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Rebuilding New Orleans

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Photo: Julian Broad

But will formal programs persuade young players to come here, and struggling musicians to stay?Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers has had bitter words for his hometown, lambasting its vaunted music scene as a myth. Neville, who relocated to Austin after Katrina, told the Chicago Sun-Times that he had "worked more in two months in Austin than I worked in two years in New Orleans," calling Austin "a city that actually cares about musicians." Bussells concurs: New Orleans needs to take a more active role in nurturing and sustaining its musical culture. "For a long time, people here assumed it was their right to hear great jazz or blues," Bussells says. "I think we’re realizing not only how important the music scene is, but how fragile."

Thankfully, there are still places like the Spotted Cat, a bare-bones bar in the Marigny that could have been dropped in from 1933. There’s no PA, no amplification at all, and no spotlights per se—just a dim yellow bulb above the stage, a worn patch of floorboards beside the front door. The door stays open all night to the breeze, and passersby gather on the sidewalk to listen to the band. Mondays and Fridays belong to the Jazz Vipers, a ragtag seven-piece crew playing gleeful trad jazz in the style of Benny Carter and Dicky Wells. The acoustic format lets each element come through intimately: the squeak of fingertips on fiddle strings, the scrape of nails across the banjo drum. I adore Austin, but it’s got nothing on this place.

It was true long before the hurricane: New Orleans is shrinking. Between 1960 and 2000 the city lost 180,000 residents, and Katrina may have sent away as many more. Prior to the storm, New Orleans had a population of 444,000. Generous estimates put the current figure at 300,000—less than half what it was at its mid-century peak.

New Orleans may also shrink geographically, whether by nature or design. Citing the tremendous cost of adequate flood protection, some politicians, most notoriously ex–Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, have questioned the wisdom of rebuilding any part of New Orleans that sits below sea level—that’s about half the city. Others have argued for reducing the inhabited area in favor of a more compact plan, clustered on the higher ground near the river. Mayor Nagin briefly considered "shrinking the footprint" last year, and public reaction was vicious. Nagin beat a full retreat, then returned with a more populist strategy: the $1.1 billion "Unified New Orleans Plan" targets 17 zones throughout the city (including the flood-prone Lower Ninth Ward) for redevelopment. For now, city officials are committed to resettling virtually all of New Orleans.

Whether or not displaced residents will return is another question. Before Katrina, nearly a third of New Orleans’ population lived below the poverty line. The poor were the hardest hit by the storm, and it is largely they who have not returned. Some still await state or federal aid. Others found jobs elsewhere and have no financial incentive to return. Those who do come back find an environment far less forgiving to the working poor: rents have skyrocketed since Katrina, few of the low-income housing units destroyed in the flood have been or will be rebuilt, and federal grants overwhelmingly favor homeowners and home-buyers over renters. Since the majority of low-income residents here were African-American, there are troubling racial overtones as well. Consider that Katrina has effectively purged New Orleans not only of much of its baseline workforce but—in a city whose music, food, and street rituals bubbled up from the underclass—the wellspring of much of its culture.

Within a generation, New Orleans may no longer be the place we’ve all come to know during our long national fascination with the city. But some New Orleanians hope that the energy, resources, and ideas mobilized by the rebuilding effort can be brought to bear on the city’s pre-K problems. Instead of returning to the status quo of August 28, 2005, local leaders like Sean Cummings argue that the city should think "beyond recovery."

Cummings’s enthusiasm for New Orleans is matched by his frustration over a city that is "far too insular and parochial for its own good," as he describes it. "This used to be a vital, ever-changing place, thanks to a constant influx of outsiders—Italian, Spanish, Senegalese. But at some point we ceased to be a magnet for new blood and fresh ideas. People became suspicious of the outside world, and New Orleans stopped evolving. For eighty years we’ve been this self-referential echo chamber."

It’s true that few American cities have become so fixed in the public mind. Visitors and residents alike tend to have very specific ideas of how New Orleans should look, taste, sound, and behave. "Beignets, paddle-wheel boats, heavy cream sauces, all that outmoded iconography—it’s like identifying Philadelphia solely with Rocky and cheesesteaks," Cummings says. "I’m not suggesting New Orleans forfeit its quirky culture, its sense of place, that intangible warmth that defines it. I’m asking, How might we advance and build upon that?"

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