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New Orleans' troubled renaissance

While some artists return, the city faces the loss of its 'everyday' creative genius.

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2005


Darrin Butler exhibited at an art show in his hometown of New Orleans two days before hurricane Katrina hit and was "too lazy" to unpack his car before evacuating. Inside was all his artwork and two pairs of pants.

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Since that time, Mr. Butler has been showing that art at festivals across the country.

"If they do decide to rebuild [New Orleans], we will probably have a better, cleaner, safer place to live," he says from his booth at the Bayou City Art Festival in downtown Houston. Butler plans to return as soon as the city is livable, but he says he knows many artists who won't.

Displaced musicians, cooks, street performers, painters, and costume designers are closely watching New Orleans' slow revival. The city has always been a rare mix of peoples and cultures, a breeding ground for creativity set apart from the strict Christianity of much of the rest of the South. But many of these artists can't mount a successful encore there unless the Big Easy recaptures their audiences - and its own spirit.

That may not be easy, cultural experts say.

"In New Orleans, some of what creates the city's mystique and culture is its depth. When you strip away the top tier of excellence, there is another layer of excellence, and another, and another," says Ari Kelman, a history professor at the University of California at Davis and author of "A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans." Any city in the United States that has the money and the desire can erect magnificent architecture, put on a great series of jazz concerts, and employ celebrity chefs at its finest restaurants, he adds. "What makes New Orleans different is the vernacular, the everyday. The fact that you can go into just about any diner in the city and have a meal that's better than some of the best food in the country. I'm not talking about an $80 dinner. I'm talking about an $8 lunch of shrimp étouffée or a crawfish po' boy. That's different."

The potential loss of everyday culture worries Mark Samuels, owner of Basin Street Records, an independent New Orleans label.

"Where I think the culture has the possibility of changing the most is the brass bands and second-line parades that are grounded in some of the poorer areas - those that have been the most heavily flooded," he says. "Depending on how things are redeveloped, there may or may not be affordable housing for them to return to."

Urban planners have started descending on New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina with the best intentions: figuring out how to better integrate the social classes.

"But a lot of New Orleans' culture was built around poverty: the Mardi Gras Indians, the neighborhood restaurants selling po' boys, the kids playing jazz on the sidewalks," says Ferrel Guillory, a native Louisianian and director of the program on Southern politics, media, and public life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "So the challenge is to preserve what's worth preserving - the jazz, the food, the art - but to do it in a way that mitigates or ameliorates the class divide."