A City Fears for Its Soul
New Orleans Worries That Its Unique Culture May Be Lost

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans, the theme park?

Frightening as it sounds, the prospect of this sultry, eclectic city rising from the muck of Hurricane Katrina as a sterile imitation of itself is becoming an abiding preoccupation. Even as the city's riverfront high ground -- now dubbed the "Isle of Denial" by one scholar -- gamely revives, miles of culturally vibrant neighborhoods that once smelled of simmering red beans and hosted funky second-line parades lie dark and empty, their futures in doubt.

A quiet but increasingly urgent conversation about that culture's survival consumes this city, both on its street corners and in its institutions. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a woman who stables horses on the Mississippi River levee frets about "a land grab" that could bulldoze her home to make a "playground for the rich." In the Bywater neighborhood, an acclaimed photographer longs for the sound of teenagers blowing horns from porches. At Loyola University, authors and academics convene a panel to ponder whether New Orleans culture can be saved.

Their worry is that the curious and crazy that developed naturally here over time will be replaced by an artificial version of what once was, that a desperate attempt to resurrect New Orleans will turn it into a sanitized, charmless, soulless city.

"Will this quirky and endlessly fascinating place become an X-rated theme park, a Disneyland for adults?" Tulane University professor Lawrence N. Powell asked in a speech that has been copied and circulated, gaining a cultlike following. "Is it fated to be the place where Orlando embraces Las Vegas? That's the American Pompeii I apprehend rising from the toxic sludge deposited by Lake Ponchartrain: an ersatz city, a veritable site of schlock and awe."

Countless plasterers, folk artists, brass-band high-steppers, corner barbers, Mardi Gras Indians, dive-bar guitarists and neighborhood kooks are among more than 300,000 former residents flung across the country. Their epic diaspora has shrunk this now-fractional city's population to 140,000. Gone with them is one of the world's most intriguing street-life scenes, a culture blended of Catholicism and voodoo, Haitians and Italians, Spaniards and French, slaves and free men.

Much of the official chatter about the revival of New Orleans culture is trained on grand projects with limited prospects because of a lack of money, such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis's proposal for a jazz district and a musicians village. But the greatest worries here are about the loss of the earthy characters and eccentrics who populated the city's now silent neighborhoods.

After all, as historian Alecia P. Long put it, "New Orleans is the place where the weird turn pro." It is a city that not only tolerated, but celebrated, a woman nicknamed Ruthie the Duck Girl, who not long ago was routinely wearing a wedding dress to walk her leashed ducks in the French Quarter.

Preservationists warily point to a bleak street downtown, a zone of drab modern buildings and parking lots, as their nightmare vision of the future. A giant clarinet painted on the side of a hotel looms over the area, once home to a rich cluster of jazz clubs. The clubs are gone, but the clarinet with its frozen painted shadow remains, a silent still-life to replace the musical potions once created there.

New Orleans politicians and power brokers have helped along the sense of unease, saying and unsaying all sorts of things that trouble the purists. Members of Mayor C. Ray Nagin's rebuilding commission first said all neighborhoods of the city would be rebuilt. Then they reversed themselves, recommending a building moratorium in much of the city and suggesting that some neighborhoods -- many of them centers of African American culture -- be forced to prove their viability or be bulldozed. Amid the ensuing uproar, the mayor came out against the moratorium, reverting to the position first articulated by his committee members.

The mayor at one point announced that he wanted to create a casino district to stimulate growth, then quickly dumped the idea. Later, he declared that New Orleans would again be a black-majority "chocolate city" -- then he apologized, saying chocolate is made by blending dark chocolate and "white milk."

Down in the bowl that is the Lower Ninth Ward, all the back-and-forth has left Shelby Wilson, a graphic artist who stables her two Arabian horses on the Mississippi River levee, feeling suspicious of "a screw job, a power play," despite assurances to the contrary. Her home, a sturdy bulwark with three-foot-thick walls made from old barges, could be bulldozed if her neighborhood, which is predominantly black, is not rebuilt.

"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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