A New Orleans Christmas in the Lower Ninth
‘Twas the Sunday before Christmas here in New Orleans when the city offered up one of those unforgettable experiences found nowhere else in the United States: large numbers of black people, taking over the streets through song, dance and community, celebrating that their beloved neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward, is finally coming back, lo, these five long years since Hurricane Katrina. Sunday, December 19, also happened to be the birthday of two of the city’s musical giants: Professor Longhair, the piano genius who died in 1980, and Kermit Ruffins, the singer and trumpet player who is New Orleans’s most famous musician of the moment, thanks partly to his appearances in Treme, the HBO series produced by David Simon, creator of The Wire. Ruffins, who has charisma to burn thanks to a gigantic musical gift and an irresistible, nearly constant grin, was born and raised in the Lower Ninth, and he spent his birthday afternoon there, watching with hundreds of his neighbors that uniquely New Orleans phenomenon, a second line street parade.
There are second line parades taking place somewhere in New Orleans nearly every Sunday, sponsored by the “social and pleasure clubs” that historically were among the first community organizations formed by the city’s African-American majority. Each neighborhood is allotted a certain Sunday to strut its stuff. The Lower Ninth’s turn comes on the Sunday before Christmas. Famous to the outside world as the epicenter of Katrina’s death and destruction, the Lower Ninth Ward has also long been home to some of the city’s leading musicians and tightest-knit communities. Both were in abundant display as the gloriously raucous procession of costumed dancers and marching musicians, joined along the way by countless passers-by, wound through the streets under mild, sunny skies.
"It's a dream come true, seeing all this come back," Ruffins said as the parade ended. Standing on the median strip of St. Claude Avenue, he pointed to his right and said, "I grew up three blocks over that way. Went to elementary school over there and," turning to point farther right, "high school over there. Now to see people back home, enjoying the neighborhood again, it's a beautiful thing."
Two Lower Ninth social clubs organized this year’s second line: “The Original Big 9 Social and Pleasure Club,” whose colors were purple and gold, and “The Lower 9th Steppers,” outfitted in black and white. The Steppers were led by a sextet of exquisitely beautiful women wearing high heels, fedoras and shiny costumes and waving black-and-white feathered signs in the air as they shimmied down streets closed to vehicles. Behind them, two lines of tuba, trumpet, saxophone and percussion players blew a mighty noise, switching among traditional New Orleans street songs, hosannahs to the Saints football team, a few pop tunes (a joyful medlee of Michael Jackson songs was a particular crowd-pleaser) and more pointed numbers, including one decrying the shameful treatment of New Orleans by federal and state authorities since the storm, “The Backstabbers.” (“They smile in your face/All the time they want to take your place/The backstabbers!”)
The Lower Ninth Steppers were officially celebrating their 15th anniversary—"Fifteen Years and Still Having Fun," read their black and white feathered signs—but the fact that this year’s parade fell on the fifth anniversary of Katrina was lost on no one. As an outsider who has been visiting the Lower Ninth at frequent intervals since the hurricane, I was impressed to see how far the neighborhood has come. By no means has it fully recovered, but life in the Lower Ninth has made steady, sizable progress since those ghastly first months—and years—following the storm, when most buildings and vehicles lay in smashed, rotted ruin (if they hadn't washed away entirely). The Lower Ninth was the last neighborhood in the city to have its running water, electricity and other essential services restored after the storm, even as gun-toting vandals ransacked what little of value remained.
But the December 2010 second line passed unmistakable signs of re-birth: newly constructed or refurbished houses (some sporting the pink or mint green paint often favored here); functioning corner stores and gas stations; accurate street signs; navigable road surfaces. The parade began a few blocks east of the French Quarter and proceeded east on St. Claude Avenue. After crossing the bridge over the Industrial Canal—whose levee collapse was the single deadliest catastrophe of the Katrina nightmare—the second liners entered the Lower Ninth proper. At the command of the two social clubs’ leaders and in apparently friendly coordination with the watchful but relaxed presence of New Orleans police officers, the parade soon turned south to visit the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth, where Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" green housing project is now up and running and most other houses look comfortably inhabited again. The parade then headed north to Claiborne Avenue, passing along the way Fats Domino's modest, and now apparently empty, house and business complex, before returning to St. Claude Avenue and concluding a few blocks shy of the bridge.
One reason the Lower Ninth was looking good on this Sunday before Christmas was that the parade avoided the hardest-hit parts of the neighborhood, which is understandable. The next day, I bicycled back to the Lower Ninth to get a fuller picture. I was most interested in the Jourdan Avenue area immediately adjacent to the Industrial Canal, the epicenter of Katrina’s death toll. The horror there was set in motion when Katrina’s floodwaters loosed a massive barge from its moorings farther up the canal and sent it crashing into the east side of the levee. The levee gave way with a bomb-like crash and roiling water gushed through the breach. Within minutes, the flatlands north of Clairborne were drowning as the floodwaters quickly submerged nearly all the houses. Authoritative accounts, including the masterful Breach of Faith by New Orleans Times-Picayune journalist Jed Horne, suggest that more people died here, more quickly, than anywhere else during Katrina.
Today, this section of the Lower Ninth is still mostly empty lots, though here too there are unmistakable signs of recovery. The Army Corps of Engineers has made strengthening the Industrial Canal a priority, and local experts, including John Barry, the author and long-time critic of the Corps who is now leading a local levee board, have expressed confidence that the Corps has done its job well this time. Meanwhile, even here most of the ruined houses have been torn down and the tall weeds cut, leaving behind open space on which to rebuild. The Common Ground Recovery Center, a presence in the Lower Ninth since the earliest days after Katrina, has helped rebuild many houses, as have other religious, student and civic-minded volunteers. Many, though not all, of the new houses reflect one of the key climate change adaptation lessons learned from Katrina: the houses rest on foundations that have been elevated three to six feet or more above the ground.
Not long after Katrina, I met a woman named Miss Bobbie who lived about fifteen blocks east of where the levee collapsed. In her sixties, she was able to get around only with help from her walker or a friend. Miss Bobbie had been fortunate enough to get a ride out of the neighborhood before the storm. When the authorities finally let her return for a visit months later, she found her three room shotgun house only barely standing; its wooden walls now leaned so steeply to the left, they looked like they could fall over any second. Inside, the floor was covered with heaps of crumbled plaster and mildewed, broken furniture.
I’ve tried to contact Miss Bobbie on my last three visits to New Orleans, but the cell phone number she left me no longer answers. Most likely she will never return, if she is even still alive. But perhaps Miss Bobbie would be pleased to know that the plot of ground next door to hers is another budding sign of hope in the Lower Ninth. An organic garden and school, Sustainable Community Empowerment, now occupies the corner lot where the Blair Family Grocery, one of the few grocery stores in the Lower Ninth Ward pre-Katrina, once sat. Sustainable Community Empowerment is a project organized by a coalition of volunteers from New York City including Qasim Davis, a young African-American from Harlem who is the school’s dean of students.
Standing near rows of greens and carrots, Davis said he’d been coming here with the New York to New Orleans Coalition for three years now, just one of countless such civil society initiatives aiming to “Build It Back Green,” as the local slogan goes. “Yeah, things have gotten better,” Davis agreed. “Now, we have a farmer’s market here every Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm. Our aim is to create a fresh food source for this neighborhood, which has been a fresh food desert. The people here love it. And it feels good to make a difference.”