schools, less crime, less hurricanes and cheaper insurance. But even if they had potholes in those places, I doubt they’d decorate them. I can’t imagine they’d dance in the streets or close school early for parades there either. While things might be smoother and safer in those places, I bet they’d be a lot less interesting, a lot less fun.
There have been rumors of a possible jazz funeral or memorial for the Eton St. pothole, details still TBA. The fate of the smushed traffic barrel is uncertain. I personally think the traffic barrel should stay in the neighborhood, continuing to be decorated, possibly right by the patched up pothole, on the roadside curb. Perhaps a plaque could be placed. Neighbors could take turns decorating the barrel each season, keeping the spirit alive.
Many thanks to Shannon Walsh Sanders for her pothole artistry, photos, and wit, for bringing levity and laughter to our neighborhood and the New Orleans area.