This is not the New Orleans of American lore. No parade crews hail from the Versailles neighborhood, no plastic beads dangle from its trees. There is no signature architecture here, no charming decay, no memory of quaintly named street trolleys. This is the part of the East Bank where a signature rhythm is played with firearms, and the blues are the shades of paint peeling on a rollercoaster called The Jester, one which no one rides anymore. In this landscape of strip malls and swampland, a boy named Tony Nguyen discovered that love of place could be unconditional, that no matter how many times his mother moved him around the country, they would always come back here. When he was 13 he joined a gang called the Yella Boiz. He had just returned from another move—to North Carolina, he thinks— and the gang gave him a sense of identity.
“We used to pick on kids, we used to roam the streets and vandalize, we were pretty known,” says Nguyen, now 20.
The third of five children, Nguyen was raised by his mother, a manicurist with whom he shared a special kinship. She was young, they liked the same music, and the boy would spend every day of the summer in the nail salon, helping her clean and listening to the local gossip. Then, in 2004, Hang Tran died in a car accident. She was 33, and Tony and his siblings were left to fend for themselves.
If anything, the tragedy forced Nguyen to be more responsible. And when he was 17, being responsible meant simultaneously dropping out of his gang, and out of high school, to get a job where most young Vietnamese-Americans work in Versailles, at a Po-Boy sandwich shop. He earned $8 an hour cooking shrimp. Over the last several years he has slept on 17 sofas before finally renting an apartment of his own.
“To me, supporting myself, without no help at all, that’s being a man, that’s how I see it,” he says.
Versailles is the unofficial name of a part of New Orleans called Village de L’Est. Around 1975, Vietnamese immigrants began arriving here, most staying in an apartment complex called Versailles Arms. Nguyen’s mother was born to immigrant parents, the type who still wear straw hats and keep community gardens on the backwaters and canals of Lake Pontchartrain.
From a bridge, Nguyen looks at one of those gardens. “It’s a little piece of Vietnam,” he says.
Nguyen, who never knew his father, was part of a generation of kids who roamed Chef Menteur Highway with a sense that they were American through and through, but different. He and his friends used to walk a couple of miles away from school to catch the bus home. The convenient stop next to the schoolyard was unofficially reserved for blacks, and Nguyen loved the afternoons spent hanging around the “Asian Bus Stop.”
School was bad. He didn’t need any comparison to know it. Kids beat up security guards. Teachers quit before Christmas. He skipped class regularly but made pretty good