[Sound of rain and trombone playing]
Stephen Smith: It is a rainy day in Jackson Square here in the heart of the French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Nick Spitzer: Jackson Square is famous for many things, the beautiful cathedral and where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, that brought one-third of the United States into the Union, from France to America.
Smith: From American Public Media this is Routes to Recovery an American RadioWorks documentary, I'm Stephen Smith.
Spitzer: And I'm Nick Spitzer from American Routes, a music and culture program produced here in New Orleans.
Smith: Behind us is Andrew Jackson, astride his horse. And this is the square where President Bush came after Hurricane Katrina to speak to the nation and to pledge, in front of an empty square but a lit up cathedral that the government would do what it takes to rebuild New Orleans.
[Cathedral bells ringing]
Spitzer: And here we are at the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and what it appears to be is that the people of New Orleans who've come back are the ones who are doing whatever it takes to rebuild their city.
Smith: Over the next hour, Nick Spitzer and I are going to be traveling the streets and the neighborhoods of New Orleans to find out on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina how the culture of this city is surviving.
Spitzer: And as we stand on Jackson Square, I have to say I love the beignets at Café du Monde, I love the beautiful buildings. Bourbon Street can be fun at times; it's a little bit raucous. But we're going to go deep into the neighborhoods where the people that cook the food, make the music, and in some cases have built and rebuilt this city are living and trying to survive.
[Music: Henry Butler piano]
Smith: This is the music of New Orleans pianist and singer Henry Butler, an old friend of Nick's. I should mention, Nick, that you've been living in Louisiana off and on since the 1970s and you know people like Henry Butler, and you know the city's culture through your work as an anthropologist, as a writer, and as Louisiana's State Folklorist for a time. You told me that Butler is in the tradition of the Piano Professor.
Spitzer: Yeah that means that Henry plays a wide range of styles from classical to jazz amd blues and then mixes it all together to make it his own. It all comes out "Butler" every time. He's also a kind of artistic explorer, his expeditions across the musical map are launched from the port of New Orleans. And he has been blind since early childhood, grew up hearing blues and gospel in the neighborhood and then went to Southern University in Baton Rouge for formal training.
Smith: We drive Henry Butler to his home in the city's Gentilly neighborhood. He's been back a couple of times since the storm, and two years after Katrina his neighborhood is still a patchwork landscape of abandonment, rebuilt houses and FEMA trailers. Standing on the lawn, Butler nudges the turf with his shoe.
Henry Butler: Looks likes some of the grass has started growing a bit. Last time I was here it was a little barren-mostly weeds.
Smith: Butler's neighborhood was devastated by breaks in a nearby levee. His house got flooded about shoulder high. The water sat there for weeks. Now the place is gutted - just flooring and studs. Nick leads Butler inside.
Spitzer: Up and in, boxes left and right but you're clear down the center ...
Butler: Alright. For me it's harder to distinguish what room was what cause all the walls gone. And you can see the piano over there, it's just a, it's just a frame pretty much.
Spitzer: Good Lord.
Butler: The keys sitting there. The black keys are just kinda, you can pick 'em up.
Spitzer: I just picked up a black key.
Butler: - with your hand. And for those who are listening to this, I'm actually pressing down the keys and this is what you hear.
[sound of pounding muted keys, then a note comes out]
Butler: And there we go!
Smith: Henry Butler was out of town on August 29, 2005 - the day Hurricane Katrina hit -- the day the levees broke. And like many New Orleans residents, he couldn't get home for months. He lost master tape recordings in the flood, a mountain of Braille magazines and books and other things that were precious to his creative work.
Butler: When I saw this piano in December of 2005 it just broke my heart. After spending 21-22 years with this piano and making it my piano, it's like my baby, you know? It's like the thing that ... .it's like the thing that ... [chokes up] got me to where I am. It's a beautiful thing.
Smith: Henry Butler applied for money to rebuild his house from Louisiana's storm-recovery program called "The Road Home." But he got turned down. And the insurance money he got isn't enough to rebuild. So this celebrated New Orleans musician now lives ... in Denver.
Spitzer: A lot of New Orleans people haven't come back or really can't come back. The estimates vary, but the city's population is about 60 percent of the pre-storm level. Tourism is recovering slowly and residents really are still struggling. Only a fraction of the people who applied for government rebuilding assistance have gotten paid. Many schools and hospitals - especially those serving poor neighborhoods are still closed. Henry says he can't move back to this New Orleans. It's still too much in disarray for him.
Butler: You've got a lot of well meaning people and they're doing a lot of good things, a lot of little projects here and there. It's like a symphony without a conductor here, you know just moving at a snail's pace. I'd love to come back to live but I can't be a fool about it. I have to be wise about what I do with my life.
Smith: Henry Butler is one of hundreds of New Orleans musicians who moved away and are reluctant or unable to get back home.
Scott Billington: People are just gone to the far corners of the earth it seems. At least the far corners of the United States.
