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2001 in Review 

Remembering a year we can never forget

Mourning in America

On. Sept. 11, everything changed. As Gambit Weekly staffers huddled around our television, we knew that things would never be the same and set to work putting together an issue that reflected the watershed events of that dark Tuesday. And in the days and weeks following Sept. 11, Gambit writers have continued to contemplate terrorism and its many effects --none more provocatively than the Texas-based Molly Ivins, who has turned her wit and watchful eye on the defense of precious civil liberties.

"Unlike FDR, we can no longer say the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but fear itself is one of the things we need to be most afraid of," she writes. "Fear is at the root of most evil. As Boots Cooper, age 8, said after a close encounter with a chicken snake, 'Some things'll scare you so bad, you'll hurt yourself.'"

And later: "There is no inverse relationship between freedom and security. Less of one does not lead to more of the other. People with no rights are not safe from terrorist attacks."

Meanwhile, Andrei Codrescu has offered his own thoughtful, slightly surreal commentary. "On Sept. 11, 2001, the 21st century began in earnest," he wrote days after the attacks. "The whole world gathered around televisions to watch the horror visited upon us. My friend Ioana wrote from Romania that she had been watching with her son. She sent her heartfelt condolences and said, 'We keep waiting for Bruce Willis to show up and for the movie to end!'"

Willis never showed up. Instead, "if you listen to Rumsfeld, Powell, Ridge and the surgeon general on the same day, you'll start screaming. They are all contradicting each other. This is worse than if they were actively trying to lie. It sounds like they don't have anything to hide. Makes me nostalgic for the days when the government used to lie to us regularly and there were conspiracies everywhere."

The War at Home

A few blocks from Gambit offices, a disturbing riddle now stands in the form of the charred remains of Mona's Cafe and Deli. Was the Nov. 25 fire that decommissioned the Mid-City flagship of the popular local Middle Eastern chain the result of an accident, perhaps a careless cigarette? Or was it set deliberately? And if it was arson, did the perpetrators target Mona's because the owners are Arab Americans?

The cause of the fire is officially undetermined, but the owners believe that someone intentionally torched their business and put countless Mid-City families at risk. Such suspicion is understandable -- Mona's received a number of threatening phone calls in the weeks and months following Sept. 11. But Mona's co-owner Nahid Monem told writer Eileen Loh-Harrist that he's also recently learned a little bit about customer loyalty. "People have left flowers, people have offered donations, we've been getting cards," he said, adding that he's planning on displaying one of the cards of support when he eventually reopens the Banks Street Mona's.

If the Mona's fire does turn out to be a hate crime, it will not be an isolated event. In the New Orleans area following Sept. 11, mosques were vandalized and race-based skirmishes broke out in area schools. On Sept. 12, we invited George Andrews, a mental health counselor and organizer of the local American Arab Anti-Discrimination League, to come to our offices for a discussion. "Islam has the same conservative and liberal elements as any other religion," Andrews told us then. "You cannot just, in one sweep, attack a whole group of people."

After all, he noted, that's just what the terrorists did.

Among the many New Orleanians who have donated their time and money following Sept. 11 are a group of people, some associated with the National Organization of Women, that has been working with Andrews to assist local Arab and Muslim women in going shopping and running other errands. Many of these women, who wear traditional clothing, have been afraid to leave their house. Local Tulane University instructor Victoria Cooke was among those who responded to this call. "I can't personally clear things out at the World Trade Center," she said. "This was something I could do to help."

Pipe Dreams

A rough-and-tumble year for the Sewerage and Water Board ended with the State Bond Commission this month approving a March 2 referendum on a plan to turn the bulk of S&WB operations over to a private company. It would also give voters the right to approve contracts that exceed $5 million. The referendum's approval was the latest in a series of hurdles for the S&WB as it presses toward a decision on the privatization issue -- a process that supporters say is "aggressive" while critics call it "rushed." The potential contract, a 20-year, $1-billion-plus proposal, would be the largest of its kind in the country. Supporters said they wanted a contract signed by the end of 2001 to avoid rate hikes and to guarantee funding for expensive projects required of the S&WB by a federal consent decree.

The S&WB's hurdles were generated not only by political dissent, but by embarrassing blunders and internal conflict. One goof was its failure to publicize the details of an Oct. 5 public meeting in which its Special Evaluation Committee was to consider the qualifications for the contract's three major bidders. Committee members left after realizing they were likely violating the state's open meetings law.

On Oct. 16, Gambit Weekly's cover story "The Edwards Problem" detailed board member Benjamin Edwards' day-to-day involvement in S&WB operations, and linked him to several S&WB contracts questioned by board members and employees. Edwards' political ally, board president Mayor Marc Morial, had reappointed him to the board last year despite the private objections of other board members.

If voters approve the referendum in March, they would have to vote for or against the contract itself in a separate election.

