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Sacred Ground 

For many New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is a neighborhood cultural celebration. In the wake of Katrina, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods -- Treme -- clings to its traditions against a tide of change.

(Sunpie with skelton head) (Sylvester) (Nadja and Adolph Bynum) (Tootie Montana...) (MG Underpass...) On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Indians converge on Claiborne Avenue under the I-10 overpass. For Bruce 'Sunpie" Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.

'We'll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets," Barnes says. 'Mardi Gras is the one day we do that."

The dead aren't the only ones who return to Treme, considered by many to be the oldest continuously functioning African-American community in the United States. Many of the neighborhood's former residents come back as well, particularly families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. They drive from places like Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and beyond to celebrate Carnival " Black Carnival " and keep alive the unique African-American New Orleans neighborhood traditions of Mardi Gras Indian tribes, marching clubs, brass bands and Barnes' Skull and Bones Gang.

As rich as those Carnival traditions are, spending one day in the old neighborhood isn't enough to sustain the culture, says Barnes. Sure, the streets will overflow with people this Fat Tuesday, and when a crowd gathers beneath the Claiborne Overpass at Orleans Avenue to catch the Zulu parade and to see the Indians, it will be difficult to distinguish this year's celebration from those of years past.

That will change the next day, Ash Wednesday, as people leave.

For those who return and then leave, the neighborhood is still home, but it is more like a memory of home. And for their children, it is something even less.

'The people that normally live here have moved away," Barnes says. 'They come home, but it's not the same as being home. For the young ones coming up, they're not going to have the same viewpoint of it because they just come in for a day visit or a weekend visit. It's a visit for them."

Many in Treme share Barnes' concerns. Sylvester Francis, 60, has lived in Treme his entire life and has tried to preserve his neighborhood's traditions with his Backstreet Cultural Museum, which he opened in 1999. The museum occupies a small house on St. Claude Avenue. Inside, Francis maintains a veritable shrine to Treme " numerous Indian suits, Social Aid and Pleasure Club costumes, photographs of jazz funeral processions and a book that holds a record of every jazz funeral for the past 30 years. There are more than 500 funerals in Francis' book.

Francis feels that city government, by approving the demolition of the Lafitte Housing Development, will trigger another exodus from his neighborhood. Time will tell.

'They drive them out of the city and they're going to drive the culture out," Francis says. 'I think five to 10 years from now it's really going to show, and it's going to hurt."

Nadja Bynum, president of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association, a neighborhood group that aims to fight crime and blight, agrees with Francis that the culture should be preserved in Treme, but she insists that the culture needs first to be defined.

'What culture are you talking about?" Bynum asks. 'Are you talking about the drug culture, or the culture of the music, history and architecture?"

Bynum's question is instructive because it hints at larger questions that Treme has struggled to answer ever since it was founded nearly 200 years ago. What is the culture of Treme? How can a place so mired in poverty and oppressed for so long by segregation " Homer Plessy, of the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation), lived in Treme " produce such a rich culture? And now, as the neighborhood changes dramatically after Katrina, an overarching question has arisen: Will Treme's culture, however it is defined, survive?

Treme is named for Claude Treme, who in the late 1700s owned most of the land considered today as the boundaries of the historic Treme neighborhood " North Rampart Street to Claiborne Avenue, and Orleans Avenue to St. Bernard Avenue.

By the early 1800s, Claude Treme had sold most of his properties and the land was subdivided into lots for development. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, many of the lots were purchased by gens des couleur libres or 'free people of color," many of whom were craftsmen, artisans and musicians " including whites and Creoles from Haiti. The area grew rapidly and in 1842, St. Augustine's Church opened its doors. St. Augustine's original parishioners included Creoles, free people of color, Caucasians and, for the first time, enslaved Africans. The church, which has recently lived under threat of closure by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, remains the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States.

Like many black neighborhoods of New Orleans, Treme suffered under segregation, but out of that type of oppression grew one of the city's great cultural traditions: social aid and pleasure clubs. As Francis explains it, the clubs began as a way to ensure members would get a decent burial when they died. Not only could clubs help pay for funerals because of the dues members paid each month, but they also could loan money when times were hard, providing a social safety net. The pleasure part of the name refers to the annual second-line parades that the clubs present on New Orleans streets.