Smith: That's veteran record producer Scott Billington.
Billington: Other parts of the country just don't realize how little New Orleans has recovered and how much needs to be done to bring back the people who are the heart and soul of that culture.
Smith: Billington says more than many other cities, the culture of New Orleans - especially music -- is created and sustained by local neighborhood folks.
Billington: Cab drivers and maids and gardeners and levee workers who - to me, they were the foundation of New Orleans culture and New Orleans music. People say that the music just bubbled up from the sidewalks in some of these relatively poor African American communities, and perhaps it did. But unless these families come back I think that that font - or whatever you would call it - of New Orleans music, it will run dry.
[Music: Henry Butler piano]
Spitzer: It comes down to this: people make culture ... and they gotta have someplace to live. For some, it's so hard to find a place that they give up. Others are spending everything that they have to rebuild.
[sound of rain]
Smith: On a stormy New Orleans afternoon, musician Charles Elam opened up his house in the city's 9th ward. Somebody broke in recently and stole his tools. Crime in the area is so bad Elam keeps the door padlocked and screwed shut. So it takes a key and a power drill to get in.
Charles Elam: Best I can do is slow them down for the next run.
[sound of drilling, unlocking and thunder]
Elam: The reason for the green rooms is, you're probably saying, "Why so much green?" A friend of mine ran into a situation where a guy says, "Man I got this green carpet and no one likes it, and I have to unload it. I'll give it away to whoever, first person that comes by to get it.
Spitzer: Sax player Charles Elam is a well-established sideman who tours the world with his own band. Like so many other New Orleans musicians, he's piecing his life back together with scraps of the old and the new. A little free carpeting here, some donated furniture there, his life savings and his own sweat.
Elam: There's a two man crew that came in to put the sheetrock in. I'm helping screw it and sheetrock it, I'm helping 'em. And when they leave I paint. Do all my own painting. My dad taught us all this stuff when I was a kid, so when people come in and say, "Who did the woodwork?" "Me!" Yeah. They pretty surprised to see I do more than play saxophone. [laughs]
Smith: Elam's quick and generous humor conceals tremendous loss. His wife Idara died three weeks after Katrina in Monroe, Louisiana. Elam and his wife and their two kids evacuated to Monroe just as Katrina hit. Elam says the stress of the storm caused Idara to have a heart attack. He's been almost lost without her, as a man and a musician. She kept the books, made sure he was on time to gigs, handled correspondence and managed his wardrobe.
Elam: My wife always made sure I had suit ties, tie pins, cufflinks. I was the hardest working musician in town and the best dressed. And that was all because of her.
Smith: Still, he keeps going. Two years after Katrina, Elam's house is partially repaired. He spent all the money from his wife's life insurance and then from the home-owner's policy to fix up the place. Then he got turned down for a government grant and loan program to rebuild and he says he's not really sure why. And like a lot of New Orleans musicians, he says his value as an artist is better recognized in Europe than his homeland.
Elam: I've had more help, more assistance from promoters in Austria and Germany. What do I want? What do I need done? They want pictures, they want measurements, they want numbers. [speaking with an accent] They want to get it done NOW! [laughs]
Spitzer: Elam has also been helped out financially by a local coalition of non-profit groups called Sweet Home New Orleans. It provides money and relocation assistance. We met Sweet Home director Jordan Hirsch in his tiny office where the a.c. was going full blast. Hirsch says that before Katrina, some 3,500 musicians lived in the city.
Jordan Hirsch: More than half of our music community is not back in New Orleans in a stable situation. Thousands of households are still struggling every day with situations that are as urgent and severe as situations that families were facing right after the levees broke.
Smith: Now, few people have ever gotten rich playing music in New Orleans. But it's also been a fairly cheap city to live in -- until Katrina.
Hirsch: A one-bedroom place rented by a New Orleans musician before the storm might run 500 bucks. Post-Katrina, a one-bedroom place rented by a musician might run 850. And when your riverboat gig isn't there anymore and when the club you used to play it is only open half the week, it's tough.
Smith: The mission at Sweet Home New Orleans is to help musicians find homes. The group is also trying to preserve one of the city's other distinctive cultural traditions -- a spectacle that's be going on for 150 years.
[sound of Mardi Gras Indian drummers parading through the street]
Smith: These are Mardi Gras Indians, people from the city's Black and Afro-Creole neighborhoods, like here in the Treme. In New Orleans culture, the Indians have special significance for their Afro-Caribbean roots.
[sound of crowds in the streets, Mardi Gras Indians singing: "I say Mardi Gras morning is here."]
Spitzer: Mardi Gras Indians dress head-to-toe in these elaborate, beaded costumes -- "suits" - they call them, and they erupt in brightly-colored feathers up to the crown. It's called "masking Indian" though they don't actually wear a mask, they wear braided head-pieces. The Indians spend months hand-beading their regalia for Mardi Gras day, which comes in late winter, just before the Christian season of Lent. There are dozens of tribes, they march through the neighborhoods engaging in mock battle with other Indians. In the old days they actually might fight, but now they battle with costumes to see who's the prettiest.
