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Culture Shock

December 18, 2006

Suzanne Johnson
Michael DeMocker

Imagine 60 days without music. Now, imagine 60 days with no music in the French Quarter -- or anywhere in New Orleans. Too quiet. The quiet of dreams. The quiet of death. For a while back in September and October 2005, after Hurricane Katrina blew through town, there was a fear the music might never return, that it was simply washed away, its sweet notes swept to Houston, Austin, Atlanta -- anywhere but here.

tulanianfall2006_chief_1Then the fear morphed -- the music would come back, but would it be the same? Would the rich tones of jazz and blues give way to a tinny, falsely emotive riff that only first-time visitors from the upper reaches of Minnesota would believe authentic?

And it wasn't just the music. While the trumpets went silent, tens of thousands of historic cottages lay in ruins. Tons of boudin and tasso and crawfish rotted in freezers. Painstakingly created Mardi Gras Indian costumes floated in tainted floodwater, their owners fled -or floated- to parts unknown. Art and photography collected mold or were chemically eaten around the edges like tattered, moth-gnawed scrapbook pages from an ancestor's life.

Less tangibly, the psyche of New Orleans was damaged, skittish, lacking in the brash, self-absorbed confidence that fawned on the city that nurtured it. Thanks to Katrina and the failure of the New Orleans levee system, the city's revered culture was dealt a near-death blow in what National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe called the worst cultural disaster in U.S. history. What took hundreds of years to bubble, react and blend into an intoxicating mixture of European, African, Indian, Caribbean and American -- in a few hours it was gone, and everything was quiet.

But the silence has ended now, and the talk on the Tulane campus for three hot, sunny days in late spring turned to cultural rebirth. The university joined forces with the National Trust to spark debate among panels of journalists, musicians, artists, chefs -- even an Indian warrior and a Zulu chief, in the New Orleans sense of those roles. Presentations brought laughter and tears, applause and occasionally anger.

Some of the speakers would be recognized in the far reaches of Anywhere, USA: First Lady Laura Bush delivered the keynote address, and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams spoke at a luncheon. Others are local legends: Leah Chase, Ellis Marsalis, Ralph Brennan, Donald Harrison, Chris Rose, Irvin Mayfield, Michael White.

The following story is theirs, a rare confluence of talent and passion, gathered for a few days to muse over the love of a city, to dissect a culture and figure out how its pieces form the whole, and to see how -- and when and where -- the culture of New Orleans can be revived.


New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, whose post-Katrina writings have documented the city's scarred psyche so compellingly that he was nominated for a coveted Pulitzer Prize, remembers the early days after the storm, the barely rescued days, the still-quiet days.

"It was very strange -- you witnessed a landscape in which all arts and culture had been basically swept away," he said of his adopted hometown. "It was strange to walk around town and be absent music and art. You never thought you'd miss the mimes down in Jackson Square, but you just wanted to see anything to remind you that this was a living, breathing city."

He had returned to town early, drawn by an almost morbid fascination to the empty streets, the eeriness of blackened nights whose dark was broken only by an occasional fire burning in the distance, the echoes created by a culture struggling to rise from the muck. Those first signs of life came -- some would say appropriately -- from the French Quarter, where wind damage was minimal and whose high ground the floodwaters had not reached.

No lights, no water, but, strangely, on Bourbon Street, a generator churned noisily to life and a model of a woman's leg, gartered and fishnetted, began to swing back and forth from above the entrance to the Deja Vu strip club. More generators ran lights and music, and lots of camo-clad rescue-type guys with crewcuts and muscles gathered to watch the show. "Before anyone else in the city even had electricity and water, the strippers had returned to their pole dancing," Rose said. "This was the most extraordinary thing to witness."

Ironically, for Rose, the first of what he deemed genuine New Orleans culture came to him from New Jersey. The Times-Picayune's early on-the-ground reporting staff had commandeered a coworker's home in unflooded uptown, and someone heard that WWOZ radio was streaming its New Orleans music on the Internet, broadcasting from New Jersey. "I had a laptop and we found WWOZ playing Dr. John," Rose recalled. "We all sat there on the porch steps that night and cried. It made us feel for the first time that we weren't alone, that maybe this place had a chance of coming back."

