On the Saturday after Mardi Gras, Rechell Cook flew to Atlanta for a show. She’s a singer and a hairdresser and had a few gigs to play. But when she got off the plane she got the chills. Then the aches and pains started.
She canceled all of the shows and headed home to New Orleans East. When the fever persisted and pain continued, she went to the emergency room at Slidell Memorial, where she says she was told that she had double pneumonia. Eventually, they tested her for COVID-19 and the test returned positive. She was one of the first known cases in the state.
“I was devastated, I was scared. I was by myself, I didn’t have any family with me,” she said. “I really thought I was going to die.”
But she got lucky, recovering within a week and being able to return home. She had to quarantine for two weeks, sending her aunt, who has multiple sclerosis, her 26-year-old daughter and 1-year-old granddaughter to stay with a neighbor. Her daughter would bring her granddaughter to visit through the window.
“I would play with her through the glass and sing. We have a routine. She would be okay for a few minutes,” Cook said, “and then after that she would be frustrated because I couldn't hold her, I couldn't touch her.”
Cook rents a family home on Endeavour Court, a little cul-de-sac off of far-flung Michoud Boulevard. Oak Island subdivision is like an island in the swamp. On one side, the old Six Flags amusement park deteriorates, with a sign that still reads “Closed for storm.” On the other side, a long, empty road connects Michoud to Interstate 10. It’s lined with tires, toilets and trash.
Cook likes living in the subdivision because it’s quiet and a good place to raise her granddaughter. But she has to drive for miles to get to a grocery store or a restaurant. She says it’s inconvenient, but it’s where she’s from, and she likes living here with her family because it’s quiet and she knows her neighbors.
She loved growing up in the East. As a teenager, she spent a lot of time hanging out at Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall, known as The Plaza. There was a roller rink, a food court, even an indoor skating rink. She lived just off of Chef Menteur Highway. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, New Orleans East was booming. As the city expanded, the low-lying, swampy area promised space and opportunity. Black families moved there en masse, and services like grocery stores, malls and jobs followed.
But the growth stalled and the far-flung, sprawling region started suffering from disinvestment and white flight. Crime and blight followed. After Hurricane Katrina hit, many businesses never reopened. Hotels, schools and stores shuttered. Now, residents complain about feeling forgotten.
That feeling hasn't subsided as a pandemic sweeps the world.