Smith: So on Mardi Gras morning Nick led the way to a neighborhood bar that is headquarters for the Wild Magnolias.
Spitzer: Who's dressing here today?
Man: This is the little chief of the Wild Magnolias.
Spitzer: Little chief?
Man: Yeah, little chief.
Spitzer: How old are you, little chief?
Spitzer: Nine. Is this your first time masking Indian?
Spitzer: All right. [laughs]
Smith: The Wild Magnolias are one of the best-known of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Their big chief is singer Bo Dollis, who was masking today in spite of grave illness he's had recently. Bo's son Gerard Dollis leads the tribe wearing a massive suit of white feathers and beaded Indian scenes. The thing weighs well over 50 pounds.
Spitzer: Who did the sewing on this one?
Spitzer: Tell me what you got - make a word picture.
Man: Well, there's Indians with spirits. Like this Indian's riding his horse and he have a spirit watching him while he's hunting. And this one's hunting, and there's a whole scenery, you got a teepee on this side and you got buffalos on that side, so that's basically it. My suit's about spirits and stuff like that.
Gerard Dollis: It's a historical thing. It's a melting of the African and the Native Americans' traditions. Because when we were enslaved and we tried to escape, they were the ones that took us in. You know and even some Africans intermarried into some tribes. So it's a kinship.
[sound of chairs moving around]
Dollis: We gotta get that apron up off of the ground.
Spitzer: Can the Indians help the 'hood recover after Katrina?
Gerald French: Oh yeah. It brings the pride and the spirit back to the 'hood. Everything's done by hand. And it's a lot of pride.
[sound of singing and drumming]
Spitzer: The neighborhood is actually very empty compared to what one would normally expect. Mardi Gras is a temporary re-populator. It reminds people they can come back to camp out in their house, or maybe they're repairing their house. For them that are back and have the power hooked up and the gas hooked up, and maybe they've got the mold out - they're just experiencing something that the neighborhood has always had before Katrina.
[sound of marching, drumming and chanting in full swing]
Spitzer: What we ought to be hearing here is some call and response between the big chief and some of his seconds and little chiefs - feathers in all directions, beads in all directions.
[sound of marching, drumming and chanting continues, then drops out]
[sound of mockingbird singing]
Smith: When the parading was all through, we caught up with one of the Mardi Gras Indians on the front porch of his rented house.
French: My name is Gerald French and I am the gang flag for the wild magnolias. I'm the one who conveys the signals from the big chief.
Spitzer: Normally the "flag boy" as he's called would be dressed in his own costume, but on this second Mardi Gras after Katrina, Gerald French didn't have a feather on him. The Indian suit he'd been working on got destroyed in the flood.
French: Everything we had, we lost. I mean everything. We got wiped clean. It was so bad when we went back to our house, we didn't recognize it.
Smith: As we talked, French was sewing beads in a magnolia pattern on a canvas patch.
French: So I'm actually working on a suit for myself for Jazz Fest. I'm coming up with a kind of weird color scheme, trying to see if I can pull it off. It's gonna be charcoal grey and fushcia, which is like a hot pink.
Spitzer: The feathers and beads and other materials for a well-made Indian costume can run thousands of dollars. The hard-core traditionalists make a new costume every year. Gerald French says that before Katrina, masking Indian was a priority. Now that's harder.
French: Mostly because of Katrina, a lot of gangs were kind of short this year. Lotta guys moved away, started new lives, it's kind of hard for them to get back. And then also the guys that are here, right now, you know financially, times are just tough. You know the money that they would use to make a costume, they have to redo the roof, put new floors down in the bathroom, I mean you gotta survive.
[Music: Michael White]
Smith: Gerald French and family are surviving in a small rented house in mid-city New Orleans. Rents have gone up 30 percent since the disaster because the flooding was especially severe in low-lying areas that were disproportionately poor and black. Preserving New Orleans culture means finding musicians and Mardi Gras Indians a place to live. It also means saving the architecture itself.
Meg Lousteau: This is north Robertson Street in Treme and when I bought my house four years ago I was the only other household on the street besides Miss Jessie, who lives to my left, who's been here I don't know, 40, 60 years.
Spitzer: In the Treme neighborhood, real estate agent Meg Lousteau and others are working to save the architecture of New Orleans. Many of the Creole cottages and shotgun-style houses in the Treme are more than 200 years old. They're known for distinctive woodwork, detailed plaster moldings and shuttered windows and doors. Meg Lousetau complains that after Katrina, preserving, or recovering historic buildings, can be a lonely and frustrating job.
Lousteau: There is nothing the government is doing to encourage the recovery. There is absolutely nothing. They're not managing it, they're not directing it, they're not assisting it. In fact, they're in the way. And as a result, everything you see right now is citizen-driven. And that's pathetic.