All That Jazz

New Orleans jazz occupied the national spotlight in a major way in 2001, building off the momentum gained by the airing of Ken Burns' Jazz documentary in late 2000. In a nice bit of synchronicity, city and state officials atoned for overlooking Louis Armstrong's 2000 centennial (Armstrong always said his birthday was July 4, 1900, while documents show his birthday was actually Aug. 4, 1901) by helping organize "Satchmo Summerfest," a weekend's worth of Armstrong-related events. The Armstrong lectures and tributes were capped by "Satchmo to Marsalis," a spectacular concert at the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena that was also a fete for Ellis Marsalis, who retired this year as the director of Jazz Studies at UNO. (Terence Blanchard was named as Marsalis' successor the night of the concert.) The historic show featured Ellis Marsalis and his musical sons -- Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason -- along with former Marsalis student Harry Connick Jr.

Their Money Where Your Mouth Is

The steady downward spiral of the economy and tourism over the past year wasn't powerful enough to stop production on the unusually high number of high-end restaurants that opened across the city, many in downtown hotels. While eateries launched by name chefs like Susan Spicer, Gerard Crozier, Rene Bajeux and John Besh would be sure bets for success in more secure financial times, we might see a battle between economy and quality in 2002 in their respective, newly opened venues: Cobalt, Chateaubriand, Rene Bistrot and Restaurant August. A sizable number of other restaurants in the same price bracket also opened during the past year, including Lilette, Indigo, GW Fins, Maison Bleu, Muriel's, Belle Forche and Stella. Furthermore, Chef Cecil Palmer made a comeback in 2001 at Cafe Negril, Henry Lee moved Genghis Kahn to a larger and more upscale downtown location after 26 years in Mid-City, and longtime Commander's Palace employee George Rico opened Rico's of Bucktown, with his son. The risks of entering the restaurant business always are high; in the post-Sept. 11 economic atmosphere, these risks become even more acute. Hope springs eternal, yet the coming year will dictate whether the local (and tourist) dollar has the appetite to support them all.

Construction Junction

No local issue -- not Morial's failed charter change, not education, not even the Saints --stirred up the passions of New Orleanians like this year's development wars. It was the developers vs. the preservationists, with various factions claiming to speak for the disenfranchised (and sometimes carting the disenfranchised to hold signs at meetings). Side-switching became commonplace: health-conscious shoppers who regularly dash to Whole Foods to stock up on Tofutti protested the shop's massive expansion to the old Arabella Bus Barn building.

The City Council approved a compromise Arabella plan in July, and attention next turned to the Audubon Park, which was targeted by the Audubon Institute for a multi-million dollar improvement that critics said improved nothing. "We don't think it's too late to modify these plans," said coordinator Debra Howell in August, but you could almost hear the bulldozers revving up behind her. The group (which boasts, as its name suggests, an impressive Web site) opposed proposals to raze trees, pave the Meditation Walk and eliminate the Hurst Walk public footpath and Lagoon Bridge, among other plans. The Audubon Institute, meanwhile, opposed its critics' choice of monikers. In mid-November, a lawyer representing the Audubon Commission wrote a letter threatening action unless the group changed its name. Organizers began soliciting new ideas, with suggestions veering toward the whimsical --" and ""

These battles, albeit impassioned and over substantive issues, were but minor skirmishes compared to the smackdown over a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in the site of the former St. Thomas housing development. The project's developer, Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI), said it needed the Wal-Mart to be the hub for a nearly $323 million mixed-income housing and business community, which included the development of more than 1,200 mixed-income housing units. Groups such as the Preservation Resource Center and The Urban Conservancy protested the size and scale of the store, the manner in which it was presented to the public, and the financing mechanism. "No Sprawl-Mart" signs began dotting local lawns and things got hotter than a strip-mall parking lot in July as charges of racism (and counter-charges of race-baiting) flew fast and furious. Both sides canvassed Magazine Street shops, and both sides trumpeted the merchants were on their side. The story is ongoing: at last report, Wal-Mart was balking at suggested modifications to store plans.

Give the Dog a Clone

Bioethical debates fired up around the world in November when a Massachusetts biotechnology company announced it had cloned a human embryo. Earlier that month, New Orleans scientist Dr. Betsy Dresser received a prestigious national award for using similar biotechnology -- in animals -- to preserve endangered species. Dresser, director of the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species (ACRES) and Gambit Weekly's New Orleanian of the Year for 2000, received the Tech Museum of Innovation's Environment Award, which carried a $50,000 stipend.

The promise that different animal species will successfully be cloned is also the driving force behind a Baton Rouge biotechnology company. Lazaron Biotechnologies, L.L.C. has preserved tissue samples from an array of animals -- ranging from endangered species at ACRES to dead pets belonging to private citizens -- and plans to clone them once the technology becomes available.

