Alex Rawls- Some thoughts on the past, present and future of New Orleans music. The battle of New Orleans
At a recent benefit concert in New York City (dubbed “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy”), New Orleans funk band Galactic was joined onstage by members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and of Mardi Gras Indian tribe the Wild Magnolias, sans costumes. “It was weird to see Big Chief Bo Dollis in hip-hop pants,” Galactic bassist Rob Mercurio says. “I was talking to Geechie [Johnson, of the Wild Magnolias] and he said if you were a true Indian, you evacuated with your costume.”
Although the city’s racial tension may be partly responsible for many of its defining cultural characteristics, some civic leaders and displaced citizens have speculated that in some ways New Orleans might be better off without the inevitable friction the racial tension creates. Such guarded talk, though, sounds uncomfortably close to suggesting the city would be better off without the poor, and particularly African-Americans, given that they are often stereotyped as being responsible for much of the drugs and crime in the city. As Quintron points out, “Louis Armstrong was one of the people they’re talking about we’re better off without. Some of the greatest contributors to our music and the music of the world were those people.”
That impulse, of course, produced blues and jazz in other cities, too. Unique to New Orleans is the proximity of destruction, particularly hurricanes. No one lives in New Orleans without being aware that you’re below sea level, that pumps keep us dry, that walls and levees keep the water out. This sense of imminent destruction feeds the “city that care forgot” attitude; after all, what else are you going to do? If you live here, it’ll drive you crazy worrying about the catastrophe that could be coming.
Instead, people party, work and carry on because there’s nothing to be done about a hurricane, and only so much you can do to prepare for it. This might be the best cause for optimism for a rebuilt city: Anyone who returns will know in a very real way that anything he or she builds could well be washed away some day. The choice to build is the choice to embrace living, which is the same choice the music represents.
There are, however, practical issues. Water lines on the side of the Mother-in-Law Lounge show that it took on three, maybe four feet of water. Initial reports were far more apocalyptic for the club and the Treme neighborhood in general. There were definitely places where the water was deeper, but the traditionally black neighborhood that is one of the homes of jazz and R&B in New Orleans wasn’t washed away.
It might as well have been, though. Because many of its residents are poor, much of the Treme has been bused to Houston or flown to Phoenix, Denver and other cities that took evacuees. Will they make it back, and if they do, will they be able to afford to live in the new New Orleans?
Since the hurricane, real estate speculators have salivated at the prospect of a seller’s market. One entire middle-to-upper-middle-class neighborhood, Lakeview, was submerged by the breach of the 17th Street Canal, and all those people are going to need new homes, at least until they can rebuild. During a segment on soaring real estate costs in New Orleans on NPR’s “Morning Edition”, one man who owned three properties said he was asking $375,000 for them before the hurricane; now he’s asking $475,000. “There’s no law against price gouging in real estate,” he explains.
In his mid-September speech from Jackson Square, president Bush proposed a homestead act that would provide 4,000 homes for lower-income families, many of which would be houses repossessed by the government. At the moment, there are only 1,000 such properties in New Orleans.
“The poor are the heart and soul of the city,” Ivan Neville says. “Where are they going to be?” Ivan and Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers have set up camp in Austin, Texas, along with many New Orleans musicians. He says he’s trying to be optimistic, but it’s difficult. He fears changes to demographics and neighborhoods may change “the streets” forever. “All that street bullshit — second lines, social aid and pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indians — that influenced the Meters and everyone who followed them,” he says.
Mercurio echoes his thoughts. “People of the second line — if they can’t move back, it’s going to be Disneyland, Whiteyville,” he says. “The culture mix is crucial. It’s a weird socio-economic study, but does a town need a ghetto?”
The future of the Treme and Iberville projects is certainly in doubt. They stand between the French Quarter and rapidly gentrifying parts of Mid-City, so it’s easy to imagine city planners having designs on that land. Earlier this year, developer Pres Kabacoff drew up plans to turn part of the Iberville into a movie studio to accommodate the city’s growing profile in film production. Others have talked about mixed-income housing, creating developments with homes in a variety of price ranges to avoid pockets of lower-class housing.
Will neighborhood traditions such as Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs survive if the neighborhoods they’re tied to are broken up? Ivan Neville hopes so. “That stuff is important to the city,” he says.
David Freedman, general manager of the New Orleans music radio station WWOZ-FM, observes that in this city, “Music is an expression of people and their lives.” But it’s reasonable to wonder if musicians will be able to afford to live in New Orleans. Many of the city’s biggest names certainly will, though newspaper reports say that Aaron Neville is unsure if he’ll return; he’s been in Memphis after losing his house to the flood.