Spitzer: Lousteau says the urban blight that spread across the Treme in the decades before Katrina makes storm recovery all the harder, especially the vacant and decaying houses around her.
Lousteau: I have chased vagrants out. I have chased prostitutes out, drug dealers, gutter punks, you name it. They've been in there, in the alleys, there was a murder in the alley which resulted in bullets flying into my house. It is just screaming, "You can do anything you want right here because nobody cares."
Smith: The fearsome violence in New Orleans hangs like a pall over the city's recovery efforts. Before Katrina, New Orleans was one of the bloodiest cities in the United States. There was a calm after the storm, but the shooting has resumed and it's worse than before. Many people in the city's cultural community live in or near the danger zones and fear the violence will grow too great to overcome.
[sound of a crowd on the street]
Woman: You gotta blow the whistle!
[sound of whistle blowing]
Man: All right everyone. Helen loved jazz funerals. We're going to celebrate her today.
Smith: Nick Spitzer and I attended another of New Orleans' singular traditions: the jazz funeral. This one for a local filmmaker and community activist named Helen Hill. She died on an early January morning -- shot to death in her home by an intruder. Hill's husband, a doctor who treated poor people, was shot three times but survived. Their toddler son was uninjured. Hill was 36-years-old. The funeral parade starts its slow march through the city. At the front of the line, a brass band in white chauffer caps and black jackets.
Spitzer: Her passing occurred right around the same time that a young man locally who was in the arts - a musician - Dinerral Shavers who was in the Hot 8 Brass - the drummer - also was killed, and he was killed in a car next to his 15-year-old stepson. So those murders within a couple of days of one another galvanized the city. And it was on that basis that a 5,000 person march occurred about ten days afterwards to protest the current situation in the city - it's policing, it's sense of how to keep crime from happening, what have you.
Smith: We met Scott Aiges at the parade. He was there with his 3-year-old son. Aiges is an official with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Like many younger professionals in New Olreans, Aiges and his wife can get jobs elsewhere if they decide the city is just too unstable.
Scott Aiges: Sometimes we question our sanity. I mean look, we go to the playground, we talk with all our friends as we're pushing the swings. "I don't know, are you going to stay?" "I don't know. Are you going to stay?" Well you know what, where else could we go? Where do I want to go? I've been all over the world. There's no place I really would prefer to be - even though we're still here amid leftover flood damage that hasn't been cleaned up and we've got all this violence ... [child squawks] Hang on, Ben - I know that this sounds crazy, but we really do believe that there is a future here.
[Music: The Hot 8 Brass Band plays "By and By"]
Spitzer: This funeral procession rolls through troubled neighborhoods in New Orleans and the Hot 8 Brass Band picks up the pace. The jazz funeral is a mix of Christian and West African sensibilities. There is grieving for the departed, and then there is a celebration of a life that has passed into the hereafter, that is a better place than here on earth. In New Orleans people of all colors and faiths can be celebrated with a jazz funeral. Part of the power of this ritual is in helping those left behind find meaning in endurance and survival. Again, here's Scott Aiges.
Aiges: In the middle of all this, we're able to express our identity as New Orleaneans by holding onto our culture and our traditions, at the same time. This is what we can use to move forward as a community. Right now, ourselves and our culture are pretty much all we've got.
Smith: After a short break, Nick Spitzer and I will meet people across the city who are using culture and tradition to help move New Orleans beyond survival ... to recovery.
This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Routes to Recovery a collaboration with the public radio program American Routes, which is produced in New Orleans.
To learn more about culture-makers of New Orleans and to see photographs of the Mardi Gras Indians, visit our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Routes to Recovery continues in just a moment, from American Public Media.
[Music: Michael White clarinet]
Smith: From American RadioWorks this is Routes to Recovery a documentary marking the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I'm Stephen Smith.
Spitzer: And I'm Nick Spitzer from American Routes, a music and culture program produced here in New Orleans.
Smith: The storm that hit the Gulf Coast on August 29th, 2005, and the levee failures that flooded New Orleans added up to the largest disaster in American history. Eighty-percent of the city lay underwater, some neighborhoods were inaccessible for months. More than 400,000 people evacuated; and many will never come back.
Spitzer: To me it is eerie. There is so much of New Orleans that's still empty. Everyday people from historic neighborhoods are still gone. And they're the ones who create the music and the food, the rituals and celebrations that make New Orleans a special, soulful place in American society and really in world culture. Stress is huge here for many. But just the same, a lot of the folks are determined to stay and rebuild the place, one house, one music club, one restaurant at a time.
[sound of a sizzling grill at a restaurant]
Chef: Grilled trout with crab meat on top, with a butter lemon sauce. Grilled steak, grilled pork chop.
Wayne Baquet: My name is Wayne Baquet and I'm a restaurant owner. I've had the distinction of owning 12 restaurants; not all at one time but in my 35 to 40 years of being in business. The newest one is the one we're sitting in right now called L'il Dizzy's Café.
