Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lexicon: Batture Dwellers

Batture, the raised driftland between the levée and the normal level of the river, was considered public land by French Louisiana law. Thomas Jefferson entered the debate in 1811, when a New Orleans resident (and former mayor of New York) named Edward Livingston brought suit against the President for violating his right to batture, in removing him from the Mississippi River's alluvial soil along the Faubourg St. Marie (today encompassed by Julia, Girod, Commerce and St. Peters).

The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration reported on the Riverbend area New Orleans Batture Dwellers in 1938:

"[They] build their houses of driftwood salvaged from the Mississippi, inhabit a ramshackle shanty town sometimes called 'Depression Colony,' located between Carrollton Ave. and the protection levee at the Jefferson Parish line. It is composed of a wide variety of shacks, neat little cottages, and houseboats. The houses are built on stilts and are safe from all but the highest flood stages. During low water the batture is laid out in little gardens with chicken coops and pig pens. When the water rises, the livestock is taken up on the little galleries that run at least part way around each house and the occupants remain at home until 'Ole Man River' becomes too dangerous. Driftwood in the river supplies ample fuel; the river plenty of fish; and the near-by willows, material out of which wicker furniture can be made and sold from house to house in the city. There is no rent to pay, as the batture is part of the river and the property of the United States, and consequently beyond the reach of local ownership or taxation." [p. 280]

In 1953 The Atlanta Daily World reported that New Orleans batture dwellers had won a legal battle against the Orleans levee board:

"The Orleans Levee board had contended that the batture. . . should have been vacated so that the United States engineers in New Orleans could make repairs along the Mississippi Levee in the area of the Batture.

Justice Luther E. Hail ruled in the civil district court, however, that the board failed to establish ownership of the Batture property, and therefore dismissed each of the suits.

The battle for possession of the Batture has been going on for some time in New Orleans and some 30 dwellings along the river are involved.

Although the houses are imperiled by the river whenever the city experiences a heavy rainfall such as yesterday's three inch downpour, the dwellers refuse to move out of their homes and live elsewhere.

The buildings--constructed of stilts on the river--are rickety Weather-beaten affairs that don't give the appearance of being too soundly built. The occupants, however, all express satisfaction in the construction of their dwellings."
[17 July 1953 available from Proquest].

[Photograph: Detail of a Works Progress Administration photograph. Batture Dwellings near Audubon Park, 1930s. Collection of the State Library of Louisiana]

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