Toward a New New Orleans

Drive through St. Roch, a tough New Orleans neighborhood northeast of the French Quarter, and you'll travel down street after street of shockingly dilapidated houses. Many are abandoned, some still marked by the spray-painted orange crosses of the rescue workers who searched for survivors—and bodies—in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In St. Roch, where 51 percent of the households had annual incomes of less than $20,000 before the storm, these tiny historic houses had long been in a state of decay. So maybe it's not surprising to come upon a shambles of a shotgun house that's filled with dirt.

But this isn't a vestige of disaster—it's an art installation. Kirsha Kaechele, 31, a kind of cultural impresario who moved into an abandoned bakery in St. Roch in 2002, has now bought half a dozen crumbling houses on or near North Villere Street—between two cross streets named, irresistibly, Music and Arts—and has been unleashing artists to create works in these derelict places. Inside the dirt house, artist Margaret Evangeline spread a foot and a half of soil, broke the kitchen pipes to spew water all over, then planted native seeds, which are beginning to sprout.

Kaechele isn't sure how long this project, called "(America)," will endure—the floors are rotting even more badly than before—but it may morph into a different artist's installation later this year, using the mud. Nearby, another uninhabitable house was completely painted white—including the roof, shrubbery, random rubble and an adjacent telephone pole. It's a riff on the pristine white spaces of conventional galleries—and part of what Kaechele calls "a sort of a purification or healing ritual." These artworks, employing the detritus of the city's splendid and varied architectural history, are clearly inspired by Katrina. "New Orleans has always been a disaster—white flight, poverty, racial tension—and there's always been this incredibly creative and rich culture," says Kaechele. "But I think the hurricane forced life assessment and change, like any personal disaster would—except that it happened to an entire community."

New Orleans is a long way from recovery: its current population hovers south of 300,000, far below the pre-storm figure of 450,000, and as you drive around the city you see surprisingly little visible progress in rebuilding, and you hear profound frustration and anger with government at every level. Yet the culture of New Orleans isn't only surviving after the storm and a nation's neglect—in places, it seems to be thriving. It's sustained by the perseverance and spirit of people with deep roots here, such as visual artist Sally Heller or musician Allen Toussaint. And by an influx of such non-natives as Kaechele, who maybe came to visit, but have stayed to work, to help, to make art or to study. Applications to New Orleans's colleges and universities have soared since Katrina. The club scene is booming. Taco trucks may soon outnumber FEMA trailers, as Mexican workers who've flocked here for construction jobs have brought new flavors to the rich Cajun/Creole food scene. Architects are experimenting with affordable housing. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival—going on right now, and the city's biggest party except Mardi Gras—is expected to draw record crowds this year. As the novelist Nancy Lemann puts it, "A spark so divine is not easily extinguished."

This subtropical port, which looks to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration, has always marched to the beat of a multitude of different and very funky drummers. Which city has more beguiling street names—Abundance, Beaujolais, Cupid, Desire? Other places have the Rotary and the Elks. New Orleans has Social and Pleasure clubs and the Mardi Gras Indians—African-Americans masquerading as Native Americans in a tradition dating from when Indians and slaves were natural allies. A Mardi Gras Indian designs and sews a new costume every year; one chief put the cost, in time and materials, at $100,000 each. There are secret rituals, songs and chants; even parade routes are classified. Masking is crucial—disguise, misdirection, all in the service of nutty, impractical, unclassifiable mystery—and it's one key to understanding the city and its culture. New Orleans elevates the chores of daily life to a high level of culture. Porch railings are wrought into sculpture. In the kitchen, the humblest food becomes piquant. Even the funeral procession is an art form.

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans is doing what it does best: making something extraordinary out of next to nothing. There's no Marshall Plan here—just small miracles in individual neighborhoods. "The culture of New Orleans emanates from the bottom up, not from the top down," says Ellis Marsalis, pianist, composer and patriarch of the musical clan. The resurrection of the neighborhoods is doubly important because thousands of residents are still trying to come back, and because the city's culture—particularly its music—is anchored in the neighborhoods. Unless they are revived, "the music won't have a home anymore," says saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., who is also the Big Chief of the Congo Nation, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. "New Orleans needs the neighborhoods, because it's the only city in America that retains its traditional styles."

Yet the allure of New Orleans's culture is impossible to imagine without the backdrop of its gorgeous old architecture—much of it now in a precarious state. "I think you wouldn't have your music scene, the food scene, the art scene, if you didn't have the buildings," says Patricia Gay, director of the Preservation Resource Council, a local nonprofit that's been restoring houses for 30 years. Since the storm, the work has been especially urgent: one classic shotgun house the PRC is reconstructing with the National Trust belongs to 92-year-old Emelda Skidmore, who was evacuated to Houston and wants to return to her lifelong home—which was home as well to her stepdaddy, the late jazzman Kid Sheik. It's not just each house that matters. "People don't realize the importance of creating a street scene," Gay says—a whole row of fixedup, inhabited houses. It's hard to remake a neighborhood's street life when the few rebuilt houses sit scattered in a landscape of abandoned wrecks. The charming old houses aren't the only endangered species; so are fine examples of 20th-century modernism. The bulldozers' victims include parts of the Lafitte housing project, a model New Deal achievement with its handsome low-rise buildings, gracefully arrayed around tree-shaded courtyards.