Smith: Wayne Baquet's place is on a street corner in the Treme neighborhood. During the Katrina disaster, L'il Dizzy's took some flood damage and got ransacked by looters. Baquet was in suburban Atlanta waiting out the floodwaters, cooking for 16 relatives marooned in one house, and losing his mind.
Baquet: You couldn't find the things you wanted to cook with. You couldn't find the kidney beans, red beans, you couldn't find pickled meat. We had to make our own hot sausage. We were missing so many things that we had to improvise and make happen. I mean after a couple months I was stir-crazy trying to figure out how I was going to get back the New Orleans.
Smith: And so he did. L'il Dizzy's was one of the first restaurants in the neighborhood to reopen after Katrina. It became an informal resettlement center -- connecting displaced residents with familiar people and flavors.
Bacquet: It was like a family reunion every day. People coming from Baton Rouge, coming from Atlanta, coming from Texas - coming from all over and the first thing they wanted to do after they saw their property and cried a little bit was come to L'il Dizzy's and get some red beans and get some gumbo and get some hot sausage and get a Po' Boy's sandwich and some fresh Louisiana shrimp. Every day we were meeting people and saying, "Hey, how are you doing, man?" And they'd be saying, "I just got in and I had to get some New Orleans Creole food."
Spitzer: New Orleans and South Louisiana in general is a region famously focused on food. One writer, Malcolm Hebert put it this way: "Creoles and Cajuns not only want to know what you have eaten, but what are you planning to eat for the remainder of the day as well as for tomorrow. Then they will tell you what they have eaten, will eat today and what's on the menu for tomorrow."
Bacquet: I'm gonna tell you, I think I'm responsible for bringing hundreds of people back. Hundreds of people back. People coming back all the time saying, "Look man, I was in Baton Rouge, I was in Mississippi, and I had to come back." They just miss music and food. Who's got better music and food than us? Nobody!
[Music: Sidney Bechet]
Spitzer: Hey, no argument with that! Another thing that really sets New Orleans apart from many other American cities is that deep sense of family history that connects people to the place. Wayne Baquet's connections reach back through both food and music. Some relatives ran restaurants, others played music, including with big names like Sidney Bechet. The sense of family history and cultural continuity is a powerful, almost magnetic force for New Orleans people -- even though the city is still so damaged and difficult. I think the challenge is to pass along both the historic sensibilities -- and new possibilities -- to younger people. One place doing that is Jazz Camp.
[Music: Band playing "Take the A-Train"]
Smith: For the past 13 summers the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp has been teaching young musicians the art form in the city where it was created. Filling the classrooms at a local school has been harder since Katrina, but the determination to train a new generation of players is all the greater. Veteran trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. is navigating his class through a jazz standard - "Take the A-Train."
Clyde Kerr, Jr.: Come on y'all. Trombone - I need you man. Dat dat dat dat. That swing. The 20s and the 30s. That was a different thing from hip hop and all that that you hear today. You have to capture the time and the music. I wasn't born then but I know about it.
Spitzer: The Jazz Camp's artistic director and an instructor, 72-year-old master saxophonist Kidd Jordan. He's a jazz modernist in a traditional music city. And Kidd's played with a wide range of people from Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley. So it's kind of remarkable that a 10-year-old jazz camper gets to learn from such a renowned musician. But that's New Orleans. Master musicians like Jordan have been passing their ideas of creativity on to young apprentices for generations. And for years they've been trying to get squirmy, distractible young players to buckle down.
Kidd Jordan: Coming to class, and have the discipline to go home and say, "I've got to practice." All of that is part of the discipline.
Spitzer: You seem to set the bar high for them right at the very beginning.
Jordan: Exactly. That is exactly what I do. At the end of these two weeks, these thee weeks, they are going to be playing things that maybe in some school systems it would take one or two years in order to do. But the fundamentals and everything - the way they put the horn in their mouth, the way they put the wind in the horn, the way they hold their fingers. It will work if you get the fundamentals right.
[sound of scales being played on the piano]
Germaine Bazzle: The role that the camp is playing is immeasurable ...
Smith: Vocal instructor and noted jazz singer Germaine Bazzle says the future of music in New Orleans depends on a new crop of young players.
Bazzle: This has to keep going. We have lost a lot of musicians and we have to keep replenishing that source. We start with kids at ten and many of them stay with us through their teens until they're maybe 20 years old. You see the growth of those children. You see how they have a sense of going someplace.
[sound of Jazz Camp music]
Kerr: That's great.
Spitzer: For kids in New Orleans, performance has long been a way of getting out of struggling neighborhoods - going to college and music school on scholarships or by becoming a professional musician locally and nationally. But for the most part, jazz camp is about preserving an art form, not rescuing children. Across the city, poverty and post-storm dislocation are a constant assault on family stability. So some in the city's creative community are trying other ways to reach truly vulnerable children.
