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Broadcast Blues 

As federal dollars threaten to disappear, the battle over proposed changes to WWOZ's studio and Armstrong Park intensifies.

On the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, Treme is all about music -- and silence.

The offices of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at the corner of Gov. Nicholls and N. Rampart streets are silent, as are several of the early 19th century cottages that face Gov. Nicholls, which is also the ancient Bayou Road portage. Now named for a 19th century Louisiana governor, the street is actually the oldest road in the city, connecting the Vieux Carré with Bayou St. John and, beyond, Lake Pontchartrain.

In the next block, though, can be heard the tunes of a New Orleans musical neighborhood. Inside the St. Augustine community hall, a celebration to mark St. Augustine Catholic Church's 161st year is well into its fourth hour. Dr. Michael White leads an ensemble that includes Lionel Ferbos and Shannon Powell in a rendition of "Street Parade" that brings couples to the dance floor. A cameraman from a Canadian film company and an assistant hover nearby, capturing the action.

The Treme community is rightly famous for its music, which percolates out of houses and parades through the streets. A visitor has no way of telling which of the cottages near here belongs to Powell or Kermit Ruffins or the dozens of other working musicians who've chosen to make this area, which was officially established as a faubourg of the old city in 1810, their home. There are no visitor-friendly signs pointing the way to the Little People's Place or Joe's Cozy Corner, quintessential neighborhood bars where brass band parades still begin and end, usually on Sundays. It would be fair to say that jazz actually lives here.

But Treme is also caught on the tearing edge of a battle over its property and its music. Shouting matches in City Hall meetings and vitriolic letters in the press and on Internet message boards testify to some residents' suspicions that, once again, outsiders are in Treme's midst, trying to make money off of the poor community without giving anything back.

'When the people of Treme look at Armstrong Park, they see people and houses that used to be there, the high school we attended, cultural institutions like Cooperators' Hall," says Randall Mitchell, an activist and member of the nonprofit Friends of Armstrong Park who grew up in Treme. "These outsiders look and see nothing. They see PJ's and mango freeze booths. The see the Buppie-ficiation and Yuppie-fication of Armstrong Park."

On one side of this debate is WWOZ Radio, the nonprofit community radio station that many credit with creating a worldwide audience for indigenous New Orleans music since it went on the air in 1980. Since its move to Treme in 1985, it has also highlighted this neighborhood's music. Now, the station wants to build a state-of-the-art radio station inside Armstrong Park, where it has been broadcasting from a tiny kitchen building since 1985. To do so, it would partner with the National Park Service, which signed a lease with the city for part of the park in 1999. The Park Service plans to make Armstrong Park the focal point of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, a national visitor destination that has been in the works since the early 1990s.

On the other side are members of a community so torn apart by urban renewal projects in the 1960s and '70s that it still believes it needs to be paid back. The focal point of their anger, the same Armstrong Park, is a daily reminder of a neighborhood that once ran all the way to Basin Street before the city demolished it in the late 1960s. Residents still recall the days when families that had lived here for generations were displaced with little notice. The demolition also took down a wealth of 19th century buildings, including the home of African-American poet Rodolphe Desdunes, and clubs and bars that were integral to Treme's music culture, among them the famed Caledonia Club at St. Philip Street and St. Claude Avenue. The city surrounded the park with a fence in 1974. Since then, the gates facing the neighborhood have been routinely locked, sending a message, neighborhood residents say, that they aren't welcome inside.

"There's a debt to be paid that has never been paid," says Jim Hayes, a Treme native and activist who helped residents displaced from Treme fight for housing rights in the 1970s. "Anyone that wants to invest into the park where they make profits, we in the community should be at the table when they decide what they want to do so we could have a fair share."

WWOZ's current proposal is to expand the existing firehouse building in the park into a state-of-the-art radio station and recording studio. The 15,000-square-foot working plan, titled "The WWOZ National Jazz Gallery and Heritage Station," would include a gift shop (which would showcase music from local artists and also sell the popular Jazz Fest confection, the mango freeze) a cultural artifacts gallery and offices for WWOZ staff. An interactive kiosk would make use of WWOZ's music calendar to direct visitors to local clubs.

