In My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal Wolf, a sixth-generation member of an influential New Orleans Jewish family, shares stories of the city his family helped shape and how the city came to shape him.
You’re an acclaimed authority in land planning, urban policy, and asset management, with books to your credit in these fields; what prompted the turn to memoir?
It was a completely different experience. I never thought of writing a memoir about my own life. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the former book editor at The New York Times, read some early personal episodes I’d written and then encouraged me and explained, saying something like “You can’t see it, but it’s the time in which you lived (mid-20th Century) and to which you were a witness—you’re writing the story of a period, a generation.” That left me aghast. But, a memoir is a glimpse, rather than an autobiography; it is selective. I did want to look at earlier times and the story of a family groping to understand one another; for instance, my father, a very successful person everyone might like to know, yet a human being with struggles.
With what industries and commercial ventures was your family involved?
Well, they’re gone today and that’s part of the “gone away” of the title. Sugarcane: the family owned 100,000 acres of cane fields and railroads to support it; eventually the company was listed on the American Stock Exchange. The large, privately owned premier regional department store, Godchaux’s, is now out of business. The thriving cotton industry centered in New Orleans collapsed and today those grand brick warehouses that stored cotton stand empty.
Just part of the complex history of the family traces back to the friendship of two boys who crossed the ocean from France early in the 19th Century—one white, my great great grandfather Leon Godchaux, and one a black freeman, Joachim Tassin—who both became peddlers and later successful business partners; an unusual circumstance in those days.
While at Yale you befriended the now well-known writer Calvin Trillin; how different was your experience there?
Yale is now far from how it was then; it was an interesting time. Calvin Trillin, who is very funny, wrote the Foreward to my book in which he says, “Peter Wolf was born a day after I was. Naturally he was like a son to me.” One of my favorite recollections is in the chapter on Mosca’s (“a low-slung, one-story roadhouse with cracked and peeling white paint and wavy clapboard walls...marked only by a single light fixture next to the front door, with one paltry bulb”) where Calvin, other college friends, and I went during a brief reunion, much to their consternation as they reviewed the rather threatening environment—until they tasted the wonderful food.
How do you think the city is doing?
New Orleans is doing great things. The Storm, as we call Katrina, brought in young people from all over who wanted to help rebuild and now, a few years later, they’re older and many have moved to the city. The school system has been thoroughly revamped. Shoddy construction has been fixed up. The iconic parts of New Orleans, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, were built on higher ground and not fundamentally damaged. But some of the “bowl” or low-lying area, including the famous Ninth Ward, should, in my opinion, not be rebuilt but left as forever natural open space. It’s very political and controversial, but equivalent money could be devoted to other areas. Expansion is tough because the city is bounded by Lake Pontchartrain, bisected by the Mississippi River and there are swampy areas to the west. The levees are rebuilt, and only time will tell what happens.
Your extended family has dispersed, with most leaving the city. Do they miss it?
They do. When they all lived in the city, they would meet regularly. That unity is gone. People I know who had lived in New Orleans for some years, and are now gone away, are affected by it—it gets into you.