It’s almost time for Jazz Fest in New Orleans—the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, to be precise. It’s a time of renewal, when musicians and fans of the city return and, in some parts of town (for at least a week), it feels like Katrina never happened. To be sure Jazz Fest is a wonderful event, and also a reassurance that the Big Easy can still put on a show and a party all at once. New Orleans kicks it up for a number of other festivals as well, including Mardi Gras, and the French Quarter Festival (this month). But what about the rest of the year?
I have been dropping in on New Orleans since 1988 and, like many, I have come to regard the city as an old, eccentric friend. Since Hurricane Katrina struck in the late summer of 2005, my visits have acquired a tinge of melancholy. Or perhaps it’s merely the diminished levity you would expect to experience while checking in on a once vigorous old man as he recovers from a stroke. The house is still exquisitely disheveled and endlessly interesting, but along with your usual curiosity, you bring genuine concern for the old man’s wellbeing. Deep down, you know the old man will never be the same.
In this case, my concern is mixed with a vague and uncertain hopefulness. The floods and political dithering that followed Hurricane Katrina in September 2005 had the effect of a rising and receding tide. Part of the city was washed away forever. But perhaps something new and no less alive was left in its place. Perhaps, too, new seeds will blow in and take root.
New Orleans: Cool Car No, Beef Po’boy Yes
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at Louis Armstrong International and found my way to the Avis counter. I asked about the company’s “Cool Car” collection, thinking it might be a kick to test drive a Ford Mustang. The woman at the counter shook her head sympathetically. “Not at this location, sir.” When I asked why, she simply said, “High theft.”
That would be a reference to New Orleans’ crime problem. The city’s population is at about 60 percent of its pre-Katrina figures, but crime is as bad as ever. New Orleans has always had its bad-news side, but when a city is in a state of recovery, the bad news hits harder. The real victims, of course, are the residents trying to rebuild their lives and their communities here. I, on the other hand, would make out alright with a Chevy Impala.
Rather than head directly to my hotel, I detoured to an old haunt, Liuzza’s by the Track, for a roast beef Po’boy—New Orleans’ version of a hero sandwich. The lunch hour was over and the place was only half full. A favorite time of day for me. A heavy-set cop at one table, a pregnant woman one over, an old-timer telling stories to some younger guys at the bar, and black and white photos of jockeys and horses watching over the scene. I ordered a bowl of gumbo and a sandwich and settled down. This little corner of the city felt right as ever.
New Orleans: Onward to Frenchmen
With renewed energy, I drove the Impala down Esplanade, hooked left onto Frenchmen, and checked into the Frenchmen Hotel. Nice enough spot, in a Creole townhouse with a back courtyard. Its real strength was location. Frenchmen Street had always been one of the city’s best entertainment strips, long before Katrina, and it recovered quickly after the disaster. Parts of the Quarter are great. But I prefer the local vibe on Frenchmen Street. Tourists do come here, but they’re not of the boozy-wet-T-shirt variety that swarms Bourbon Street.
That night, a bar crawl revealed some surprises. Ray’s Boom Boom Room, Blue Nile, the Spotted Cat, the Apple Barrel, d.b.a., and Snug Harbor were not only open and featuring live music (trad jazz, modern jazz, blues, brass bands, Gypsy swing, and country on this night), but all were packed. This was an ordinary Wednesday. A relatively quiet night just a few blocks away in the French Quarter, during an obvious lull in the tourist season. Yet Frenchmen Street was hopping.
Before Katrina, I could go from club to club and expect to run into familiar faces and old friends, but things have changed. Perhaps I don’t spend enough time here anymore. New Orleans has always attracted new residents, typically young people still unburdened by careers, families, and property, ready and willing to spend a few years in the USA’s most exotic city. I’m guessing Katrina washed out a good portion of one generation of such people, scattered them to their hometowns or to other cities that exert a pull on wayward souls. By all appearances a new crop of outsiders has filled the void. New Orleans’ musical appeal isn’t lost on them, either.
Most of the musicians are still around—familiar characters like Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and Washboard Chaz. These artists are all gifted performers who tour regularly, but their New Orleans shows benefit from the context, intimacy, and familiarity that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. Frenchmen Street is a row of house parties.
In the midst of it all, however, I encountered Lionel Batiste, Sr., bass drummer of the legendary Tremé Brass Band, sitting alone at the bar of the Spotted Cat, looking sullen and out of place. By his demeanor I took it he didn’t want to be bothered, so I didn’t ask what was on his mind. But I couldn’t help but think that all was not well with the music scene when the usually gregarious Lionel seem so out of sync with it. On the other hand, you can’t always extrapolate from what may just be one man’s bad night.
New Orleans: A Tour of the Lower Ninth Ward
The next morning, however, I decided to poke around a bit. I drove down to the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most heavily devastated sections of town, to see if there was any sign the neighborhood was likely to ever come back. Two years ago, when I visited after Katrina, the bashed up houses of the Lower Ninth lay about like unmoored boats washed ashore. Now they’re gone.
The streets, cracked sidewalks, power lines, and a few sturdy oaks are all that remain. The lots are overgrown with grasses and weeds, chunks of foundation poking up like unmarked tombstones. A mere handful of the neighborhood’s residents have returned, some having rebuilt, others inhabiting white FEMA tailors. These are the stalwarts who prefer to live in the ghostly void of their old neighborhood, rather than in Houston or Atlanta.
The Lower Ninth was predominantly a black neighborhood. It was poor, to be sure, but deeply rooted and full of life. Parts of town such as this one contributed so much to New Orleans’ multi-cultural traditions. As I stood amidst the desolation of the Lower Ninth Ward, I could see little reason to believe it will ever really come back.
New Orleans: Signs of Hope in Mid-City
Elsewhere, however, I found signs of hope. Mid-City, the broad patchwork of mixed neighborhoods between the French Quarter and City Park, is gradually returning to life. I drove to Willie Mae’s, a great old soul food restaurant run by an ancient black woman who must be in her 90s by now. It was closed, but a fresh coat of exterior paint and neatly set tables inside indicated I had just chosen the wrong day to show up. Nearby, I checked in on Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, a bar opened by the late, great soul singer before his untimely passing in 2001. Here, too, freshly painted murals suggested good times will soon roll again. As I stood in front, snapping photos, the door opened and Antoinette K-Doe, Ernie’s widow, invited me in. It was midday, and the place wasn’t actually open. But this is the sort of informal hospitality New Orleans has always been known for.
I had read about Antoinette’s Katrina travails. She and three other people had been trapped upstairs for a week as the ground-floor bar filled with water. She had warned off looters by firing a shotgun into the sky. The bar had been stripped and remodeled, and thanks to Antoinette’s good care, a life-sized statue of Ernie survived the disaster. The Ernie statue now sat in the lounge, looking dapper in a fire-engine red suit, while Antoinette waxed philosophical about the future.
“You got to go on with your life,” she said with a shrug. “Make the most of each day, cause you can’t do it over. Getting stressed don’t help. It just puts you in the ground sooner.”
By Tom Downs