When dark-gray rainclouds gather, Renauldo Robertson’s heart beats a little faster. And when a storm begins, “our adrenalin starts pumping,” said Robertson, a longtime system supervisor for the Sewerage and Water Board, said this as he stood inside of Drainage Pump Station No. 7 on Marconi Drive.

That pumps, and its sisters, which Robertson oversees, made the neighborhood of Mid-City neighborhood possible. Up until the early 1900s, this low-lying area was largely unsettled swampland known for stagnant water, mosquitoes and yellow fever. But once it could be regularly drained of water, the natural Mid-City basin soon filled with a diverse mix of families and shopkeepers, some new immigrants, others arriving from more congested areas of the growing city of New Orleans.

Around the same time, as part of a system of 200 miles of canals designed to drain the city, the Sewerage and Water Board began to insert drainage pipes six feet in diameter and larger under every city street and neutral ground. Some are now so big that you could drive two side-by-side city buses through them. As the process “reclaimed” solid land from swamp, the city saw opportunity and bought centrally located Mid-City land to build the first of what is now a hub of public buildings in the area: schools and colleges, a criminal court and jail, and the headquarters for both the New Orleans Police Department and Regional Transit Authority.

Many of those institutions still remain. Some have been inconsistent: the Canal Street streetcar was there, then left for 40 years, returning then came back a decade ago. Others are still destinations, but of a different sort.

For instance, a century ago, neighbors flocked to the new American Can plant on Orleans Avenue and Bayou St. John, hoping to get hired inside the factory itself or on the loading docks that backed up to the St. Louis Street rail line. Today, the St. Louis railway is being transformed into the Lafitte Greenway and the American Can complex has been renovated into apartments, but neighbors still gather at the complex – or beg to go there – every Thursday for the weekly Crescent City Farmers Market.

“Every time I see the market, I ask, “Can I have a popsicle?” said a five year old, as she sat on a cement curb, licking a frozen strawberry treat.

An Immigrant Entrepote
Immigrants arriving just after the turn of century, many of them Sicilian,from Sicily, were also drawn to Mid-City, one of the city’s newest frontiers., Mid-City. The area continues remains one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, with 15 percent Hispanic residents, three times more than the city average.

The Sicilian influence is still strong in the area, through places like the pink-and-neon Canal Street stronghold of Mandina’s Restaurant, opened in 1898 by new immigrant Sebastian Mandina (and still run by his family). It’s also known for seasoned employees: bartender Kevin Manning has served up Sazeracs and old fashioneds for 23 years, but that ranks him only third in tenure of those who work the restaurant’s stand-up-only bar.

Over the years, Manning has seen the venue become a hub of its own within the hub that is Mid-City. “It started out as a neighborhood restaurant. Now, it’s the whole city’s neighborhood restaurant,” he said.

A growing Hispanic influence is also apparent in an increasing number of Mid-City grocery stores, churches, bakeries, restaurant, and even laundries like Washateria 7, which stands two blocks behind Mandina’s on the corner of Cleveland and South Genois streets. There, as Honduran-born Mid-City resident Mike Morales, 40, changed loads recently, he was surrounded by the usual barrage of Laundromat do-and-don’t signs: “Don’t ask for change” and “Don’t overstuff the machines”, handwritten in both Spanish and English.

A short walk away, on another main Mid-City artery, Carrollton Avenue, Angelo Brocato’s Italian Ice Cream Parlor is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, having moved here in 1979 from the French Quarter, where Brocato started the business in 1905.

Mickey Brocato, 75, Angelo’s granddaughter, still works five days a week at the wildly popular shop, where three ice-cream rooms – two in the back and one around the corner – are constantly humming with machines making many of the same Sicilian flavors that her father and grandfather made, like torroncino, stracciatella, spumoni, cassata, and lemon ice. Most are now sold in quarts at local grocery stores.

Not at Terranova’s Grocery, the only store in town that sells Benny Terrenova’s homemade hog’s head cheese – which can be shaped into a fleur de lis for special occasions – along with the family’s signature stuffed pork chops and sausages: Italian, hot, breakfast, and garlic. Customers line up for the specialties, often driving from the suburbs and sometimes even driving from other states for them, if they were displaced by Katrina.

The store was begun by Benny’s Sicilian grandfather in 1925 and is still run by Benny and Karen, his wife of 36 years, along with their son Anthony and his wife Jennifer. Karen grew up down the street, living above a florist shop run by her mother. She still feels like they have everything they need within walking distance. “I get into a car maybe once a week,” she said.

Fighting the Floods
From his first day on the job 36 years ago – long before Katrina – Renauldo Robertson knew the dangers of flooding. In 1965, when he was 10, Hurricane Betsy put his family’s home in the Lower 9th Ward underwater. And a little more than a decade later, on May 3, 1978, he had an only in New Orleans epiphany as water again flowed into his Uptown apartment during a heavy storm. “I took it personal,” he said, and he asked the Lord to allow him to help anyone responsible for flooding his apartment. Of course, soon afterward, he was hired by the Sewerage and Water Board.

Inside Pump No. 7, Robertson affectionately pats the top of a circa-1915 screw pump, invented by New Orleanian Albert B. Wood, who is sometimes credited with saving New Orleans.

The pump resembles a massive gray-iron beetle with a giant wheel, a motor, where the antennae should be. Inside each metal thorax is a massive corkscrew called an impeller that’s connected on each end to a canal.

To prime a pump, operators push out the air, “like sucking on a straw out of a glass,” creating a siphon that will, with the help of the impeller, lift water from the lower canal and discharge it into the upper canal. At Pump No. 7, the upper canal is the Orleans Outfall canal, which carries the water safely away from Mid-City and into Lake Pontchartrain.