Can the Culture of New Orleans Be Saved?

by Doug McInnis ’70

“In high river stage, in the New Orleans region, the water is up to the top of the enclosing levee rim, the flat country behind it lies low. There is nothing but that frail breastwork of earth between the people and destruction.” - Mark Twain, 1883

Although Preservation Hall is closed indefinitely, Ben Jaffe ’93 (standing, left) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have toured almost non-stop since September. Photo by Shannon Brinkman

New Orleans didn’t always face the danger that Mark Twain predicted. When first settled in 1718, the river-edged city sat on higher land. But that land was soft river mud, and in the nearly 300 years since the first structure was built, the land has sunk nine feet.

More than a century after Twain wrote, Hurricane Katrina finally fulfilled his dire prediction. The storm left a city of muck, rubble, and stray dogs. Many argue that the remains should be bulldozed, making way for a shining new metropolis to rise where miles of damaged homes and deserted neighborhoods now stand, their residents scattered throughout the country.

If this comes to pass, the city may be more prosperous. But the nature of New Orleans, the bohemian, counter-cultural oasis in the deeply conservative Gulf Coast, will be radically altered, perhaps even obliterated.

The culture of New Orleans reflects its disparate history. After its attainment by the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans retained its French and Spanish cultural influences; local architecture, cuisine, and vocabulary reflect both the city’s European past and its African and Caribbean strains.

This distinctive culture is renowned for producing musical and literary giants. Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, two early and enormously influential jazz musicians, were raised in this birthplace of jazz. Playwright Tennessee Williams found a far better fit in liberal New Orleans than he had in his native St. Louis. Other New Orleans’ writers include natives Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, Anne Rice, and John Kennedy Toole.

So can the complex culture of New Orleans be resurrected from the floodwaters of Katrina? Four Oberlin alumni explain why it must.

Ben Jaffe ’93: Saving the Music
More than four decades ago, Ben Jaffe’s father, a tuba player from Pennsylvania with an Ivy League business degree, moved to New Orleans to open the famed Preservation Hall—a sanctuary they created to protect and honor the unique style of New Orleans’ jazz. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the hall has continued under the watch of jazz bassist Ben Jaffe, who also directs and performs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In an interview shortly after Katrina struck, Jaffe spoke of the music of New Orleans and the city that inspires it:

“Growing up in New Orleans, you realize there’s a certain way of life here that has evolved organically and can’t be duplicated anywhere else, at least not in the United States. You find aspects of New Orleans culture in other places—in parts of the Caribbean and in western Africa, France, and Spain. But it’s never as complete as it is in New Orleans. In my estimation, after the loss of human life from the hurricane, the potential demise of this intangible culture will be the most tragic loss.

“My biggest concern, and it’s one of the things being glossed over by the government, is that this culture will be lost. The music culture of New Orleans is an international cultural treasure and should be designated as such. You can’t put a dollar value on this, but there is equity in the culture of New Orleans, and I don’t hear anybody talking about it. It’s irresponsible for the government not to have a plan in place to save it.

“It’s so hard for the average person to understand a cultural economy, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. For example, we have brass bands in New Orleans that perform on Sundays. All they do is march around looking for neighborhood social clubs to hire them. Is this tradition going to come back? I don’t know. The people who made up these clubs are now spread all across the United States. Some of them were sleeping on the floor of the Houston Astrodome.

“In New Orleans you can usually hear more than 100 bands—so many bands exist because we have places for them to play. Musicians are attracted to New Orleans because they can be working-stiff musicians here. There’s no other city in America like that. You can play four or five nights a week, and you don’t have to go on the road. I’m told this is the best city in the world to be a down-and-out artisan. If I were a starving artist, I’d want to live in New Orleans. The rent is cheap, the food’s good, the architecture is inspiring.

“Out of eight members in our band, five lost their homes. Not just their homes, but also pictures of their children, all their instruments, all their clothing, all the original scores they had written. These aren’t things you can have cleaned—they’ve been destroyed. After the flood, it looked like bombs went off inside the flooded houses. I never thought water could cause this kind of damage. Our piano man found his grand piano upside down in his living room. The saxophone player’s home was under 12 feet of water.

“We were scheduled for a road trip when Katrina hit, so we had work. But we had no money. A few weeks ago, we couldn’t have played a poker game if people had pooled their cash. We’ve been maxing out our credit cards.

“After the hurricane, the band members were spread out all over, so I had them reconvene in New York, where we made our first appearance. As they got off the planes, there was no need to look for their luggage. They didn’t have any.”

Ellen Weiss ’57: The Distinctive Culture of Shotgun Houses
The predominant dwelling in New Orleans is the shotgun house, a long, thin, one-story building in which every room is the same size. In classic shotguns, each room has a center doorway that leads into the next room, all leading straight to the back door. Fire a shotgun through the front door, and the shot would fly straight through the back door without hitting anything, or so the story goes. Shotgun houses stretch for miles in much of New Orleans, where they form the matrix for the city’s complex culture. Tear them down and the culture of New Orleans will never be the same, says Ellen Weiss, professor of architectural history at Tulane University:

“The shotgun is the fundamental unit from which the whole city is built. They’re not just in the poor neighborhoods, they’re found throughout the city. It’s very hard to find a neighborhood built before World War II that isn’t dominated by shotguns.

“The culture of shotgun neighborhoods is largely a black culture, out of which burbles the music. A richly textured urbanity goes on in these neighborhoods, and people are very dependent on one another. They help one another survive, and their close proximity to one another helps them do this.

“I’m scared to death about what they are going to do now. People are saying, ‘Go in there and bulldoze.’ I think there’s a better way. Many of these shotguns can be saved, and saved for less than the cost of bulldozing them and constructing new houses. In the flooded housing, you have to get out the sheet rock and the wiring. But these shotguns were built of cypress and cedar, very dense types of wood that withstand water and bugs. I would guess that their structural integrity is intact.

“We all lived through the era of urban renewal. We saw how it destroyed communities and took the souls of cities. The plans for rebuilding New Orleans sound so good now. But we just don’t see that they have the same evils as urban renewal. If you rebuild New Orleans with high-rise condominiums, you’ll destroy the city. It will be shoddy, and placeless, and soulless, and it will end up being generic American.”

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