A Culture's Sad Finale?

Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune
Fliers on Frenchman Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, promote shows for prominent New Orleans ensembles such as the Rebirth Brass Band, Thursday, January 19, 2007. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

It won't be long now -- maybe just months -- before we know if the glorious swamp culture of New Orleans has been washed away for good.

It won't be long now -- maybe just months -- before we know if the glorious swamp culture of New Orleans has been washed away for good.

Sure, generic rock bands will bray for years to come in deafening, open-air saloons along Bourbon Street. Semi-pro street musicians will beg for change around Jackson Square, in the still-picturesque French Quarter. And kids with bottle tops nailed to the bottoms of their shoes will hoof and sway on street corners, on cue, when tourists roll into town for Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras.

But 17 months after Hurricane Katrina, the root culture of New Orleans -- its raucous brass bands and lowdown blues singers, its holy-rolling gospel choirs and plushly plumed Mardi Gras Indians -- is expiring. Worse, the dirt-poor communities that produced these magnificent folk artists have all but vanished, cutting off future generations of inimitable New Orleans artists.

The musicians who are still there, as well as the writers and visual artists, wonder whether they can stick around much longer in the face of surging violent crime and political leadership that severely undervalues the city's arts.

Unless someone does something soon to bring the exiled artists back and keep the die-hards in town, the globally admired cultural identity of New Orleans -- by far the most distinctive of any in the United States -- will be destroyed, once and for all. And the world will lose the sacred place that inspired the trumpet cries of Louis Armstrong and the jazz masterpieces of Jelly Roll Morton; the gospel exhortations of Mahalia Jackson and the culinary delicacies of Paul Prudhomme; the haunting prose of Tennessee Williams and the visionary compositions of Wynton Marsalis. And much, much more.

Jazz singer Ed Perkins and his band perform at Snug Harbor, a top modern jazz club in New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday, January 19, 2007. The city\'s nightlife is struggleing without the visitors who once drove it. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The tragic irony here is that if New Orleans is to survive in any semblance of its illustrious past, the city needs its cultural resources more than ever. Take away the music and the food, the lyrical writing and the distinctive street rituals, and New Orleans becomes just another dying city of the South.

"There's a feeling here we're getting to a tipping point," said T.R. Johnson, director of the writing program at Tulane University, bemoaning a recent wave of murders that took the lives of two beloved New Orleans artists: brass-band musician Dinerral Shavers, 25, and filmmaker Helen Hill, 36.

"There's a sense the city and its culture will blow away if we don't get the thugs under control. Artists and filmmakers and writers and musicians -- we're a pretty brave and hardy sort. But at a certain point, you've just got to ask yourself: Is it worth it?"

Said trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a lifelong resident and brother of trumpeter Wynton: "There's a great sense of emptiness in New Orleans now."

In the storm's immediate aftermath, New Orleans' most passionate citizens vowed to revive their city and its boldly idiosyncratic culture. But events have conspired against them.

The city's population has plummeted from its pre-Katrina count of 437,000 to 191,000 (the numbers had been declining slowly for decades).

Government money and support have been almost impossible to come by, according to most residents. Just last week, U.S. senators holding a field hearing in New Orleans blasted the White House for neglecting the city and President Bush for failing to even mention it in his State of the Union address.

And crime -- in particular the murder rate -- has soared.

These problems wound the entire city. They strike at the culture of New Orleans' fragile post-Katrina existence with particular vengeance.

Music clubs on Frenchmen Street, the primary music boulevard in New Orleans, Louisiana, January 19, 2007. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Stroll down once-bustling Frenchmen Street -- the city's primary music boulevard -- and you'll encounter mostly barren sidewalks and oft-empty clubs. A city's nightlife cannot long survive without the tourists who once drove it.

Cruise through the poor neighborhoods severely damaged by the flooding, such as the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and you'll encounter silence and desolation in the places where New Orleans' unique cultural traditions were invented and thrived.

Granted, signs of hope surface. Unlike the spontaneous street culture for which New Orleans is most famous, its formal institutions have bounded back into action. Most of the city's museums and art galleries, for instance, have reopened. Many of the visual artists have come home.

Even so, they may not be there to stay.

"There is this sense that they're going to give it a little bit more time, and maybe they're not going to stay around," said Jacqueline Bishop, a longtime artist and radio producer.

Artists do not see much help coming from those in power.

"It's tough to persuade the political leadership that our cultural traditions really matter," said Helen Regis, professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University. "There has been a lot of lip service to grass roots and vernacular culture, but very little real support. Quite the opposite."

Yet the significance of New Orleans' culture extends deeply into its psyche. A city long in decline has always found hope and sustenance in its strangely seductive voodoo rhythms.

New Orleans musician Spencer Bohren (right) performs at Liuzza's by the Track bar in New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday, January 19, 2007. Musicians in New Orleans wonder whether they can stick around much longer in the face of surging violent crime and political leadership that severely underestimates the city's arts. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

"It seems to me that music, and all the arts here, provide a kind of bulwark against despair," said Johnson, the Tulane University writing professor. "And when you start to lose the music and lose the vibrancy, there's nothing left but the agony of the losses, and the place becomes unmoored."

Which is exactly what's happening now.

But despite the staggering setbacks following Katrina, it may be possible to save some of New Orleans' distinctive beat, if at least two needs are fulfilled.

For starters, practically everyone agrees that affordable housing must be developed soon, because most artists cannot afford to live in the affluent areas largely spared by the storm, such as the upscale Garden District.

Habitat for Humanity's ongoing construction of an affordable Musicians Village represents at least an attempt at giving artists a reason to return or stay. But many question the idea of placing musicians in an urban ghetto, rather than across the entire city.

Beyond housing, city government quickly needs to embrace the very neighborhood cultural traditions it has at best ignored and at worst suppressed during most of the 20th Century. Even before Katrina, it's worth noting, the second-liners, brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and other marginalized groups found more opposition than support from the top.

"New Orleans was never that kind to jazz musicians and other kinds of grass-roots culture here," said Alfred Lemmon, director of the Williams Research Center at The Historic New Orleans Collection, a renowned archive of Louisiana culture. "Maybe people now will start to realize that they're in the position of possibly losing something valuable."

Still, time is running out. Exiled artists who barely scraped by in pre-Katrina New Orleans have found better lives elsewhere and are reluctant to return. And many devout New Orleanians who never imagined leaving the city are counting the days until they kiss off the dream.

In the balance hangs a culture that the world reveres but that Americans -- and even many New Orleanians -- have yet to fully appreciate.

"What we really need to do is make (artists) who are here, and who do feel so strongly about the city, feel comfortable staying here," said Stella Baty Landis, a musicologist who owns the Sound Cafe, which has become a nexus for brass bands and other social organizations.

Yet even Landis, who was instrumental in organizing a huge street march recently to protest the city's descent into crime and chaos, is not optimistic that New Orleans' irreplaceable culture can survive.

"I feel that the city that existed pre-Katrina is done, and that its culture is not going to suddenly reappear, no matter how hard we fight for it," she said. "My hope is very long-term and itself kind of abstract, but it's that the kernel of New Orleans, that essence of New Orleans that is deep in our soul and thick in the air, will give rise to something, eventually, newly wonderful."

Right now, that may be the best that anyone can hope for.

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