Which brings the story back to the culture of Treme.

Francis reports that many of the clubs still parade out of Treme " the Sudan, Black Men of Labor, Dumaine Gang and Money Wasters " and that the younger generation has accepted the torch. Finding the clubs, though, can be difficult. 'I've got [phone] numbers, plenty of them," Francis says. 'But ain't none of them any good. There are numbers before Katrina, but they didn't keep them. Numbers is hard."

The Mardi Gras Indian traditions represent another response to racial oppression and poverty. Although it's difficult to pinpoint the exact dates, Mardi Gras Indian tribes have been parading at least since the 1880s. Unable to participate in the white Carnival festivities, black men began dressing in ceremonial American Indian garb as a way both to celebrate Mardi Gras and to honor Native American tribes that had assisted runaway slaves. Francis says that some tribes " the Yellow Jackets, White Eagles, White Cloud Hunters and Yellow Pocahontas " still begin their Mardi Gras marches from the neighborhood. To them, Treme remains sacred ground.

'They don't live in the same houses they lived in before Katrina," Francis says. 'But they still consider themselves downtown Indians. This is still their home ground."

Francis adds that each tribe still has one or two members living in Treme, but the closure of the Lafitte public housing development and rising rents mean fewer members remain to assist tribe members with their most important Carnival task: making a new Indian suit every year. 'Only one man can wear that suit, but there might be three others who help him make it," Francis explains. 'And those other three might be out of town. So that's what hurts."

Francis fears that the 'home ground" of those and other Mardi Gras traditions could become just an area of architecturally significant houses and high-end real estate. He complains that those who have moved into Treme since the storm aren't assimilating; they're the ones, he says, who have been calling police during second-line parades. He won't go so far as to say it's a racial difference, because you never know who has called the police. But he does point out that whites are buying nearly half of the houses that are changing hands.

'They really don't like the culture," Francis says of his new neighbors. 'They like the neighborhood and the styles of the houses. They like that part, but they really don't like the second lines and the culture part."

What Francis is referring to is a dreaded word in New Orleans and other large cities across the country: gentrification. The term describes what occurs when a poor, blighted urban area is 'rediscovered" architecturally. Houses are rehabilitated, with some sold as condominiums; young professionals start moving in to buy or rent; landlords raise rental prices; the area transforms into a 'hot" neighborhood and suddenly long-term residents, the working-class poor, no longer can afford to live there.

Bynum doesn't like the term because of the negative connotations that often accompany it. She has lived in Treme for eight years, having moved there when she married her husband, Adolph. She calls her spouse 'one of the pioneers of the new restored Treme" because he buys, restores and then rents out homes in the area. She considers Treme's housing stock " most of it 100-plus-year-old Creole cottages, shotgun doubles, Greek revival mansions along Esplanade Avenue, and raised villas with Greek or Renaissance revival details " to be wonderful on the outside but woefully neglected on the inside. Before renovators like she and her husband arrived (both are African American), Bynum says most landlords weren't maintaining their properties, only collecting cheap rents.

'It was mostly poor black people basically living in slums," Bynum says.

A quick check with the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center's 'Treme/Lafitte Neighborhood Snapshot" bears out Bynum's observation, at least on the economic side. The snapshot is based on information from the 2000 U.S. Census, which puts the Treme/Lafitte average household income at $19,564, less than half of the Orleans Parish household average of $43,176. The national average is $56,644. Even more distressing, 44 percent of the households in Treme/Lafitte in 2000 reported an income of less than $10,000.

Bynum and her husband own nine rental units in Treme. Most of them are renovated shotgun doubles with refurbished kitchens and central air conditioning. She says her apartments are rented to tenants 'who appreciate an older house," and currently all her Treme units are under lease. For one single-bedroom apartment, Bynum's typical tenant pays $700 a month; for a two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment, the Bynums receive $1100 a month.