Local musicians regularly appear live on the station, either in interviews or in performance, and visitors would be able to view the action through the glass walls of the proposed on-air broadcast booth and performance space. Finally, the station's planned cutting-edge recording studio would be made available to community members at reduced rates. The plan would give WWOZ room to grow, says general manager David Freedman, as well as make the station a popular tourist destination.

But not only do critics like Hayes oppose WWOZ's plans, they've promised to take to the streets if 'OZ calls in a single bulldozer. "WWOZ can forget it," says Hayes. His position is echoed by other key community leaders, including Father Jerome Ledoux, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church, and Jerome Smith, a civil rights activist and youth leader at the Treme Community Center. Ledoux even wrote an Oct. 20 column for Louisiana Weekly calling WWOZ a "counter cultural interloper pursuing public money."

Some local musicians offer a more nuanced view of the situation. Responding to charges that the station is insensitive to African-American culture, trumpeter James Andrews says, "You know that ain't right." And drummer Luther Gray, who holds drumming circles in Congo Square and has played on WWOZ to promote his "Drumming for Life" campaign, says, "I'm in favor of the Park Services project and in favor of 'OZ, but not on the grand scale that they've laid out."

The dispute reached a crescendo on Nov. 10, when musicians, activists and WWOZ supporters packed a meeting at City Hall. Some accused WWOZ of gobbling the park's green space; others said the station was co-opting the neighborhood's African culture and crowding out the heritage of Congo Square, which is also inside the park. Park Service and city officials who tried to present the working plans for the park were repeatedly interrupted with prayers and accusations.

Members of WWOZ's board and other supporters countered the accusations by emphasizing their love of New Orleans music and their support for the Treme neighborhood. "We plan to serve this community in any way we can, and that will not change," said 'OZ board member Parker Sternbergh to the crowd, her voice shaking.

WWOZ's Freedman appeared stunned by charges that the station or its expansion plans are racist. "We're committed to celebrating the cultural diversity of the city -- how can that be racist?" says Freedman. "All we ever wanted to do was build a radio station that worked."

The Armstrong Park area has been a source of contention since it was first cleared of housing in the 1960s. An original plan to build a multi-building cultural center here was abandoned after the first building, the Theater of the Performing Arts -- later named for gospel legend Mahalia Jackson -- was completed. So was an ambitious proposal to make the park available to Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park concession, in the late 1980s. A Black Music Hall of Fame was mapped out for four of the existing buildings in the park in the early 1990s. The Hall of Fame -- along with a cultural marketplace and performance space -- won widespread support in the Treme community in the waning days of the Sidney Barthelemy administration. All of these ideas have come to naught, and the present fracas may endanger the scope of the proposed Jazz National Park as well.

In 2001, WWOZ and the National Park Service presented a design charrette -- a working plan -- that community members, including Randall Mitchell, had helped formulate. The plan re-established part of the street grid destroyed when that part of Treme was torn down, including the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Dumaine Street, once a rallying point for Mardi Gras marching groups. In that plan, the Park Service took the firehouse building for its visitor center and created a new entrance gate for the park at the corner of N. Rampart and St. Philip streets. WWOZ's part of the plan was a new, 6,000-square-foot studio building to be built behind the visitor center, on the site of a lagoon that the Park Service would fill in.

Freedman says that he knew early on that 6,000 square feet would not accommodate the station. He began working with Park Service officials to modify the design. The Park Service, meanwhile, altered its project, backing out of its plan to use the firehouse as a visitor center and instead focusing its efforts on a four-building complex further back in the park. In May 2001, a few weeks before Mayor Marc Morial left office, the city signed a new lease with WWOZ that gave the station use of the firehouse and the right to build around it. The 89-year lease also gave the station a free ride on utilities, barring exceptional spikes in use. The chief restriction was the Park Service had to approve 'OZ's building plans.

