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A City Fears for Its Soul

"They're trying to mold this city into a psuedo-Disneyland, gambling center, party center, a facade," Wilson said. "But that is not what New Orleans is about . . . the allure of this city is that mix of people, those ingredients."

Drive up out of the Ninth Ward and the images are disheartening. The century-old St. Roch Market, a weather-beaten, peaked-roof jewel where generations of African Americans lined up for chocolate-colored gumbo and crawfish, stands in silence. "Oh, they had the best po' boys," Pam Dashiell, a neighborhood activist, said while driving by one recent afternoon.

Up the street, a hulking pink grocery store is empty, no longer dishing out roast beef sandwiches. The Saturn Bar, a spot filled with kitschy garage-sale paintings and baseball caps that drew whites and blacks, is shuttered. The owner, an irreplaceable local legend named O'Neil Broyard who would tell you about naked boxing matches if you were lucky, died cleaning up after the storm.

Gone, too, is Joseph Casamento, who died while evacuating; he shucked oysters for half a century amid the floor-to-ceiling tile of his family's eponymous restaurant across town on Magazine Street. And gone, too, is Mary Hansen, the 95-year-old institution who before the storm served rich, syrupy delights called nectar ices at her landmark stand, Sno-Bliz.

"This damn storm and its aftermath killed a lot of keepers of the flame," said Camille Strachan, a lawyer active in neighborhood-renewal projects. "There are all of these hard-to-quantify little losses."

Strachan said she finds herself driving through neighborhoods whose existences are imperiled, and every time she sees something else that has disappeared. "Look over there -- Slim's Barbershop," she said one afternoon, pointing at the boarded windows of a tiny shop in the Dryades neighborhood near downtown. "If he were open, we could go in there to get the pulse of the neighborhood. How are you going to know anything, if you don't have barbershops?"

Race permeates every conversation here. Even though some predominantly white neighborhoods such as Lakeview were decimated by the flooding, it is the poor black neighborhoods that seem most endangered. It was those neighborhoods that birthed jazz funerals and the spontaneous second-line parades, black New Orleans's response to the white-dominated carnival season parades. A Brown University study concluded that 80 percent of New Orleans's black population may not return if flooded neighborhoods are not rebuilt.

"It can certainly be a whitewashed city," said Michael E. Crutcher, a University of Kentucky professor who is an expert on New Orleans marching clubs. " 'Whitewashed' means both things -- sanitized and whiter. The people who aren't here seem to have been forgotten."

Crutcher predicts that black sections such as Faubourg Treme, where he once delighted in the scent of yak-a-mein, a concoction of turkey necks and noodles, will be given over to expensive condominiums, pricing out poor blacks.

Even the most optimistic city boosters -- people such as Marsalis, who has said that New Orleans "will sustain its culture" -- are worried. "We never did a good job with our culture when it came to anything that had to do with black people," Marsalis said in an interview. "It's very difficult to try to sustain it in a culture of racism. In the U.S. of A., we're good at building malls, putting up parking lots and putting more black people out of their homes."

Many of the city's Mardi Gras "Indian tribes," which once gathered in tiny "home bars" -- seductively dark places, some illuminated only by dangling light bulbs -- don't have home bars anymore. Now the chiefs get together in the more controlled environment of Tipitina's club, calling out to their spy boys and their flag boys -- immortalized when the Dixie Cups recorded "Iko Iko" and sang, "My flag boy told your flag boy: I'm gonna set your flag on fire."

One recent Sunday at Tipitina's, the crowd surged forward, mesmerized by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux's call-and-response rhythm and the spy boys taunting each other with exaggerated grimaces and herky-jerk dance moves. But a thick, sad-eyed man walked toward the door.

"Where you going?" another man called out above the drums.

"Back to Georgia," the thick man said.

The gyrations were the same, the beat was as intoxicating as ever, but many in the room had been reduced to visitors, mere tourists from Houston or Atlanta or Dallas, here to a spend a few days or a few hours in a city that was once theirs.


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