Citywide after Katrina, average rents have shot up 45 percent. Bynum feels that higher insurance and construction costs are the real cause for higher rental rates.

'Is this gentrification or a post-Katrina situation?" Bynum asks.

Current data for Treme, like that for all New Orleans neighborhoods, are speculative. Dr. Silas Lee, a professor of public policy and sociology at Xavier University, says even door-to-door population surveys can be problematic because not every person is actually counted, sometimes more than one family occupies a home, and some people are in transition, living in more than one residence. 'You won't have anything official until the next census (in 2010)," Lee says. 'It's a moving target."

Even if there were reliable population statistics for the Treme, the numbers could never measure the cultural spirit of Treme. Poverty and discrimination are social pressures that sociologists and historians will cite as metaphorical lumps of coal that produced cultural diamonds like social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. At the same time, those same conditions produced social instability and violent crime. Traces of those elements can be found even in the cultural jewels.

In Royce Osborn's All On a Mardi Gras Day, an illuminating 2003 documentary about Black Carnival, Osborn reveals many of the rich neighborhood traditions, including those of the Mardi Gras Indians. In the film, Chuck Siler, former curator of education at the Louisiana State Museum, describes Mardi Gras as the one day blacks could openly express their culture, and as Siler notes, 'It was a civil rights movement of their own." Mardi Gras often was marked by violence, Siler says, because when a man was masked as an Indian, he could get revenge against a rival from another neighborhood without being easily identified.

Gunplay was common until Big Chief Allison 'Tootie" Montana, the late big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, called for an end to the violence. 'It ain't about shooting guns off," Montana says in the film, 'it's about being pretty."

It's also a way for an individual to connect deeply with the past and preserve traditions for the present and future, says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame tribe and founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame. 'When you participate in any indigenous tradition, it's almost like a spiritual calling," Harrison-Nelson says. 'So you do it from a place somewhere deep in your soul and spirit. There's a spiritual need to do it, so you find a way to do it out of no way."

Harrison-Nelson cautions that it's not enough to simply learn the skills of beading or sewing an Indian suit. You have to become immersed in the community. 'To be a Mardi Gras Indian is a way of life," she says.

Joining a tribe or gang is by invitation only. For a while, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which dates back at least to the 1930s, was disbanded. A former member, Al Morris, resurrected the group and recruited Barnes to join his one-man gang. For several years, the two men were the only ones dressed in skeletal garb, reminding people of the thin boundary between life and death. They recruited more members (Morris recently suffered a stroke and won't be masking this year), and they will be coming out of the Backstreet Cultural Museum on sunrise this Mardi Gras.

The gang, which includes a new 6-year-old member, will sometimes go into individual homes to wake families, sending kids diving under their beds to get away from the 'skeletons." Barnes says this is done in fun, but there is also a serious side to his group's Carnival role. The gang will be singing, drumming and calling out what Barnes refers to as 'social warnings."

'The warnings are all about those things that could bring about your demise in an expedient way," Barnes explains. 'Something that is very common in this city. Drugs, guns, violence and all the things that can bring about an expedient demise."

City Councilman James Carter, whose district includes Treme, says he has studied the neighborhood's cultural contributions and recognizes that they were often a response to, and an outlet for, a shared suffering. 'The culture and the manifestations behind the culture will endure forever," Carter predicts. 'New Orleans is very unique and the root foundation to the culture " the birth of jazz and Mardi Gras traditions " is borne out of struggle. I think those elements " traditional issues of poor education and poverty " those issues are at the foundation, and they still exist."

City government hasn't always responded well to these 'manifestations." On March 19, 2005, the New Orleans Police Department broke up a citywide Mardi Gras Indian celebration on St. Joseph's Night. The tribes traditionally marched in the evening on St. Joseph's Day, March 19. The holiday had been observed for more than a century by tribes walking through their respective neighborhoods and then converge at A.L. Davis Park. This time, however, NOPD broke up the festivities and ordered the Indians to take off their costumes or face arrest. It was ugly on every level.