Paradoxically, the maze of idiosyncrasies that mark New Orleans' people and culture are among the roadblocks that hamper its quick return. The laissez les bon temps rouler attitude that birthed the slow, languishing, good-natured apathy relished by visitors and worn like a badge of defiance by residents is anathema to getting a large metro area back on its feet.

Decades of political corruption and simmering poverty-driven unrest awakened a rough beast of raw anger and fear and distrust that, almost a year after Katrina, the Rebirth Conference participants had to admit was a major challenge to moving forward.


To understand where New Orleans culture stood on the brink of Katrina you have to go back a few decades. Former Times-Picayune news editor Jack Davis, president, publisher and chief executive officer of the Hartford Courant and moderator for the Rebirth Conference, dates modern New Orleans culture back to the 1960s. It was then, he said, that New Orleans lost its identity as an oil-and-gas boomtown and burgeoning Giant of Industry but found itself within its own heritage.

tulanianfall2006_alvar_1After Houston and Atlanta laid claim to the New South, New Orleans found itself a city with no real geographical reason to exist beyond its port.

"But in the 1960s, Orleanians rediscovered their character, their rich culture," Davis said. "It had always been here, but there was a new sense of appreciation here about the food, music, architecture and neighborhoods, and it was a wonderful and stirring thing."

Equally stirring was the city's recognition that it could build what Davis called a "last-resort economy" based on nothing more than its own self.

"The rest of America properly regards New Orleanians as intriguingly exotic and hospitable," Davis said. "So having invented jazz, they reinvented it again and again in the last half-century -- and reinvented the classic Cajun and Creole cuisine with every global influence that found its way to New Orleans in the last half of the 20th century."


But what is New Orleans culture? Is it the sounds of jazz or funk or zydeco wafting out of neighborhood bars? Plates of steaming etouffee or bowls of thick, dark gumbo? Neighborhood second-line parades? Rows of pastel shotgun houses? Weekend art markets? Backstreet voodoo shops in the Quarter? Mardi Gras? JazzFest? And does that culture include crime -- particularly the murder rate? How about poverty? Racial tension? Corruption?

Ask conference panelist and writer Tom Piazza, author of the book Why New Orleans Matters, published shortly after Katrina, and he'll insist the answer is "all of the above." "In New Orleans, music, food, dance -- all the elements of the culture are fused," he said. "You can't conceive of New Orleans music without New Orleans food, and you can't conceive of the parades or other rituals of the community without the architecture or the city layout."

In his book, Piazza expresses it well: "New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned, like a hologram, in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there -- those who have chosen to live there, and those whose parents and grandparents and ancestors lived there."

Those people, in supporting their families through plastering, ironwork, cabinetry, roofing -- while supporting their spirits through evenings blowing hot trumpet for a brass band or painting or setting up impromptu crawfish boils for the neighborhood, created a "domestic economy" that can only be rebuilt as the neighborhoods return. And, for many, returning to New Orleans, post-Katrina, is an action fraught with issues of politics, economics and race.


If one major theme emerged from the Rebirth Conference, it was that the New Orleans culture cannot be reborn without "infrastructure" -- not a very artsy or cultural-sounding word at all. "Infrastructure" speaks, rather, of bricks and mortar, of phone and electrical service, of trash pickup and school systems. Post-Katrina, it means a plan for moving the whole city forward in a cohesive way and making it a place in which people want to live.

tulanianfall2006_mgw_1It might sound simple, but New Orleans is a city of 73 distinct neighborhoods, each with its own personality, charms and stubborn self-reliance.

"One city, one plan" was the battle cry from early- returning residents, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin appointed a "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" to develop that plan. Experts consulted, met with residents, argued and cajoled, finally bringing forward a comprehensive rebuilding plan that covered everything from technology to the arts.

Making the plan was easy; implementing it required tough choices that no one seemed ready to make -- resulting in what Julia Reed, contributing editor for Vogue and longtime New Orleans resident, called a sort of civic inertia.