Some people in Treme cried foul, claiming they'd been left out in a series of back room deals. Those suspicions escalated when Mary Catallo, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, began turning up at meetings between WWOZ and city and park officials. Johnston sponsored the federal legislation that created the Jazz National Historic Park in 1994, and Catallo says that she simply helped WWOZ and local Park Service officials understand how to get support for the project in Washington, D.C. Her brother, lobbyist Hunter Johnston, also spoke to people in Washington on behalf of the park and its pending partnership with 'OZ.

Things grew even more confusing when Park Superintendent Gayle Hazelwood was replaced by Marta Cruz Kelly last January. Kelly questioned whether the National Park Service should be paying to fill in lagoons on land now leased to WWOZ, an option the Park Service no longer supports. To make matters worse, Kelly left her post a few days after the Nov. 10 meeting, leaving an interim superintendent, Dave Herrera, in charge.

The plum in all of this is the possibility of federal funding for any project partnering with the National Park Service in the Jazz Park. Such funding would have to come through the Park Service but could be specified by Congress. The Park Service is currently sitting on a little more than $2 million dollars, which was part of the original appropriation earmarked for creation of a park facility. But more funding may be on the horizon for organizations that partner with the Jazz Park.

Catallo says that WWOZ would probably have won federal dollars in the last congressional session if it hadn't been for community bickering. Freedman agrees, adding that Sen. John Breaux has championed federal funding for the Armstrong Park project. Sen. Mary Landrieu also alluded to the project in a floor speech on Oct. 5, saying the Senate Appropriations Committee was "aware of discussions among the National Park Service, the City of New Orleans and prospective local partners" and supportive of those efforts. Freedman laments that funds available this year have gone to another state, but Washington insiders say that future funds will be forthcoming if 'OZ, the Park Service and the city continue to work together.

Standing near the St. Claude Avenue entrance of Armstrong Park, you can just hear the tinkle of 1940s swing emanating from the speakers outside the current 'OZ station. The building, which measures less than 1,500 square feet, is funky beyond belief. But it is also powerful: the station estimates that it is tuned in by 50,000 different listeners each week, and its Web site, www.wwoz.org, streams the station's mix of jazz, blues, gospel, R&B and world music and gets 3 to 4 million hits per month.

Initially a project of the Nora Blatch Educational Communications Foundation, the radio station was envisioned by founding brothers Walter and Jerry Brock as a non-commercial, community-based outlet, something in the tradition of Pacifica Radio in Berkeley and KCHU in Dallas. The Brocks were well-versed in jazz, but neither realized the scope of New Orleans music until they arrived in the mid-1970s to lay the groundwork for the station. The decision to emphasize New Orleans music was all about giving voice to a community that wasn't getting airtime on local outlets, Jerry Brock says. And support from the local music community, including musicians in Treme, was terrific, Brock recalls.

Back in those days, 'OZ trained inexperienced music lovers, all of them volunteers, to host shows. "We just had so many local characters coming out of the woodwork who had such a great love of this music," Brock recalls. "They'd bring their own records, so the 'OZ library was the library of the community." Many of those early hosts, like Billy Delle of Records from the Crypt, remain and continue to bring their own records in for their broadcasts. Every WWOZ member also had a vote in decisions affecting the station.

In 1985, the station moved into its present digs from a makeshift studio above Tipitina's. A brass band parade (featuring "90.7" musicians, including 7-year-old Darnell "D-Boy " Andrews as the ".7") helped move the station's transmitter. The station sold its license to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation in 1986. Members lost their ability to vote on station matters, but the station's "open door" policy encouraging community members and musicians to bring in music and announcements remains essentially intact (See "The Rap on WWOZ," Aug. 19). Brock himself left the station, returned and quit for good in 1987, ushering in an unsettling period during which a series of general managers came and went. When Freedman, who had founded community radio station KUSP-FM in Santa Cruz, took over the post in 1992, longtime 'OZ stalwarts breathed a sigh of relief.

"When I came here in 1992, the first thing I said was that we needed a decent place," Freedman says. The station put in a lease application with the city for more space in the park under the Barthelemy administration, he says, and it went nowhere. "Then the National Park Service came in and we said, 'Oh. A National Jazz Park. A nationally available jazz station.' It was a natural."

