New Orleans Culture at a Tipping Point Part 1

Roger Hahn, our man in New Orleans chronicles the systematic decimation of local culture, Post-Katrina, in this multi-part feature, first published on the day Hurricane Gustav is set to possibly hit New Orleans, three years almost to the day Katrina hit:

'The constants that I look for
in this sometimes dated paraphernalia
are a love of light and the determination to trace
some moral chain of being.'
-- John Cheever,
The Stories of John Cheever,
(Knopf, 1978)

On Saturday morning, April 26, 2008 an overcast and moderately humid day in New Orleans, a small group of neighborhood kids organized an impromptu 'jazz funeral' to commemorate the recent death of a loved and respected local track coach.

The informal procession was following an improvised route along what used to be a major African-American thoroughfare, now a monolithic interstate-highway underpass created by the Interstate-10 feeder/bypass looming overhead.

Located at the heart of the Tr'm' neighborhood (locals just call it The Tre-MAY) directly north of the French Quarter, the dozen or so city blocks beneath the I-10 overpass had once been a broad, tree-lined avenue surrounded by an abundance of local businesses and teeming with various expressions of neighborhood life.

Today, all that remains of the grandeur that once existed here is the kind of barren wasteland -- concrete footings and dark, hard, empty spaces -- that riddle inner-city landscapes all around the country.

With one difference.

Unwilling to completely abandon a central recreation space, the local community continues to use this now-subterranean expanse of concrete -- by congregating here in substantial numbers on Mardi Gras Day, for instance— but have decorated the highway pilings that define it, creating tubular community murals on the inside rows, and on the outside rows, spray-painted images of the gnarled and resilient living oak trees, native to the area, that once thrived here.

On this particular Saturday morning, about halfway down this 'contested' thoroughfare of urban destruction and cultural persistence, the rag-tag gathering of youthful mourners was confronted by two New Orleans police squad cars.

A front-page story the following Saturday in the city's daily newspaper said police officials were, at that point, still unable to identify one of the two squad cars involved in the incident.

The same article said the police department was equally unable to explain how this neighborhood jazz funeral held by children—a Saturday-morning exercise in local cultural expression that was blocking no traffic and invading no private property—could be seen to have posed any kind of threat to public order.

Nevertheless, by means of an intimidating and disparaging announcement broadcast over one of the squad cars' factory-installed bullhorns, the informal jazz funeral was formally and definitively disbanded.

Later in the afternoon of the very same day—less than two miles away but in another social world altogether—the unparalleled uniqueness of the local culture of the city of New Orleans and of southern Louisiana in general was being celebrated on a far grander scale at site of the 39th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell (now its official name).

There, tens of thousands of ardent Festival fans waited through a sudden and drenching subtropical downpour to hear the day's scheduled headliner, pop star Billy Joel, perform in natural conditions so adverse a stagehand was made to stand ready, prepared at a moment's notice to squeegee off the Piano Man's onstage baby grand as the situation required.

The seven-day Jazz & Heritage Festival celebration—with headliners that also included Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Buffett, Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Santana, and Stevie Wonder—endured a couple more bouts of unpredictable, subtropical rain storms but nonetheless managed to rack up total paid admissions of nearly 400,000, enough for organizers to decree this yet another in a long line of successful festival years.

So, why aren't we out there at the festival site, taking in ungodly amounts of music, food, crafts, and art amidst what arguably constitutes the biggest, most concentrated, most successful, and most entertaining spectacle of locally based culture anywhere in the U.S., if not the world?

Why are we standing, instead, beneath the cavernous I-10 underpass that towers over North Claiborne Street (locals tend to say 'CLAY-bone'), paying our vicarious respects to an incident so minor that it has, for the most part, gone virtually unnoticed?

We are standing here because of great contrast provided by the juxtaposition of this tiny, apparently irrelevant incident and the enormous cultural celebration unfolding just a short stroll away helps explain quite a bit about the dilemma currently facing local culture in post-Katrina New Orleans.

To better understand the full implications of this cultural dilemma, it might be useful to start with some local background, in the interests of observing events 'on the ground' against a sharper backdrop of historical context.

A Clash of Civilizations in City Council Chambers

To begin with, there is the essentially comic irony of local police action aimed at suppressing an expression of local cultural on the very day of—and not very far from the gates to —the city's very own and much-touted Jazz & Heritage Festival.