[sound of a child rapping]
Smith: At a summer arts camp in the city's 7th ward a group of kids is working on a rap. They're ages 8 to 14-years-old. The instructor is a local hip hop artist called Voice. She's drilling the children on the fundamentals of hip hop.
Voice: Hip hop is four things, that's why my name tag has four circles on it. We know one of those things is rapping. Rondasia, can you tell us what another of those things is? Graffiti! Graffiti. Everybody know what graffiti is?
Voice: Everybody? If you don't, it's alright. Can you explain what graffiti is just in case somebody doesn't know?
Kid: It's when people ...
Smith: Simple programs like a summer art camp in a renovated corner store take on sharpened significance after Katrina. The disaster scattered families to points across the American map. Parents often have to live in other cities to make money, leaving their children in the care of relatives and friends or, in some cases, no one in particular. Camp leader Michelle Levine hopes arts camp can teach the youngsters how to navigate hardship.
Michelle Levine: So when they get upset, maybe instead of becoming physical with their friend or enemy that they go in and they rap about it, they write their poem down or they paint. They create a different release for what they're feeling. When they do that, they'll realize they control a whole lot more than they may understand.
[sound of Voice leading class]
Smith: In the rap class some of the young artists were shy in front of the microphone. The teacher, Voice, leans in to help Nik-era practice her rap.
Nik-era and Voice together: My name is Kera and I'm from the N.O. and everybody know that I represent the show. I'm a fly young money-maker, top cat, laid back, my stack is higher, I'm from the desire, 9th ward all day, 7th ward don't play, 3rd ward OK.
Voice: Remember that, Holly Grove, we're gonna space it out ...
Nik-era and Voice together: Holly-Grove.
Voice: Rap is a good way to promote literacy. You know, I've worked with kids and they haven't been competent at writing raps because they don't know how to write, they don't know how to read. But, the more that they rap the more that they have access to words. The more that they're interested in story telling. This goes as far back as slavery. We started this with oral tradition. So what if you don't know how to read - you can tell a story, you know what I'm saying? I want them to feel like it's okay for them to tell their story and they're showing me that they can do it.
[sound of Nik-era rapping: "My name is Kera."]
Smith: The summer arts camp was created by local groups and artists, including an internationally renowned visual artist whose studio is just a few blocks away.
Willie Birch: That's Bubba. Come here ... you'll be on the radio! [Laughs]
Spitzer: We meet up with Willie Birch on the sidewalk as he was calling out to one of the young men hanging on a stoop across the street. Willie Birch is 65 years old, but he's got a lean frame and a smooth face and he does not look his age. He's a New Orleans native, his paintings and paper mache works are collected by big museums. Still he's deeply involved in trying to help his own city recover. He's been a champion of summer art camp and someone who challenges his teenage neighbors. Birch says that with kids, the role of the artist is to be positively subversive.
Birch: You are constantly putting things in front of them that say there's another way you can look at your situation. It's all not doom and gloom. There is hope within all of this.
Smith: In his firm, friendly way, Birch commands the young fellow from across the street to explain how he fits into the neighborhood.
Birch: So what are you doing to help make it a better place?
Kid: What am I doing?
Birch: Yeah, sure!
Kid: I'm cleaning up in front of my door sometimes and I help people take they trash out. That's some of the things I do.
Spitzer: Once he's off the hook the young man retreats back across the street and drifts away with his friends. Willie Birch explains that these seemingly small efforts can matter.
Birch: Like I come out here once a month, I clean up the whole block. Now what has been happening, we've been having lot of whites come in and clean up but I found was that the kids weren't responding because they say, "Well, you know, they had us as slaves so therefore it's just payback." But then when Mr. Willie come out here and clean in front of your house - I mean people didn't know what to do. And so finally those kids crossed the street, they came out and they got the bag, and then the mama came out, then the lady here came out. That makes a difference, see?
Spitzer: There's a disarmingly simple formula to what Willie Birch is doing with art in his New Orleans neighborhood - take something negative, make it positive. For example: take theft. He makes it into a way to distribute art and to tell about the city's history. It was called the Hero's project:
Birch: Where we took ten prominent New Orleanean African Americans, and instead of doing an art show we made 30 posters of each one of these figures. We put 'em on, we put 300 and some up on every post in the area. We put them on at eye level where kids could take them off. We stapled 'em. We did this Friday morning. By Monday morning there were no posters. And not one was on the ground. What does that do? That means that instead of putting rap stars in your house, now he's got a piece of art in his house. He has something on his wall that's of high quality and also represents something that means something to him personally. See?
Spitzer: The recovery work Willie Birch does in the 7th ward - the art camp, the kids across the street, the posters - all tap an historic chord of self-sufficiency in New Orleans black and Afro-Creole social life. If local people don't work together to plant the seeds of cultural recovery, who will?
