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Central City: Street Sense 

It's both rare and inspiring to see people come together to stop violence -- without police. I saw it happen one night, years ago, in Central City, one of the city's poorest and toughest neighborhoods. I had just picked up a first-time visitor to New Orleans at the airport. I decided to take a shortcut through Central City, an area roughly bounded by Louisiana Avenue, Carondelet Street, the Earhart Expressway and South Claiborne Avenue.

I stopped for a red light at the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Freret Street, across from the Original Brown Derby bar. Suddenly, two men in white T-shirts burst out of the lounge, shouting and swinging pool cue sticks at each other. In no time, one man had his stick hard against the throat of the other man, who was bent over backward -- on the hood of my car. Five more men rushed out of the bar and struggled to separate the two fighters.

Just then, the light turned green. I leaned out the window.

"I got the light," I said.

One of the five peacemakers looked at me, then up at the light, then back at me: "It's cool!" he said, apologetically.

And it was.

They hustled the two fighters back into the bar and the door closed quietly behind them. It was over in seconds.

I drove on, full of civic pride at the speedy, peaceful outcome. My guest was stunned, speechless.

Gregg Stafford -- one of Central City's most accomplished residents -- laughs at my story, clapping his hands.

"'I got the light!'" repeats Stafford, 53, a nationally known musician and a math teacher in the Orleans Parish school system. Born and raised in the Magnolia housing project, he is a trumpet player and leader of the generations-old Young Tuxedo Brass Band. He has traveled the world, playing with such jazz greats as Art Blakely, Dizzy Gillespie and New Orleans' own Dr. Michael White.

Looking out on a deserted Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard toward the Central Business District, Stafford admits he is ambivalent about post-Katrina Central City. "I'm kind of worried about the future, but I'm optimistic also," says Stafford, who has been laid off from his teaching job since Katrina. "You have to take it one day at a time."

Most of Central City did not flood, though there was wind damage and some businesses were looted. A mandatory evacuation followed. However, most of the residents of Central City still have not returned since the city reopened. Ê

On a recent Friday afternoon, a brightly colored mural of Dr. Martin Luther King had few admirers. Up Oretha Castle Haley, a knot of activists stood talking outside of the temporarily closed AshŽ Cultural Arts Center. A few people darted inside Cafe Reconcile, a popular nonprofit restaurant that has trained some 300 at-risk youth for culinary jobs since opening in 2000.

What makes Central City special is its people and community, Stafford says, seated inside the cafe. Michael White sits just a few tables away.

"You have a lot of hard-working people" in Central City whose history and culture have been overlooked because of public attention to Treme and other neighborhoods, pre-Katrina, Stafford says. Central City was home to music greats Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory, whose homes are unmarked, and the famous Dew Drop Inn nightclub. In addition to schoolteachers and working-class people, numerous Mardi Gras Indians reside in three housing developments in Central City that have been temporarily closed since Katrina amid safety concerns.

Stafford fears that those folks will not return and that other longtime residents will be forced out by private landlords seeking higher rent. "The future depends on the leaders of the city and how they allow people to come back and not allow gouging by landlords," he says.

Jobs, education and adequate housing are keys to recovery, Stafford says. To keep drugs and crime from making a comeback, he says, discipline must be restored to the police department, which has been beseiged by investigations of alleged brutality and corruption in the wake of Katrina.

Others who work in Central City say the neighborhood's future will hinge on community effort and the characteristic resilience of its residents. Craig Cuccia, executive director of Cafe Reconcile, says leadership of the neighborhood has typically come from City Hall. "However, (Katrina) is going to be the event that helps real leadership emerge," Cuccia predicts.

Pre-Katrina, area merchants were developing the neighborhood as a cultural tourism district, an alternative to the French Quarter. Today, Cuccia says, "[Central City] is the land of opportunity all over again. It will depend on entrepreneurs and risk-takers willing to dig in."

Judy Watts, executive director of the Agenda for Children, a child advocacy group, warns that the neighborhood needs more kid-friendly environs.

"The kids obviously are not going to come back until we have schools and child care," Watts says. There were only 10 child-care centers licensed to operate in Orleans Parish last week, including Clear Head day-care center in Central City.

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, Gregg Stafford led his Young Tuxedo Brass Band in a symbolic jazz funeral honoring the memories of 1,055 people who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina. A horse-drawn carriage carried an empty white casket inside a glass-enclosed case, from Treme into the French Quarter. The band struck up a joyous song. Second-liners twirled yellow umbrellas high in the October sun. They seemed relieved to dance again. Ê

This time around, they got the light.

click to enlarge "I'm kind of worried about the future, but I'm optimistic - also. You have to take it one day at a time." -- Gregg - Stafford, Central City resident, leading the Young Tuxedo - Brass Band in a recent jazz funeral for Katrina victims - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • "I'm kind of worried about the future, but I'm optimistic also. You have to take it one day at a time." -- Gregg Stafford, Central City resident, leading the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in a recent jazz funeral for Katrina victims
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