But this assumes a slightly darker and potentially more-sinister aspect if we take into account the fact that this incident represents just a single occurrence in what has become an ongoing and unauthorized New Orleans police campaign, carried out with added intensity since the hurricane's devastation and apparently aimed at suppressing two distinct expressions of local street culture.

While it's true that conflict between local authorities and various forms of backstreet culture in New Orleans has been a fact of life for decades, maybe even centuries, this latest police campaign has been distinguished by its stubbornness and consistency.

Resistance to its pre-storm beginning reached a crescendo of sorts just months before Katrina's landfall, when one of the city's most widely respected cultural leaders called for an open meeting of the New Orleans City Council and packed the City Council chambers with assorted supporters and followers.

Allison 'Tootie' Montana was a retired stonemason generally regarded as a highly accomplished trade craftsman. But he is also known both within his own circles and among New Orleans' culturally aware residents as the senior eminence and 'the Chief of Chiefs' of the city's Mardi Gras Indian culture, one of those unique local cultural expressions on display at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.

In New Orleans, practitioners of this tradition—which they refer to simply as 'masking' or 'masking Indian' — exist mostly in a subterranean world of working-class blacks.

Working on their own and paying for their own materials, they cut and sew fabric relentlessly throughout the year so they can wear and display on Mardi Gras Day a brand new and uniquely vivid parading costume that mixes Caribbean styles of elaborate plumage with either gaudy constructions of costume jewelry or carefully beaded motifs based on American Plains Indian imagery.

During the mid-1990s, especially, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition became much celebrated generally within the city of New Orleans, a period of appreciation marked particularly a major exhibition of 'Tootie' Montana's collection of his most elaborately decorated costumes from years past that was initiated and organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Montana's revered cultural status rests mainly on two accomplishments. One is his ability to adapt masonry techniques on behalf of constructing the ambitiously cantilevered decorations that characterize his Indian 'suits.'

The other is his leadership role in bringing about a cultural 'paradigm shift' that resulted in the prizing within the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian community of aesthetic achievement over brute force or implied violence.

In truth, Mardi Gras Indians have always been, and still are, mainly the poorest of the poor people, the aesthetic of their underground world defined mostly by an unbridled spirit of cultural defiance. And the history of their customs, dating back to the late 19th century, unavoidably contains references to the frequency of sometimes-violent confrontations.

In the history of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, 'Tootie' Montana's influence meant that each year's newly created display of Indian artistry came to be judged not according to which 'gang' or 'tribe' was the 'baddest' or most fearsome, but according to which was tribe or individual costume was the most beautiful or the 'prettiest,' a coinage developed by the 'Big Chief' himself.

Unfortunately, this unwritten chapter of local cultural history has had no effect whatsoever in significantly lowering the generally held suspicion shared by local police officials—even some locally raised, black police officials—that Mardi Gras Indians, by and large, contain a large proportion of participants who could still be bad actors.

So it came to pass, on a sunny spring afternoon one Sunday, earlier in the same year as Katrina's arrival, that several carloads of police officers—acting on what they said had been an anonymous tip—abruptly descended on, and subsequently dispersed, an annual neighborhood gathering where Indians display each year's craftwork and theatrically pose in costume for snapshot after snapshot after snapshot.

The tradition's spiritual leader however, perceived the spring 2005 police raid on the event Indians call 'Super Sunday' as nothing less than a blatant insult.

And so it also came to pass that Allison 'Tootie' Montana, then in his mid-80s, demanded an immediate hearing before the New Orleans City Council. And when that day came, he also managed to fill the City Council chamber with an overflow crowd of voluble and ardent supporters.

Beginning with a recounting of the dramatic shift that had occurred in Mardi Gras Indian culture, 'Tootie' Montana then launched into a recitation of police interference, including the most recent incident. Arriving at the conclusion of his narrative before what had become a virtually silent and rapt audience, the 'Chief of Chiefs' then dramatically insisted, 'All of this HAS to stop!'

And he immediately collapsed from of a heart attack, passing away on the City Council chamber floor before medical assistance could reach him.

Such an event, in another place or another time, might have resonated throughout the public conversation of the place where it happened, carrying a sense of urgency in addressing the underlying issues that had been raised and remained unresolved.