Birch: I've never been one to depend on government. My experience as African American -- you do it yourself. You find a way. I remember my sister had applied for the Road Home money and all the problems that she had, she finally said, "Y'all just keep your money and I'll just do what I gotta do." Well, she's rebuilding her house herself. So there is something about survival within the African American experience in particular that if you can endure slavery, then this ain't nothing.
Smith: Of course, there are limits to what local artists and musicians can do to help a city that's been hammered by the most destructive storm in American history. And two years on, people in New Orleans are still waiting for the massive rebuilding effort promised by Washington and City Hall. The mayor's office is promoting a $1.1 billion list of so-called "trigger projects" that are planned across New Orleans. Ed Blakely is a national expert on disaster recovery hired to direct the rebuilding. Blakely says constructing health clinics, community centers and the like in the 17 target zones will ripple out into the surrounding neighborhoods in waves of private development.
Ed Blakely: And it's an old city planning technique. The railroad came in and they put up a general store and a courthouse and gave a block of land for a school and then the houses sprung up around it.
Smith: What won't spring back up are the New Orleans public housing projects. While many of those buildings are intact, they're boarded up.
Blakely: They house about 50,000 to 75,000 people. We're not going to reconstruct that housing. We're actually gonna do what San Francisco's done and Seattle's done. They bring in mixed-use housing, scattered-site housing -- so that poor people will not be congregated in a single place.
Smith: Blakely says affordable and rental housing will take years to build . And that worries Sylvester Francis, who runs a small, neighborhood museum dedicated to the culture of Mardi Gras Indians and the black marching societies known as social aid and pleasure clubs.
Sylvester Francis: All the culture people is black. And a good percentage of it lives in the projects. All the projects closed. So that means the culture people is not here.
Spitzer: At least a third of the people who lived in New Orleans before the storm still have not moved back. Sylvester Francis says the members of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indian gangs who live out of town continue to make the trek back to New Orleans, but for how long?
Francis: Yeah, if you know your club is going to parade on July the 4th, you're coming down. First of all you ain't got nowhere else to live. But you gonna come down and somebody gonna put you up for those 2-3 days. Cause you gonna parade Sunday. All that's going to die out. People gonna get tired of everything. Because the projects is closed -- we need them projects.
French: The people that were constructive before the storm, most of those people are back.
Smith: Gerald French is the Mardi Gras Indian we met with the Wild Magnolias on Mardi Gras day. He says it certainly won't be easy for the Indians to keep their traditions alive. But those who really want to will work their way home.
French: If you're not going to do something constructive, you're not going to do something positive, there's nothing here for you to do. The days of hanging on the corner, and just hanging out and drinking beer, and doing drugs, and smoking this and doing that, those days are over. That whole bologna about, you know: "They don't want the black people back." To me that's just a cop out. I'm a black person, I'm back.
Spitzer: Gerald French says he's not really worried that the post-Katrina exodus from New Orleans is going to cause damage to the city's indigenous culture. As he sees it, the Mardi Gras traditions, the jazz funerals and the second line parades run so deep in the soul of New Orleans, when the band plays, the people have to come.
[sound of second line parade beginning]
Smith: Nick Spitzer and I made our way back to the Treme neighborhood,where a second-line parade was gearing up. The term second line is both a noun and a verb - you go to a second line -- to second line.
Spitzer: The second line are the people that follow the first line and usually the first line would be the people that put on the parade and are the community leaders - or at a funeral, they are the pallbearers and solemn people who kind of walk with a sense of dignity and quietude. And the second line parades after and has fun and eats and drinks and pick up people as they go in the second line behind them.
[sound of band cranking up]
Man: We got a schedule, let's go, let's go!
Smith: Up front in the first line are the Treme Sidewalk Steppers, led by the Rebirth Brass Band. The steppers dance joyously in matching gold silk shirts and trousers, with black sashes across their chests and black homburgs on their heads. Some carry decorated fans and umbrellas.
Spitzer: Tell me your name and who we got out here today?
Morrie: My name is Morrie, second-liner for the South Walk Steppers, baby. The one and only.
Spitzer: Tell me about what you're wearing, your suit.
Morrie: We're wearing Italian silk with alligator suspenders and alligator shoes. The belly of the alligator. Represent!
Spitzer: The thing about a second line is that even though it's the very symbol of New Orleans, most tourists to the city never see one. Clubs that put them on mainly publicize the parades for their neighbors and friends across town. Ed Buckner is with the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club and he says that second lines are an overlooked cultural asset that could actually help speed the city's economic redevelopment.
Ed Buckner: We're the culture that go all year round. We're the culture that don't stop and when tourists come in and they happen to just walk up on one of these parades and they find out that New Orleans has a whole different side. You know and the true culture is on the other side. This here is the hidden part of the jewel of the city.
[sound of second-line music]
Spitzer: What are you selling here, man?
Man: I'm selling New Orleans traditional pies.
Spitzer: What kind of flavors you got there?
Man: Sweet potato, homemade brownie, peach pie, strawberry pie.