"We're sitting here paralyzed by our own failure," she said. "We can blame FEMA for lots of things -- hell, we can blame everybody in the world. But we need to blame ourselves for a lot of things that have not happened. I'm really tired of yesterday's complaints. I think all of us need to take a little bit of responsibility."

New Orleans architect Ray Manning headed up the neighborhood planning part of the BNOB Commission, whose report recommended that some of the lowest-lying areas not be rebuilt -- a suggestion that brought an outpouring of anger and protest from former residents of those areas. The overall plan ground to a halt; some neighborhoods continued to plan their own returns, while others didn't plan at all. Manning is distressed that the plan was abandoned and a new planning process wasn't begun until nearly a year after Katrina struck.

"We need to be willing to make tough decisions about the safest and smartest way to rebuild," he said. "Unless that happens, the neighborhoods we all love and care about are not going to be planned, the voices of the people in many neighborhoods are not going to be heard, and we're going to flounder."


So, what does all that infrastructure and rebuilding talk have to do with the rebirth of New Orleans culture? Simply this: if there is insufficient housing, people cannot return to New Orleans to live. If they cannot return, the neighborhoods cannot start to recapture their flavor and personality. And, everyone at the conference agreed, the culture arises from the neighborhoods.

It's not a matter of rich vs. poor, or even black vs. white. "There was poverty in the much-maligned Lower Ninth Ward," said Dillard University professor Jerry Ward. "But there also was poverty in Mid-City and in New Orleans East -- as well as tremendous wealth in those same areas. So we have to focus on the very complicated process of rebirth and rebuilding, of helping people who are striving to put their lives back together to re-establish their connections with their neighborhoods and the people they knew and loved."

Restaurateur Leah Chase, owner of Dooky Chase's restaurant, agreed -- and puts the burden on the citizens who have returned to start the neighborhood rebuilding process. She plans to follow her own advice. Dooky Chase was destroyed by the post-Katrina floodwaters, and Chase is working to get the restaurant going again and, in the process, rebuild her Treme neighborhood.

"If I don't get back on that corner, there is no neighborhood," she said. For neighborhoods to re-form, there must be places for people to live, and the lack of affordable housing was a recurring theme among the Rebirth Conference discussions.

Frank Brigtsen, owner and chef at Brigtsen's Restaurant, has to pay more to get qualified workers, workers who now have their choice of jobs because too few have been able to find affordable housing and return to New Orleans. Owner/chef Wayne Baquet of Lil Dizzy's Cafe had to find space above his restaurant to house his chef and busman in order to get them back. Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band struggled to pull enough band members back into town in late April for Jazz Fest because the musicians, most of whom had lost rental homes, had nowhere affordable to stay.

Ike Wheeler, head of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, struggled as to whether -- and how -- Zulu would be able to participate in Mardi Gras; few of the krewe members were back, and Wheeler himself was still exiled in Baton Rouge. "It was one of the most difficult things I've had to do in my 30 years in the organization," Wheeler said. "We didn't want to be insensitive to the housing issue, but we felt we owed it to all the brothers that fought to get to ride on Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. And we needed to be the leaders in the community; if we say we are the leaders then we have to act like it."


In the end, go figure -- the rebirth of New Orleans culture mostly comes down to neighborhoods and housing and education and trash pickup, things which, except for the architectural spin, don't sound cultural at all. But the relationship between neighborhood and culture is a tough thing to pin down and a tougher thing to repair once it has been broken, as National Public Radio's Nick Spitzer pointed out in talking about New Orleans musicians.

People and organizations want to rebuild it but they don't know how. "These are organic relationships that it is hard for organizations or corporations to address,"Spitzer said, noting that most musicians, for example, do not earn enough from their music to support their families. They work regular jobs by day and play deep into the night. But before they can get back into that routine, there has to be -- yeah, you right -- an infrastructure. And it doesn't have to be perfect, because if it was too nice an infrastructure, it wouldn't be New Orleans, after all.

"Let's face it, people never have come to live in this city and stayed here because they thought the infrastructure was great," Spitzer said. "By American standards, it's not great at all. But what is great is this set of cultural intangibles, these relationships." A domestic economy, Spitzer calls it. For another panelist, it adds up to "America's most interesting city." For New Orleans, it means a future.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000