NEW ORLEANS-Why has New Orleans, economically depressed for years and then knifed by Katrina, come back to life? (See WORLD's cover story, Aug. 15, 2009.) The Saints' Super Bowl helped, but part of the answer lies in an old funeral home reincarnated as the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
Walker Percy, one of the two great American Christian fiction writers of the last half century (Flannery O'Connor was the other), lived in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. He wrote in 1980 that he liked living in Covington because it was "a nonplace in a certain relation to a place." He wrote that he would not have wanted to live where his forefathers had lived because "such places are haunted. Ancestors perch on your shoulders while you write."
Percy contrasted Covington with New Orleans, which he identified as "a place, drenched in its identity." Shortly after the 1967 Detroit race riot, Percy had written that "if the American city does not go to hell in the next few years, it will not be the likes of Dallas or Grosse Pointe [the wealthy Detroit suburb] which will work its deliverance. . . . But New Orleans might."
He went on, "My tiny optimism derives not from sociological indices-which after all didn't help much in Detroit and New Haven." Instead, Percy looked at whether people still showed at least minimal care for each other: If a person falls ill on the streets of New Orleans, he wrote jocularly, someone might "drag you into the neighborhood bar and pay the innkeeper for a shot of Early Times."
Percy described New Orleans as "a most peculiar concoction of exotic and American ingredients" that had discovered "the Little Way, a talent for everyday life rather than the heroic deed." He pointed to the community ties that bound the city's residents, with one manifestation the parades on Mardi Gras and throughout the year, "a universal celebration of a public occasion by private, social, and neighborhood groups. It is thus an organic, viable folk festival, perhaps the only one in the United States."
And thus we come to the Backstreet Cultural Museum. If you hear the word museum and think of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art or some grand edifice in another city, think again. Backstreet is two big rooms and a corridor in a small, former funeral home. But those rooms are crammed with costumes sporting sequins and beads that are sewn on, not glued-and the social glue those costumes represent is what brought people back to New Orleans after the Katrina evacuation of 2005.
Backstreet is located in Tremé, the oldest black neighborhood in the United States, which sits just north of the French Quarter. Backstreet embodies the vision of Sylvester "Hawk" Francis, who began parading in 1979 with the Gentlemen of Leisure Social Aid and Pleasure Club (SAPC). The SAPCs-about 40 or so parade with jazz bands once each year, on a specific Sunday reserved far in advance-began in the late 19th century as mutual benefit societies providing medical insurance, burial coverage, and educational help to dues-paying members and their families.
Some current SAPCs are long-standing: Zulu SAPC had its 100th anniversary last year. Other cities had similar societies, but most died as government welfare programs grew and as health coverage began to be tied to employers during World War II.
Other civic and fraternal organizations have also added texture to New Orleans life since the 19th century. "Krewes"-New Orleans residents prior to the Civil War coined the term for social organizations-still parade, post-Katrina. Affluent white social elites, instead of fleeing New Orleans, maintained a presence through the krewes such as the oldest, Comus, which has often had esoteric parade themes such as "Serpent Deities of the Ancient Near East."
Additional variety has come from "Black Indians"-often descendants of slaves who escaped their masters and received shelter from Indian tribes-who over the years have marched in more and more elaborate, brightly colored costumes that typically weigh 100 pounds or more and take a year to make. The Backstreet Museum houses many of the best costumes, along with photos and video footage of jazz funerals and second-line celebrations.
In 1990 "Hawk" Francis helped Big Chief Victor Harris of the Fi Yi Yi tribe make a big blue peacock suit for Mardi Gras use. Later, seeing the suit discarded in the trash, Francis retrieved it and displayed it in a garage. He started photographing and taping the parades and displaying more costumes. When the Blandin Funeral Home went out of business in 1999, Francis was able to take possession and create the museum.
Those jazz funerals are a New Orleans tradition that began with the death of black Union Capt. Andre Caillou in 1863. Over 10,000 mourners turned out for a large funeral featuring a brass band, and since then funeral organizers have often hired bands to play dirges and somber hymns before burial and upbeat tunes afterward. That's still a part of what makes New Orleans an identity-drenched place.
"Second lines"-residents who aren't officially part of a parade but follow it to enjoy the brass band music-are another New Orleans custom that drenches the city and keeps it from being a nonplace. The Crescent City-named that because of the Mississippi's curve-is also famous for its clubs where people eat gumbo, drink a beer or two, and dance to groups like the Tremé Brass Band.
The view of a visitor like me is going to be incomplete and probably mistaken in its emphases-and yet, even I can see how different it is to live in a place rather than a nonplace. Even Walker Percy, seeking a writer's anonymity, only wanted to be nowhere as long as he was close to somewhere.
The error of the 1950s-1970s era in many American cities was a downgrading of distinctives. Urban renewal destroyed poor but quirky neighborhoods. Baseball stadiums had equidistant foul lines and smooth circumferences instead of the nooks and crannies that made parks like Fenway and Wrigley curious and beloved. Fast food franchises began replacing local diners. Something gained but something lost.
The challenge for America's cities that are somewhere: Don't lose what is distinctive or emphasize chain hotels and restaurants and other buildings that, no matter how elegant, could just as well be anywhere.
The Wire, an HBO television series set in Baltimore and now available on DVD, has the best depiction of inner-city life I've ever seen on large or small screens (see "Goodnight, hoppers; goodnight, hustlers everywhere," World, July 26, 2008). Its producer, David Simon, has a new television series beginning next month, Tremé, named after the New Orleans African-American neighborhood (just north of the French Quarter) where jazz began. The series will focus on traditional jazz and brass-band musicians, along with SAPC members, second-line parades, and Mardi Gras Indians.
Simon told The Wall Street Journal that he wants "to create a drama about why the American city matters." He also wants "to consider whether or not what is essential and rare and unique about New Orleans, and what it provides the American character, is going to survive in a form that is self-sustaining and organic, not just a museum piece."
Simon's job is hard, for-as the Journal noted-"New Orleans is famously idiosyncratic, right down to how locals refer to the most mundane elements of life: Paved street medians, for instance, are 'neutral grounds.'" But there is little neutrality in the way people normally approach the identity-drenched city. Many love it. Others hate it.