Spitzer: Do you sell a lot of pies at a second line?
Man: Do I? Believe it or not, they gonna be gone before we get to the halfway point.
Spitzer: I'm going to take a couple off your hands, I think. What'll they cost me?
Man: A dollar. And I learned how to do this here in prison.
Spitzer: Is that right?
Man: I spent 20 years in Angola.
Spitzer: No kidding ...
Man: And I learned how to do this trade so I could be a productive person for society.
Spitzer: Hey, man. Congratulations on getting this going!
Smith: Most second lines take place off the conventional tourist map. They often pass through tougher sections of town and a few parades have been marred by shootings. Still, Ed Buckner says New Orleans is missing an opportunity to connect tourists with second lines.
Buckner: I guarantee you after one or two tourists started patting their feet and started moving, you'd find that the whole tour bus of people or whoever it is would start dancing and clapping and enjoying themselves. You can't help but enjoy this.
Spitzer: Case closed!
Buckner: Case closed.
Spitzer: You got me. [laughs]
[Music: Michael White clarinet]
Smith: Our last visit was to Dr. Michael White, a renowned clarinet player, jazz scholar and teacher. After the levees broke, White's house sat for three weeks in eight feet of water. Now he hangs his elegant black suit in a FEMA trailer. Everyone hit by the flood waters in New Orleans has been struggling with the loss of personal property. But at Michael White's house, the broken levees took a toll on jazz history.
Michael White: I had a lot of original music. I had a lot of complete band transcriptions that I used on shows with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton. I had a collection of clarinets -- vintage clarinets -- from the 1890s to the early 30s and I lost more than 50 of those. And then I had an E-Flat clarinet that belonged to Paul Barnes who played with King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, he recorded with them in the late 20s.
Smith: And the list keeps going. It takes Michael White a full five minutes just to give us the thumbnail catalog of jazz artifacts and scholarship that he lost in Katrina.
Spitzer: Museums and archives have some of this kind of material, but Michael White used his collection of vintage instruments and musical arrangements like a stock of heirloom seeds. He sewed them throughout his teaching, composing and music making -- connecting modern players with the past, keeping music rooted to tradition and to the people.
White: When you talk about traditional jazz it captures the real history and the essence of New Orleans, originating with the African American community and moving beyond that and really into the world. We have one of the most valuable and important culture heritage that constantly feeds us. I think our ancestral heritage is very important on every level of the city's existence today.
Smith: Second-line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz - they are the heart of what makes New Orleans unlike any other place else in the country -- more of a Caribbean city in some ways than an American one. Two years after the floodwaters swept over New Orleans, recovery for many of its citizens remains agonizingly slow.
Spitzer: Still the culture of New Orleans endures and those people who may have lost everything they own, but they refuse to lose what they live for. One of them is Michael White.
White: Well you know, I've always believed that New Orleans jazz music was one of the great musics of world. And that has been reinforced for me post-Katrina because it was created at a time of social turbulence. And I think certainly post-Katrina in New Orleans we have a lot of turbulence.
Spitzer: Jazz evolved in New Orleans at the dawn of the 20th century, a time of social restriction and vicious racism.
White: It was a time when African Americans were rapidly losing the few gains and promises made after the Civil War. And as a result, people were looking for freedom and equality in society. But Jazz was a musical way that a lot of people kind of expressed those ideas of freedom, and liberty and union and democracy. The music itself came to express the spirit of the people.
Spitzer: Michael White spent a lot of years learning that spirit from older New Orleans musicians, from men born a century ago. On their death beds, musicians would charge White to carry on the music of their city and invest it in the next generation.
White: I feel, actually, very fortunate. With everything that I lost the most valuable thing that I have is still with me. It's inside of me. It's the memory of those experiences with all of those great musicians and all that they had to transmit and really sort of give me. And the music itself - and that's still inside of me.
[Michael White clarinet music swells]
White: I regularly, and not necessarily intentionally, would pass by the homes of Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton and I mean you can feel that spirit, that presence is still there -- very much so, very much alive.
Smith: Routes to Recovery was produced by Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith along with Nick Spitzer, creator and host of the public radio music and culture program, American Routes. The editor was Ben Shapiro. Technical help from Jason Rhein, Kaori Mah-eh-yama and Craig Thorsen. The RadioWorks team included: Mary Beth Kirchner, Ochen Kaylan, Ellen Guettler, Laurie Stern, Katherine Lewis and Courtney Stein. At American Public Media: Cari Ness and Sarah Lutman. I'm Stephen Smith.
Spitzer: And I'm Nick Spitzer. If you're on the web, visit AmericanRadioWorks.org. There you can find original videos, essays and pictures describing the cultural recovery of New Orleans, as well as the audio and transcript of this program. You can also sign up for the RadioWorks podcast and newsletter. That's all at, AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Smith: Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Routes to Recovery was supported in part by a grant from U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute. Thanks also to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation, and the Department of Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans.
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