In June 2005, a group of Indians, including the venerable, 82-year-old Montana, attended a special City Council hearing called in response to the St. Joseph's Night incident. When it came time for Montana to speak, he commented that police harassment of Indians was nothing new and that he fought against it for years. Then, the 'Chief of Chiefs" " with other chiefs standing behind him " spoke his final words: 'I want this to stop." Montana then collapsed from a heart attack and died.

Since then, New Orleans has seen other clashes between cops and backstreet traditions. The most recent occurred in Treme in October 2007, when second-line brass band members were arrested during a funeral procession honoring the late Kerwin James, a tuba player with New Birth Brass Band. Francis says this happens all the time; the music begins, and then NOPD shows up. 'A band will kick up and go three or four blocks, and here comes the police."

Bynum says that police are usually alerted to impromptu second lines, but she says concern for the general public " not the level of music " motivates a call to NOPD. 'Is that calling to say, "We don't want the second line?' or is it to say, "Why aren't you here [ensuring public safety]?'"

Carter has formed a task force to ease tensions between NOPD and the second-line funeral processions, social aid and pleasure clubs, and Mardi Gras Indians. He says he hopes that Francis and Bynum's concerns will be addressed 'so that the free-flowing culture of the Mardi Gras Indians [and other groups] won't be impeded."

Treme's cultural traditions have always been about adjusting to severe conditions. In the late 1960s, stately rows of live oak trees were removed from North Claiborne Avenue at Orleans Avenue to build Interstate 10, uprooting prosperous African-American businesses and tearing out some of the Treme's spirit along the way. Many people from Treme return to the scene of the crime, perpetrated in the name of progress, every year on Mardi Gras. Unofficially, it's known as 'Mardi Gras Under the Bridge."

For thousands of people, it is their Mardi Gras. Families camp out in RVs the night before to stake out their spots for the festivities, which include catching Mardi Gras Indians parading and drumming, the Midnight Cowboys on horseback, brass bands, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang and the Zulu Social and Pleasure Club. With daughters, mothers and grandmothers cooking large pots of red beans and gumbo, men barbecuing chicken, ribs and turkey necks, the party resembles a giant family reunion.

Barnes calls it 'the epicenter of Black Carnival."

He sees his role " and that of all who mask and parade in Treme " as one of validation, expression, resistance and survival. He says that black culture in New Orleans has always been built around those principles. For centuries, black New Orleanians have resisted attempts to erase connections to their roots, starting in Congo Square with traditional African drumming and dancing and continuing to the Mardi Gras celebration under the overpass. As Barnes explains it, it's about the community expressing itself and telling the world, 'We don't need you to validate us, because we know who we are."

To Barnes, Katrina's levee failures were another chapter in Treme's long history of adapting and enduring. It saddens him that so many of his neighbors no longer live in their historic neighborhood, but at the same time, the same people return every Carnival to practice and to celebrate the traditions they hold dear. He believes those journeys home will continue, that even Katrina cannot kill something that has survived for so long.

'Will the culture survive? Hell yes, it's going to survive," Barnes concludes. 'It won't be easy, though."

click to enlarge Early in the morning, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes begins his Fat Tuesday preparations to march with the Northside Skull and Bones Gang.
  • Early in the morning, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes begins his Fat Tuesday preparations to march with the Northside Skull and Bones Gang.
click to enlarge Treme residents Nadja and Adolph Bynum buy and renovate rental properties in the neighborhood.
  • Treme residents Nadja and Adolph Bynum buy and renovate rental properties in the neighborhood.
click to enlarge After Chief of Chiefs Allison "Tootie" Montana died of a heart attack at a City Council meeting, his second-line funeral procession began at St. Augustine Church in Treme.
  • After Chief of Chiefs Allison "Tootie" Montana died of a heart attack at a City Council meeting, his second-line funeral procession began at St. Augustine Church in Treme.
click to enlarge Treme resident Sylvester Francis founded the Backstreet Cultural Museum to preserve and display Mardi Gras Indian suits and other aspects of New Orleans' black cultural traditions.
  • Treme resident Sylvester Francis founded the Backstreet Cultural Museum to preserve and display Mardi Gras Indian suits and other aspects of New Orleans' black cultural traditions.
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