Affordable housing is essential to luring back many poorer residents who formed the backbone of the city's work force. Thanks to church groups and such volunteer organizations as Habitat for Humanity, a handful of inexpensive houses have been constructed or repaired. While most new housing is being built in traditional styles, philanthropy is also sparking a change in the city's design culture. In the Holy Cross neighborhood, the Global Green organization has just opened a model house that's the centerpiece of a small residential development, with high-tech sustainable features and architecture that's a 21st-century take on New Orleans traditions, with porches and deep roof overhangs.

Not far away, in the worst-hit area of the Lower Ninth Ward, a man mows the lawn around a concrete slab—all that's left of his house. Here, where the devastation has given way to cleaned-up vacant lots of weeds and surprising bursts of pink wildflowers, Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation plans to construct 150 affordable green houses and offers returning residents a menu of designs. Each is by one of 14 leading contemporary architects, including Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, who's experimenting with a plan for a house that, supposedly, can float in an emergency. And in the Central City neighborhood, architecture students from Tulane University are finishing their fourth affordable house, which they designed, then built with their own sweat. The two-story house, which will sell for about $140,000, is on the scale of the older ones on the street, but it has contemporary lines and siding of bright red Hardie board and corrugated metal. "We definitely want to preserve what we have in New Orleans," says Emilie Taylor, 28, a graduate of the program who decided to stay in the city as project manager for Tulane's Urbanbuild program. "But our stance is to build with the technology of our time. We're hoping these little ideas will open up people to what New Orleans could be."

New Orleans culture has never stood still, but the calamity of Katrina gave it new momentum. Everything people had taken for granted—a good meal, music in the neighborhood—was suddenly at risk. In the months following the storm, New Orleans musicians achieved a level of recognition they'd never had before, appearing at benefit concerts around the country and on albums dedicated to raising money for relief efforts. But would these musicians, along with New Orleans's writers, visual artists and chefs, be able to re-create their culture once they got back home? Based on what's come out of the city in the two and a half years since the storm, the answer would seem to be yes—though this is still a story in progress. Nancy Lemann is working on a novel about the storm. Tom Piazza, who already published an impassioned nonfiction book about the catastrophe, "Why New Orleans Matters," has a new novel, "City of Refuge," coming out in August. Visual artists are moving here to help create the most vibrant art scene New Orleans has ever enjoyed, with such new galleries as Good Children, Antenna and Kaechele's KKProjects, giving derelict parts of the city a much-needed shot of energy. High-profile curators have moved in from Houston and New York. And last fall, when conceptual artist Paul Chan brought the Classical Theater of Harlem's production of "Waiting for Godot" to the devastated neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, the only complaints came from those who had to be turned away.

The story for musicians is more complicated—fittingly enough, since music is the cardinal art in this still-desperate city. Many old clubs failed to reopen after the storm, but new venues seem to pop up every month, while such established nightspots as Snug Harbor are thriving. A fair number of marquee names—Henry Butler, some of the Neville Brothers—have yet to return, but those who have made it home are working furiously, and turning out some of their best work. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard produced a Grammy-winning album-length requiem, "A Tale of God's Will." Dr. John composed a suite inspired by the coastal damage wreaked by both Katrina and Rita. And Allen Toussaint collaborated with Elvis Costello on "The River in Reverse," the first album, Toussaint proudly points out, recorded in the city after the storm. One of the country's great songwriters ("Working in a Coal Mine," "Yes We Can," "It's Raining," "Lipstick Traces"), Toussaint was a titan on the local scene but little known nationally before the storm. Now he tours regularly. "Katrina," he says, "has been quite a booking agent for musicians."

Toussaint is one of the more upbeat analysts of Katrina's effects. "There's lots to be done," he admits, "but many of the musicians—who are what makes New Orleans New Orleans—are back or on the way back. There are musicians down in Jackson Square, doing what they've always done. And there can be a brass-band parade on any day at any time. It won't damage the music community at all, not even a little." Not everyone is so sanguine. "We lost everything that we had—our instruments, our households, so many memories," says trumpeter James Andrews, who grew up tap-dancing for tips on Bourbon Street and who, along with his brother, Troy, a.k.a. Trombone Shorty, belongs to one of the city's several musical dynasties—their grandfather was soul singer Jessie Hill. "But the most important thing was losing so many people, who have tried to come back and can't make it because they can't afford it, or can't find the gigs that would sustain them." The artists who have returned all insist they're home to stay, but each of them admits to being haunted by the experience. For Blanchard, it is the memory of standing in front of his mother's destroyed home, days after the storm, "and not hearing a sound, not hearing a single thing that resembled life." Sally Heller, an artist who creates installations that look like forests and jungles woven out of cast-off materials, says her work has seemed, post-Katrina, to take on a new heaviness verging on despair. Before the storm, "we all lived with the sense that there's a safety net beneath us," says Heller. "I can't live like that anymore."

