Monday, September 12, 2005

Lakefront seafood is another memory

From --- We took Tim to Brunings for his 26th birthday. Sweetheart, I'm glad we got to look at the sunset over Lake Pontchartrain and eat a great dinner together with mom and dad.

The end of West End

3:51 p.m.

By Michelle Hunter
Staff writer

The West End, for decades a New Orleans dining and drinking playground, might now be the worst end.

Bruning’s historic bar, where generations downed raw oysters, and the porch at Jaeger’s, where crawfish and cold beer accompanied sunsets over Lake Pontchartrain, exist now only as rotting wood piled 20 feet high on the opposite side of the 17th Street Canal near the site of Sid-Mar’s of Bucktown, also laid to waste by Hurricane Katrina. Pilings that once supported restaurants and bars serve as nothing more than seagull perches.

“The old Bruning’s house had been there for a hundred years, and now it’s gone,” said Louis Cochran, 72, who bicycled over to Bucktown with friend Mark Adolph, 49, to check on their boats in the nearby marinas.

The only way into West End for civilians these days is by foot or by bike, across the pedestrian bridge over the canal. Even that can be precarious, for Katrina’s wind and storm surge peeled away some of the bridge’s hand railings.

Cochran and Adolph carefully navigated the dinner plates, flatware and broken wine glasses in the West End parking lot, coated by cracking mud. At nearby Coconut Beach, the once-pristine white sand of the 17-net volleyball complex is now a muddy gray minefield of twisted metal siding, glass and roof material.

The Municipal Marina Yacht Harbor and the boathouses that line its waters fared better, but not by much. Boats and cars are lodged against the oak trees along North Roadway. Cinderblocks and red bricks from the public bathroom near the fishing dock are sprinkled across the roadway along with crab traps that washed ashore from the lake, their prisoners still baking in the sun.

Mike and Gloria Branford, both 50, have visited the area several times since the middle of last week, checking on Boathouse No. 84, their home for almost two years.

None of the boathouses escaped damage, but some are worse off than others. Owners who made recent renovations will have less to repair, Mike Branford said.

But the destruction everywhere is awesome. Many of the structures have collapsed, or their walls are blown away. At the living room of a friend’s home, Gloria Branford pointed out where the floor dropped away, creating a pool of insulation and broken boards.

“On the first day, I was emotionally destroyed,” she said. “I couldn’t talk without crying.”

Remarkably the bars inside many of the boathouses seem intact, their liquor bottles unbroken. Passersby know this without trespassing, for there are no exterior walls.

“There’s something about liquor that doesn’t knock over that easy,” Mike Branford said.

At the Branfords’ boathouse on Breakwater Drive, water swept through the downstairs area, taking with it the wallboards and some personal belongings. But the damage seemed minimal compared to the houses on either side, each seemingly smashed by a wrecking ball.

Mike Branford, a former carpenter turned auto-body mechanic, said he designed his house with storms in mind. Still, the devastation around the marina, the West End and elsewhere in New Orleans is not lost on the couple.

They remember the West End when New Orleans residents flocked to restaurants and clubs such as The Bounty, The Port Hole and Augie’s Delago. The area stagnated for a while, but it seemed to begun a mini-renaissance in recent years with the arrival of The Dock, a restaurant and bar that was using live music to attract a hipper crowd.

Just as the Branfords have gradually become more adamant in the past two weeks about rebuilding their home, they also have begun to hope that life will return throughout the West End. They envision an alternative to the French Quarter, with boardwalks, hotels and other attractions that play up the beauty of the lake.

“This could be a blessing. It has potential,” Mike Branford said.

He stood on the front deck of his boathouse, gazing out onto the lake as if willing the destruction around him to fade away.

“You just can’t look sideways or look back,” he said.


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