Freedman says that the square footage figures now being thrown around distort the image of the expanded firehouse -- the current plan shows the firehouse as the original building wrapped on three sides by a 20-foot deep addition. Freedman also says that critics who say the station wants too much space don't realize how dysfunctional it is to run a station with its broadcast booth in one building and its offices in another -- something that WWOZ has managed to do for years. The current lack of space has hampered WWOZ's ability to serve the community, he says, pointing out that Original Minds, a program that trained community youngsters in broadcasting, was dropped last year because there simply wasn't space to accommodate and train teen volunteers. At the same time, plans are already afoot to include a training program for students working with poet Kalamu Ya Salaam in the larger, proposed facility, Freedman says.

The current WWOZ proposal is just that, Freedman emphasizes -- a proposal. "It can be revised again," he says. "But I don't know if it can be revised enough to please enough people."

And it's not the only proposal. Leo Watermeier, of the nonprofit Friends of Armstrong Park, is a former state representative and one-time proponent of the Tivoli Gardens idea. He's also a neighbor of the park. At the Nov. 10 meeting, he handed out his group's proposal: restore the park to its opening day condition, use the fire stations for bathrooms and a boat rental office for the lagoons, and set up an inexpensive restaurant where neighborhood residents could be trained for jobs. Ledoux, meanwhile, advances an idea for a Sunday cultural market, inspired by 19th century Congo Square. Hayes, for his part, wants the fence down and the park back under control of the neighborhood.

The city hopes to mediate the situation, possibly toward a scaled-down version of the WWOZ station in the park. Deputy CAO Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, who worked on the project under Mayor Marc Morial and continues to be the Nagin administration's point person on Armstrong Park, says she hopes to convene more community meetings beginning in January. The National Park Service is supportive, but has visibly distanced itself from the WWOZ project. At present, says acting park superintendent Herrera, the Park Service plans to stabilize and remodel the four historic structures that it controls in the park to serve as a visitor center and offices. The New Orleans Jazz Commission, the citizen commission that guides the jazz park, has discussed moving the visitors center to the Old U.S. Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. Whether or not such a decision is made, Herrera says, the Park Service plans to take bids on approximately $2 million in contracts for work on the Armstrong Park buildings this summer.

Sylvain-Lear agrees that the partnership between WWOZ and the Park Service is a compelling one that's in line with the National Park Service's original plan to partner with private groups here. But the proposed station is only part of the park project, which will afford numerous other concessions and partnerships. Instead of focusing on WWOZ, Sylvain-Lear says, she wants people to think about the park as a whole as a gateway to Treme.

The Park Service practice of providing funding for community partners also extends to some of WWOZ's most vocal opponents. A tally of grants made by the Park Service in the last six months includes $500 to James Tucker, aka Babatunji Ahmed, for research and video documentation; and $4,000 to The International Music Cultural Exchange and $345 to Bamboula, both organizations which Park Service officials say are associated with Emory White. The Park Service gave nearly $6,000 to Tambourine and Fan, a youth organization mentored by Jerome Smith. Ahmed, Mitchell and Smith have all spoken publicly against 'OZ's plans in the park; White has published letters and articles opposing the project.

Smith says that the Park Service has been a good community partner and lauds their efforts to help out with Tambourine and Fan, an organization that teaches young people about Treme's street music traditions. He says he's also working with Park Service officials to bring instruments and music instruction to Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, which looks out over the back corner of Armstrong Park. But the fact that he should have to beg for a music teacher in a musical neighborhood burns him, he says -- especially when he hears about the millions about to be spent on a park devoted to music that should be the birthright of Treme's kids.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for WWOZ, which has raised more than $1 million for its proposed building project. Already the station has lost $100,000 in pledges due to the delays, Freedman says. At a certain point, Friends of WWOZ will have to cement the location for its new building if it's going to keep its capital campaign alive. The city says it wants to resolve the current controversy in the first quarter of 2004.

"Anything could happen," says Freedman. "We're not insisting that we be in the park, that we have 15,000 square feet, anything. We're hoping the park will find a good solution that includes us. If not, we're hoping the park will be well and healthy."

click to enlarge EILEEN LOH HARRIST

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