Friday, May 02, 2008

New Orleans and Jazzfest Now

Visiting New Orleans and Jazzfest for the first time since Katrina led to some observations.

First, thoughts on seeing the city, which for this visitor was limited to the French Quarter, the Central Business District, Faubourg Marigny, and Mid-City fairgrounds area, are as follows:
---Great things are in New Orleans. Faubourg Marigny and its Frenchmen Street are more vibrant than ever with a music scene that alone is worth the visit. Characters of all persuasion are in abundance in the less tourist dominated areas of the Quarter and the Faubourg in general. Street musicians can pop up on any corner or at any square. Wonderful restaurants seem to be plentiful and the unique food traditions of southern Louisiana are intact, at least from an outsider's perspective. Shops, bookstores, art galleries, and music stores throughout the area are virtually all locally owned, individual enterprises, many of which are perfect to walk into for just a look around, a diversion, and some shade, even maybe to part with a little coin. And in a New Orleans tradition it's never hard to find a conversation wherever you go.
---Some things have changed of course.
Taxis are not so plentiful anymore. Swarms of individually owned big '70's and '80's GM models used to roam the streets, many with dashboards and rear view mirrors adorned with charms, tarot cards and evil eyes, many with characters driving them that were so much fun you didn't care where you were going. They're mostly gone. I asked around and those individual rolling businesses went home at night to the 9th ward and other flood stricken areas. Now there are just enough cabs, newer, and the drivers are fine, more talkative and engaging than anyplace else. But it is different from the past.
There are more disgruntled acting panhandlers during the day on side streets , not especially pleasant, but what do you expect.
While the restaurant scene in the nicer sit down upper and to some extent mid-level price scene is lively, there has been a visible drop off in the number of informal to funky low cost eateries. This trend had been going on since as far back as the '80's in the more touristy areas, but on the fringes, last time I was there, there were still loads of places where for less than $10 exceptional food was available. In the tourist areas, those places are now in spotted owl territory. In the areas on the fringes there has been a noticeable decline. Now that's sad, but I still found some. And my reach as a visitor was not to the overall city and therefore this view may well be and hopefully is a limited one.
Riding in a cab up Canal toward the mid-city fairgrounds we passed through a tent city area that was staggering. Expressways converge on elevated platforms through the center of the city just a couple of miles beyond the business district. As the cab passed through that area there were tent cities as far as the eye can see in both directions under these roads. In this country, over two and a half years after the disaster, it's a sight that's difficult to imagine. This was not some kind of government organized deal. These were improvised shacks and tents of all descriptions, crammed together in no discernable order.
Even savvy locals had warned never to go near this area, and in fact many others. To someone who had once loved to walk to and from the Quarter to the fairgrounds, it's a thing of the past. Even in good areas, caution is the byword. My new favorite singer Meschiya was at a club on Friday night that was about 10 blocks into Faubourg and she told me to recruit a local to guide me there safely. That was easy on Frenchmen, and Nelson was my talkative and great friend for the evening, just enjoying showing me around. So that's not bad.

Jazzfest was wonderful, but I can't say as always. Memories of the many '80's and '90's visits could be somewhat polished up by nostalgia at this point so comparisons are a challenge, but here's a try:
---The music is still a huge treat. There are multiple choices every hour of the day and the opportunity to see major performers in an upbeat festival setting as well as the chance, that often materializes, of just walking by a stage where a performer that you've never heard of puts the hoodoo on you, like really gets your attention.
---But many things were different and, even if inevitable, a little disappointing:
There is a big difference in the crowd. With what has happened to New Orleans, losing half the population, that had to be expected. With $50 one day ticket prices, one must surmise that it's no longer a casual event for many of the locals still there($12 in 1999), and almost impossible for many whole families to come out for the day. So the crowd is much more white, not overwhelmingly so but noticeably different from the past, and more dominated by visitors. As always the atmosphere is one of everyone getting along, but with less economic diversity apparent and fewer families it had a different feel, not a bad one but not as magic as in the past.
Then there was something that really bugged me. Many of the different crowd, and I think there must be different rules, came armed with folding lawn chairs in tow and created territories that more or less served as barricades to fluid movement in front of and around the main outdoor stages. It ruined the opportunity to "excuse me" your way close to the front of the stage of a favorite performer. I did not like those lawn chairs.
All of the food booths were there, but instead of many being run by church groups and social organizations, , more were run by restaurants and caterers. This was not done in any garish way. It all looked the same. It's just that, and here's where my memory may well be tainted, some of the food wasn't that good. At one point with a plate of red beans and rice with sausage I was sitting in the gospel tent next to an older woman who had been part of the choir in the previous group. We were chatting and I finally commented that my red beans and rice weren't as good as remembered. She looked at the plate and said "Looks like mush to me, it's not done right". She then talked about how so much was lost when so many people had to leave.

Those are some differences. As has been widely reported, the city has a long long way to go and I could see that even though I confined myself mostly to the better areas. Cleaning up that Depression era style tent city and keeping the rebuilding effort going could over time make a big difference. Getting more natives who love the place back, like one of my cab drivers who had been shipped off to Alaska but found his way back six months ago, would be healthy. That said, New Orleans may never be quite the same, but it was pleasing to find that it is still a place to be thoroughly enjoyed, MUSIC, PEOPLE, FOOD, even shops and galleries. I will go back. One idea though. They should take all those lawn chairs, pile'em up in the parking lot at the fairgrounds, add kerosene, and let'em go.


Blogger Unknown said...

Dear John,

Really good to read about your trip to Jazzfest, observations of cars, food, crowd, friendliness. Can't believe the day costs $50 now! Your report on the lost cars for hire signals a big change, seems to me-- that this kind of business person, with immense personal style and cultural savvy, likely had to flee the city and may not have made it back,

Nick Spitzer did a really great radio series about the building tradespeople of NO who were also active members of local bands. It's that back and forth between creative flash and rootedness, art and money making, what TS Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" -- all pretty affordable -- that made the city so different from anyplace else, in this country anyway.

That's obviously still happening, from what you write. Let's hope in time the spirit dominates the place again.


4:07 PM  

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