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Culture, a Saving Grace 

Originally published in The Boston Globe

In the old world, before Katrina, when people asked what New Orleans was like, I said: "Nothing important happens here except culture." Musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers, folk artists, theaters and chefs made for a vibrant, exotic town, despite the rotten politics.

Tones of that culture touched the world. People watching grim footage of the 2005 flood saw the cradle of jazz as a national treasure. They responded with donations and volunteers from churches, colleges and companies who came to gut houses and help with relief services -- showing America at its best.

The media narrative of a disaster epic soon shifted focus. The story became a stillborn recovery. President George W. Bush recoiled from the support needed to repair a city where 80 percent of streets flooded because of a flawed, federally run levee system. Congress allocated $7.5 billion to help property owners; ICF International, a Virginia company hired by the state to dispense the funds, proved a disaster of its own -- 100,000 people still wait for checks. With half the population displaced, Mayor Ray Nagin has touted a "market-driven" recovery, while making a media spectacle of himself by tossing verbal hand grenades like a Comedy Channel wannabe, as when he called New York City's ground zero "a hole in the ground."

Ironically, as national media interest wanes, a new story is emerging: Cultural voices are filling the vacuum left by political leadership.

It began with Wynton Marsalis, director of jazz at Lincoln Center, who responded to Katrina as an emergency politician for his hometown. He made impassioned pleas for preserving the culture with local financial leaders and before Congress. In February 2006, as the White House tried to shield documents on its Katrina response from Congress, Marsalis saw that $2.8 million raised by a telethon he led went to museums, arts organizations, small groups, and nearly 200 musicians who received $15,000 each.

Even now, many displaced musicians who drive in for performances are trying to repair homes or find new ones. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and singer-bandleader Harry Connick Jr. joined forces with Habitat for Humanity to launch Musicians' Village in an area of the upper Ninth Ward. The Tipitina's Foundation locally has provided instruments and social services to artists.

Only about a third of the 70 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs -- groups that sew dazzling costumes for annual weekend parades -- have returned, but members keep trickling back to follow brass bands past flood-battered buildings and claim their purchase on a spiritual terrain. These parades date to the dawn of jazz; the clubs have a deep sense of history.

"The Buck Jumpers say that the ones here are jumping for the ones gone and the ones to come," says Linda Porter, the president of her club, in Coming Out the Door for the Ninth Ward, a book in the Neighborhood Story Project, a series in which literacy activists get the poor to write about their lives.

The Nagin administration tried to impose fees as high as $4,200 on parade groups for marching permits, claiming that they attracted violence, but the courts later reduced that fee to a little less than $2,000 per parade. The problem is an overstressed police department facing a violent drug culture -- problems of negligent politics, not culture.

In early January, after a beloved filmmaker and a snare drummer were murdered in separate incidents, a group called Silence is Violence organized a large march on City Hall. Led by musicologist Baty Landis, Silence is Violence is pushing for a music-in-schools program to counter the drug economy -- a visionary plan most city officials have ignored.

Louis Armstrong long praised the Colored Waifs Home for giving him his first horn at age 13 and music lessons. The Waifs Home went under long before Katrina. Nothing took its place as the school system eroded. At the January rally, people chanted, "Music in schools!" If each school fielded a band, it would reduce the turf wars and promote self-pride for kids on the margins.

"Jazz is like literacy -- everyone in New Orleans needs it," says trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, leader of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and a prime mover behind the Hyatt Hotel's plan for a downtown jazz complex. "Where is the real investment in culture and education from the business community? Our biggest problem is that we do not believe in ourselves."

In a city starved for leadership, a civic ethos is emerging from a cultural community that envisions at-risk schools and youngsters as human resources to salvage. If politicians joined that ticket, New Orleans would find itself a better, smarter, economically stronger place.

Jason Berry, writer in residence at Tulane University, is an author. His most recent book is the novel Last of the Red Hot Poppas.

click to enlarge During a massive march on City Hall in January, speakers - and marchers demanded an end to violence and crime, and - many chanted for music programs in schools as a way to - curb the lawlessness. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • During a massive march on City Hall in January, speakers and marchers demanded an end to violence and crime, and many chanted for music programs in schools as a way to curb the lawlessness.
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