New Orleans' troubled renaissance

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

If urban planners re-create New Orleans as a smaller, more compact city without the Lower Ninth Ward or Treme, for instance, they will be creating "a kind of Disneyland, a gentrified historical-preservation mall with the French Quarter serving as its anchor store," says Professor Kelman.

Richard Russell is one artist who has already decided he's not returning. He managed to save his art, but lost his home in the flooding.

"I have 99 percent assurance that New Orleans will be back stronger and better than before," he says. "The big question is, 'When will the tourists feel comfortable coming back in?' Business in the French Quarter depends on foot traffic." His art gallery there cost him $10,000 a month. "So you are really under pressure to make a lot of money just to pay your rent. And that isn't going to happen for a long time."

"I love New Orleans," adds Mr. Russell, now permanently settled with his family in Cullman, Ala. "But I'm ready for the country life."

Other cities can also expect displaced New Orleans artists to stay on.

Take Kermit Ruffins. A well-known New Orleans trumpeter on the Basin Street Records label, he has been doing nightly gigs in Houston since he arrived after the storm. While he's sure New Orleans will "swing again," he says the response here "has been real pleasant and so lovable. It makes me feel good."

So good, he says, he is planning to keep his apartment here and travel between Houston and New Orleans as much as possible. "I will be swinging in both cities, to the best of my ability."

New Orleans still retains advantages for artists.

"The atmosphere encourages them," says Sharon McBroom, visual-artist manager for the Bayou City Art Festival. "It has its own culture that is separate from the rest of the United States. Yes, business goes on, but New Orleanians are always in pursuit of pleasure. Food, drink, dancing, enjoying art, it's the driving force."

And because the medium home price is $85,000, it's a city where artists can live relatively economically.

"It's cheap, which is important for artists," says Ms. McBroom. "Other cities appreciate the bohemian, but you can't rent an apartment for $425 [a month] in San Francisco, Santa Fe, or New York."

It's far from clear what the new New Orleans will be like. But Mr. Samuels, who has relocated his family to Austin, Texas, feels a responsibility to be one of the first to return.

So does Tory McPhail, executive chef at the famous Commander's Palace in New Orleans. He has been working with a handful of his sous-chefs and cooks at Brennan's of Houston temporarily, but says his restaurant will reopen as soon as potable water is restored.

"The New Orleans cooking community is tighter than ever," he says. "And when we return, I think the creative push will be stronger than ever."

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