With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
There is music everywhere! Starting at 9am you can hear musical sounds throughout the Quarter. A trumpet here, an electric zither guitar there, or banjo even as enterprising musicians start warming up their chops for another hot, muggy day.
The man lies on a bench just outside Jackson Square. A case sits underneath. Suddenly he rouses, reaches under the bench, pulls out the case, removes his trumpet and starts wailing. His large body fills the bench as he sprawls, slightly hunched over, his legs spread out. His horn equals the gusto with which he plays. He’s quite a sight and sound as the clock for the Saint Louis Cathedral directly in front rings the new hour.
Elsewhere in the Quarter, amidst the tuneful side streets, resident joggers dodge the daily dousing the pavement gets to clean up the debris from last night’s merriment. It may also be to neutralize the stench from overfilled garbage cans, however given the temperature is already in the 80’s your best bet is to walk swiftly by. Other early-rising tourists huddle together exploring the streets for that famous Creole brunch. A few bars are open on Bourbon and Royal streets, the denizens already staking their corners with animation and profanity. Most of the shops don’t open until 11am and outside buskers strum away, their open cases propped up for hopeful loose change or possibly a purchase of their demo CDs sitting atop.
The jazz bands in the cafés entertain the seated and others patiently waiting for a table, the queue spilling on the sidewalk. The scraggly bearded Chris Robinson-lookalike corrals his equally unwashed and hirsute friends near a stoop with their banjo, washer board, and eponymous jug for an impromptu session. For a moment it’s like The Black Crowes are up from the bayou singing for their supper.
The street traffic is not only pedestrian. There are slow-moving cars from local drivers patiently yielding to the whimsical bipedalism of people on vacation. Mostly the tiny and crooked streets are clogged with huge trucks making daily beer deliveries.
After a pleasant no-frills breakfast of ham croissant and mango juice from a neighborhood market consumed in Jackson Square park, my bride and I make our way up and out of the Quarter, to the boundary road connecting Tremé. Rampart Street; so named after the erstwhile rampart surrounding New Orleans back when NOLA consisted entirely of the French Quarter. When neighborhoods around it sprouted up, the wall came down and it was demarcated by a street.
Along Rampart we wait at a bar, Voodoo Lounge, a 24-hr establishment. Our bartender was born and raised in NOLA. Though to be accurate, so were his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great great- grandparents… his New Orleans lineage going back 275 years. Though, he does confess that his family name Lebandeau only goes back 200 years.
This bar is the announced meeting place for our tour guide. She arrives wearing a tank top, shorts, sandals, shoulder tattoo, as well as eyebrow and nose piercing. Her name is Blaze. “You know… like a fire.” During the tour she informs us she was born in Ireland and today was the one-year anniversary of her U.S. naturalization. The whole group applauds; a black woman, a German couple and us.
Blaze takes us through Tremé, the oldest continuously black neighborhood in the US. It’s a big area, almost four times the size of the French Quarter. We only walk through a small section but enough to see the devastation from past hurricanes and subsequent gentrification. Abandoned buildings sit beside renovated homes. The most traffic we come across is the construction trucks actively gutting and remodeling homes.
Blaze informs us the gentrification around this area began in the early 1900’s and since then, more and more sections of this historic area are disappearing to larger houses, entry ramps to freeways and massive parks. The neighborhood culture keeps getting pushed into less and less space. She cites two specific examples; Louis Armstrong Park and Hurricane Katrina. The Park is on the national registry and therefore relies not on city or state, but federal funds. Walking through the carefully manicured gardens, ponds and walkways you can see where the money goes.
The land was cleared in the early 1900’s displacing hundreds of people, but remained an empty dirt lot until the 1980’s. This was especially painful to generations of black folks whose ancestors used the area to congregate on Sundays. That was the only day Creole slaves had off, masters respecting their Roman Catholic rights. On this day, groups would gather to worship and play music. Slaves from all over the world; especially Africa and the Caribbean often joined their sounds together, changing the traditional style of gospel and the blues, using syncopated beats and call and response. The result was the birth of jazz, in a wooded area just beyond the Quarter called Congo Square, so named for the many Creole slaves who were taken from the African country.
When Katrina hit ten years ago, Tremé was not prepared and many residents fled their homes. Many abandoned homes were seized by opportunistic developers who bought the houses for $40K, renovated them for another $40K and then when people returned they could no longer afford to pay the rent. The result has been a dramatic shift in population from 80-20 percent predominantly black to 60-40 percent.
The shift apparently rears its ugly head when black neighborhoods try to preserve hundreds of years of tradition through street parades and weekly social clubs. In Tremé you don’t need a permit to hold a parade, just as long as the police don’t hear of any complaints. The post-Katrina transplants when disturbed by this celebration call the police who now have to get involved. Further encroachment on the unprotected area ensues.
After the tour, not far from Louis Armstrong Park, is the Backstreet Cultural Museum celebrating the parading and social clubbing of the Mardi Gras Indians. The museum is run by the brother of an Indian chief whose tribe has donated several full ceremonial pieces for viewing. The brother informed my bride there was a four-picture limit to each room. No videos or notes would be taken during the tour. “Y’all have ta put that paper away while I’m talkin’. No takin’ notes.” Despite his sternness he was very patient in answering our questions. He explained that each tribe member chooses their costume design each year. They are responsible for purchasing and creating the costume but it can be whatever they like. Themes like desert, ocean, Mandingo warrior, jungle, and accessories like beads, ruffles, feathers, objects that jutted out from the costume in 3-D fashion. Every piece from the headdress to the wings and arms, to the boots and backing were all individually crafted.
It was at Backstreet that we got an education on the term “second line”. The first line consisted of the official costumed paraders (usually members of the local social club in their matching outfits) and the jazz band that followed. Behind that anyone who wanted to revel in the parade and actively walk, dance or sing in whatever costume you wanted or no costume at all were strongly encouraged to do so. Second lining is so important in this community because it attempts to maintain the strong cultural history while being inclusive to any race interested in celebrating this rich tradition. “People always welcome ta join a second line at a funeral but they nevah do. They think it’s supposed to be family only. Tha’s the whole point o’ second line.”