No one captures the sweet-and-sour fate of the arts in post-Katrina New Orleans better than hip-hop star Lil Wayne. "A lot of guys I knew that had big-time skills lost everything and moved to Atlanta or Texas," he says. "The city hasn't done anything to get people like that back. They don't care that young black men left and didn't come back." Yet in the same breath he insists that, "if anything, the arts are even stronger since Katrina. You know the best part of our music—rap or the blues—is based on suffering. I grew up in the Ninth Ward with murders and drugs. That's where my subjects come from—that hardship. And that's what people relate to. The world saw what happened in Katrina—so people couldn't dismiss us and our complaints so quickly."

New Orleans is a dangerous city. Since Katrina, the murder rate, already one of the highest in the nation, has only gone up. Last year more than 200 people were killed (that's roughly 71 per 100,000, more than twice the rate of, say, Washington, D.C.). It is also culturally volatile. The things that make the place interesting—different ethnicities and classes, different foods, different styles of music and clothing and dance—are the very things that people tend to fight about. Last fall the police were called to break up a funeral parade in the Tremé neighborhood. Some argue that there is nothing new here—that the police have a history of rousting musicians from the city's parks and streets. But others insist that a new front in the culture wars has now opened up; because Tremé was not heavily damaged by the flooding, it has started to attract more-affluent residents uncomfortable with the old neighborhood's mores. What really irked the old-timers was that the police bothered to act on the complaint at all. One of the angriest observers was Dr. John, a.k.a. Mac Rebennack, who wrote a song about the incident for his forthcoming "City That Care Forgot," a furious album about what's happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

In "My People Need a Second Line," Rebennack constructs a song that cleverly mirrors what he's singing about: a second line, in New Orleans parlance, is a group of people who follow one of the street parades or funeral marches that course through the city every week. His lyric in the song's first half is doleful, like mourners on their way to the graveyard. Then the music turns around and doubles the tempo, like a brass band on the way back, while the singer excoriates anyone who interferes with one of the city's most sacred institutions. In a recent interview, Rebennack could barely contain his rage: "The tradition of the second-line brass bands is right there in Tremé, in that neighborhood. And now politicians want to charge people [for parade permits] to have a second line. They have to have a police escort—all that crap. This is a spiritual thing. You don't put spiritual things in politicians' hands."

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, whose office oversees the state's arts economy, acknowledges that street culture and crowd control don't always ride on the same float. During the last few Mardi Gras Indian parades, "some people not involved in the parades shot guns and people got injured. So now the police are saying, are these things dangerous or not?" It's a question, he believes, of balancing public safety against cultural vitality. Landrieu, who's pushing a Cultural Economy Initiative package that would assist artists as a vital part of the state's economy, puts his thumb on the side of the scale representing the artists: "Don't make it hard," he says, "for a culture to stand itself back up."

Like so many people, the great soul singer Irma Thomas lost almost everything in the storm—her house, her cars, "everything but some beaded dresses and a few vinyl albums." But Thomas, known for such hits as "Time Is on My Side" and "Ruler of My Heart," has made her peace with loss and change. New Orleans, she says, "is far from what it was, and I don't think it'll ever be what it was. You can't bring back yesterday. A lot of people have trouble with that—even musically." Before Katrina, she wasn't singing much, and she and her husband were getting ready to sell their nightclub, the Lion's Den. "Mother Nature took care of that," Thomas says. With her club and her home gone, she was left at the age of 64 with what she'd started out with: a terrific voice and not much more.

It was plenty. Now in demand as never before, she has all the work she can handle. "I'm like an apple," she says with a chuckle. "Everybody wants a piece of me." When the storm hit, Thomas was about to go into the studio to record a new album. The record was "After the Rain," for which she would win a Grammy. Although most of the songs had been chosen before Katrina, she says, when she finally got into the studio months later, "it all took on a different flavor. All the musicians at those sessions went through the storm, so it was affecting all of us. And whatever we were feeling, it was coming out in our music. Everybody there said it was the best therapy we could have had. That's all we had left. And that's what's going to happen to the musicians who can come back. You're going to hear it in the way they play. Nothing will ever be what it was. Maybe better, maybe worse—we don't know. But it's going to be different. Very different."

New Orleans is dead. Long live New Orleans.