The Angola One

This spring, guards at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola removed the handcuffs and shackles from Robert King Wilkerson and allowed him to walk out the door a free man. Wilkerson is one of the famed Angola Three, a trio of longtime inmates who, back in the 1970s, organized and led the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party. Supporters of the Angola Three say that Wilkerson -- like his fellow Panthers Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace -- was given a lengthy term for a prison murder he did not commit. Before his release, Wilkerson had spent 29 years at Angola, almost of it in a 6-by-9-by-12-foot cell in what's called CCR (Closed Cell Restricted), the solitary confinement unit within Angola, where men remain in their cells for 23 hours a day. His comrades Woodfox and Wallace remain in CCR, sentenced for the murder of a prison guard in 1972.

Since his release, Wilkerson has been a sought-after speaker in places like San Francisco, Chicago and Amsterdam. He has recently returned from a lengthy speaking tour overseas and says that a "Free the Angola Three" committee has now been formed in Europe.


2001 witnessed the passing of New Orleanians whose legacies extend to areas of music, education, politics, cuisine, community service, and local culture. The distinguished list includes:

· Milton Batiste, 66, the revered trumpeter who performed as frontman with the Olympia Brass Band, and formed the Young Olympians to encourage funk and hip-hop oriented young musicians toward the parading style.

· Al Broussard, 95, who held court for 25 years at his piano at Tricou House (formerly 711 Club). Broussard performed in his trademark red-orange fedora with matching suspenders, offering audiences a unique blend of ragtime, jazz, blues and boogie-woogie, along with jokes, stories and flirtations.

· Wilson Anthony "Boozoo" Chavis, 70, the famed zydeco accordionist and founding father of the genre. His music launched a renaissance of the earthy, button accordion-propelled style of zydeco that's still going strong.

· George D'Aquin, 73, former vice chancellor emeritus for the University of New Orleans who is credited as a key to the university's development. He oversaw programs from accounting to human resources to building programs, including all campus construction from 1972 to 1984, a period including the construction of the UNO Lakefront Arena.

· Ernie K-Doe, 65, the flamboyant, self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Universe" who recorded the 1961 No. 1 single "Mother-in-Law." His charming and outrageous personality continued to shine past his radio days at his North Claiborne club, the Mother-in-Law Lounge (now operated by his widow, Antoinette).

· Robert "Robbe" Lee, 86, spent his entire life involved in Mardi Gras Indian groups, beginning as an 11-year-old costume sewer for Big Chief Brother Tillman and ending with his reign as Chief of Chiefs of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian Council.

· James Leonard Monaghan, 63, a Midwestern transplant who is best known for his tenure as the heart and soul of Molly's at the Market, which he turned into the local spot for politicians and journalists (see this week's "Penny Post").

· Mary Lynn Strasser, 45, a tireless volunteer and community activist who worked to better the causes of a seemingly endless list of area charities and nonprofits, including All Congregations Together, New Orleans Hospice and NO/AIDS Task Force.

· Father Harry W. Tompson, S.J., 64, a much-beloved priest who served for 13 years at his alma mater, Jesuit High School, spent five years as director of Manresa Retreat House and was assigned in 1994 as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church.

· Jamie Shannon, 40, who took Commander's Palace's tradition of excellence to new heights in his 11 years as its multi-award-winning executive chef.

· Wendell Gauthier, 58, the trial lawyer considered instrumental in coordinating class action lawsuits against the tobacco industries. Gauthier helped launched the litigation that ultimately resulted in Louisiana collecting $1.2 billion in a settlement with tobacco companies.

· Warren Leruth, 72, the chef and owner of Leruth's, the only restaurant on the West Bank to earn a four-star rating. Among Leruth's other creations was Popeye's recipe for red beans and rice.

La. Environment Goes Big Time

In 2001, the rest of the nation learned what we already knew: that Louisiana's environmental concerns are very, very real. The focus on Louisiana sharpened in March with the PBS documentary Trade Secrets, in which host Bill Moyers explored the chemical industry's questionable practices in the state. The report focused on Lake Charles resident Elaine Ross' attempts to get to the bottom of the death of her husband, Dan, who worked for the Conoco (later Vista) plant in that town.

In June, a celebrity-packed group toured the state's notorious "Cancer Alley," where a string of health-related problems have developed among residents. The group included The Color Purple author Alice Walker, actress Alfre Woodard, the Rev. Al Sharpton and attorney Johnnie Cochran. Also this year, famed environmental activist Erin Brockovich-Ellis, the subject of Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich, gave a lecture at Loyola University's Roussel Hall. Her message to Cancer Alley residents dealing with industry officials: "Stay in their face."