But 'Tootie' Montana's stunning death did little to raise any kind of debate in the city of New Orleans, except a brief discussion about better access in the City Council chamber to emergency medical equipment.

Organizing a Community-Wide, Post-Katrina Homecoming Parade

The New Orleans police department chose to raise the bar of vigilance on local street cultural, ironically enough, on the first Martin Luther King Day celebrated in the Crescent City the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

On that day, a number of citywide and neighborhood social-service groups had joined together to organize a massive holiday parade intended to commemorate lives lost in post-Katrina flooding and acknowledge the tens of thousands stranded in far-off cities, unable to find the means or the occasion to come home.

The 2006 Martin Luther King Day Parade was unusual in two ways. First was in the organizers' selected parade route, beginning at the eastern edge of the Tr'm' neighborhood, traveling across Rampart Street on the northern edge of the French Quarter, and then pausing at the Superdome in honor of those seeking refuge from Katrina's floodwaters who suffered there.
Also unusual was the broad coalition of social-activist and heritage-bearing organizations that joined together in common purpose.

The procession was to then head back up Orleans Avenue, which runs north from the aforementioned I-10 overpass, toward two prominent New Orleans landmarks—Bayou St. John, a kind of winding lake that enters the city from Lake Ponchartrain much farther to the north—and the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival is held each spring following that winter's horse-racing season.

Orleans Avenue, in particular, holds a great deal of significance for New Orleans' African-American community. One reason is that it runs from the street-culture-rich environs of the Treme neighborhood to a site on the banks of Bayou St. John—which served at one time as part of a native Indian portage from Lake Ponchartrain—where at the end of the 19th century multi-cultural 'voodoo' ceremonies were held, attended by even well-to-do white women and overseen by Marie Laveaux, the city's 'voodoo queen.'

In more recent times, the banks of Bayou St. John have become home to an annual spring gathering of Mardi Gras Indians, a second and complementary 'Super Sunday,' that concludes with an organized procession down Orleans Avenue to the Claiborne Avenue/I-10 overpass.

Running for several blocks along the west side of Orleans Avenue is the Lafitte public housing project, one of several 1950s-era public-housing projects in New Orleans that anchor the life of the city's African-American community.

And near their end is Dooky Chase's restaurant, the city's premier Creole dining establishment, presided over by bandleader Dooky Chase's wife, Leah Chase, who displays their extensive collection of African-American art on the restaurant's walls and holds a seat on the board of directors of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The unusual coalition of groups that came together to organize the 2006 Martin Luther King Day parade united representatives of city's social service agencies with members of the city's Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs—a loose coalition of neighborhood groups established originally in the post-Reconstruction South to defend social cohesion but more recently focused on neighborhood recreation and annual parades held each fall through the spring on Sunday afternoons in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Known as 'second-line' parades, or more colloquially 'second-lines,' these parades are comprised of a 'first' line of parading club members, followed and accompanied by a marching brass band, along with a 'second' line that precedes, accompanies, and follows the 'first' line, made up of any and all local and visiting observers who feel lik
e joining an informal, raucous, and highly charged celebration.
Writing a highly detailed history of the city's second-line parade culture from the late 19-century through the early 21st century, would be almost impossible, because at very few times were precise records of any kind kept.

But most observers would agree this indigenous form of cultural expression benefited greatly from increased attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when the city's annual Jazz & Heritage Festival began to achieve critical mass and American popular music experienced a late-20th-century 'roots' revival.

Originally, the second-line parade season extended from Labor Day to the winter holidays. But by the mid-1990s, with as many as 40 or 50 Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs parading—some containing two or three or even four separate 'units' —the second-line parade season was unofficially extended through Memorial Day.

Before Katrina, on any given Sunday, there might be two or even three large second-line parades taking place in different parts of the African-American community throughout the city. Cascading through the backstreets of black New Orleans, the largest of these parades could seem like enormous, mobile picnics proceeding with the momentum and unbridled force of rushing water.

Smaller parades were noisy and forceful as well, with the added opportunity to experience a kind of community reverence that lies at the core of the parading custom, making stops that celebrate various neighborhood landmarks, including local bars, funeral homes, and private residences.

End of Part I