‘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.