And finally, the Louisiana equivalent of Brockovich's California battle, the tiny town of Convent's struggle against Shintech, became the subject of a movie aired on Lifetime Channel in December. Taking Back Our Town starred ER's Laura Innes as housewife and mother Pat Melancon, who rallied the St. James Parish town into eventually preventing the Japanese-based petrochemical company from establishing a plant there.

Saints Stumble

Just two weeks after the New Orleans Saints' first playoff victory, the franchise stumbled out of the blocks in 2001, thanks to owner Tom Benson's ill-timed lawsuit to break the Saints' lease with the Superdome. It was a blatant power play to spur negotiations for a new stadium for the team, a move that didn't sit well with many fans and taxpayers who questioned the need for a $350 million construction project -- especially with the Superdome preparing to host its record ninth Super Bowl this season. The stadium negotiations devolved into an all-out political brawl by mid-summer, with the state claiming Benson was negotiating in bad faith, and Benson firing back that the state's offers were loaded with phantom money. A compromise of sorts was finally reached in an agreement to keep the Saints in New Orleans through 2011 with cash payments from the state, and a blue-ribbon committee's recommendations on the new stadium issue due by December 2003. Still, there's no guarantee that Benson will honor the 2011 date; the agreement also contains an early-exit option that Benson can exercise in 2005.

On the field, the Saints' 2001 campaign has mirrored the pre-season political roller-coaster ride. Despite looking like world-beaters in victories against the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts, the team has been woefully inconsistent in losses to teams such as the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons. With three games left in the regular season, the Saints are still in the hunt for the final wild-card playoff spot, with the outcome of this Sunday's game (Dec. 23) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers likely deciding whether or not the men in black and gold will be making a return postseason appearance.

Mano a Mano

Clashes between the New Orleans Saints and the St. Louis Rams were the most talked-about rivalry in local sports circles in 2001. But when the games are over, most of those high-paid players shake hands, embrace even. Other feuds in New Orleans were more heated:

· Al Copeland and Robert Guidry -- two millionaires with a history of bad blood dating to a 1993 fight for a riverboat casino license -- actually came to blows Dec. 15 at the posh Morton's of Chicago restaurant at Canal Place. By all accounts, chicken king Copeland got the worst of it at the hands of former Treasure Chest casino owner Guidry and his two sons, notably including Jefferson Parish reserve deputy Shane Guidry, who ran unsuccessfully for parish councilman in 1999. The next round of Copeland vs. Guidry will probably take place in court during 2002.

· Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee used the "f" word while blasting away at separate irritants, the private Metropolitan Crime Commission and state Sen. Ken Hollis. Lee and the MCC wrangled in court and in the media earlier this year, but by year's end the sheriff seemed more interested in promoting his biography, Wild About Harry -- which Hollis and the Crime Commission obviously are not.

· Things got physical for state appellate judges Charles Jones and Steven Plotkin in the courthouse as Judge Miriam Waltzer looked on. The state Supreme Court found Judge Jones was the antagonist and hit him with a suspension. The state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal will spend the New Year trying to live down its dubious new moniker as the "Fightin' Fourth."

Comings and Goings

One of New Orleans' grandest traditions, the second-line parade, received a welcomed boost when the Original Jolly Bunch celebrated its 60th anniversary by parading for the first time since 1997. Said Joe "Papa Joe" Glasper, owner of Treme's popular Joe's Cozy Corner: "The young men have to see what the old men used to do."

"I'm like crazy excited," popular trumpeter Kermit Ruffins exclaimed when his club, Kermit Ruffins' Jazz & Blues Hall, opened up in Treme in February, just a stone's throw away from Joe's Cozy Corner. Ruffins tried to rekindle some of the magic at the venerable building, once the site of the relocated Caldonia as well as Trombone Shorty's. However, the club closed in September.

Character actor Wendell Pierce, who made a mark for himself in Hollywood with parts in Waiting to Exhale and It Could Happen to You and on TV's now-defunct The Steven Weber Show, returned to his hometown to present Jitney at NOCCA/Riverfront in July, and to set up his own Cinqué Group theater company. "I feel a sense of responsibility and opportunity," he said.

"Writing this book kept me alive," author Rick Bragg said of Ava's Man, the critically acclaimed book about his Alabama grandfather. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and national correspondent for The New York Times moved to New Orleans this year, and went native by offering the most highly rated seminar at the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' July convention in New Orleans.

The rule is fairly simple: You doodle for The Times-Picayune, sooner or later you win a Pulitzer, and sooner or later you move on. Walt Handelsman, the T-P's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, moved on to Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., shortly after Mardi Gras (nice timing).

Somebody who tried to come to New Orleans but couldn't was the legendary South African pop group the Mahotella Queens, when bureaucratic sloppiness (by the United States) resulted in a temporarily denied visa, making the group unable to perform on the second weekend of Jazz Fest. After re-applying and backed by pleas from Nelson Mandela and Sen. Ted Kennedy, the group got its visa and made at least one important gig: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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