Second lines. Mardi Gras Indians. Street music. All part of “da cultcha.” A big part. A big part of New Orleans. A great reason to visit. A great reason to live in New Orleans. If you come, enjoy yourselves, know where you are, be respectful, if you take pictures say thank you. If you live here, get to know your neighbors. Present yourselves to the Indians.
Yes. Sometimes life jumps into your world and disrupts plans. In this case, as you know, I’ve been working on two big projects. “Ten Years Later” and “The Chitlin’ Circuit.” But, New Orleans culture got in the way. Sort of. That is, if you consider the Downtown Mardi Gras Indians Super Sunday getting in the way. I don’t. This is a big part of what I photograph locally.
And, you should know that the Indians show their new suits on Mardi Gras Day — Fat Tuesday — and again on one of two Super Sundays. Uptown or Downtown. And, On St. Joseph’s Night. Some are singers and dancers so they might show up on various stages. But, not all. Only a few. The other time they come out is for a jazz funeral, usually of a big chief or other important member of the Mardi Gras community.
So, you see them, pay your respects and photograph them when you can. I’ll show you a few more pictures over the next couple of days. As many of you know, I like to start with portraits. Street portraits.
Even though I haven’t written too much about it, I’m really photographing two big projects at once. You know about “Ten Years Later.” You might have an idea about my history of music project if you remember the pictures of Club Desire in the 9th Ward. Or, I should say pictures of the ruins of…
What started out as a project on photographing ” The Blues Trail” has evolved into “The Chitlin Circuit.” They are kind of the same. But, different. The Chitlin Circuit was a series of musical tour stops that generally promoted what music promoters called second level musicians (some where just starting out — after all, Ray Charles, Count Basie, Little Richard and many, many others were not second level musicians. ) were relegated to in order to build up their skills and their audiences. The circuit was truly a grind. Consider the times in which it was rolling. The 1920s through the 1970s. Jim Crow Laws. Segregation. Think about all that it implies.
The music halls, bars and clubs were small. Many of them were part of a hotel and cafe complex. Touring musicians, played down stairs, ate in the cafe and slept upstairs. I’ll leave you to sort out why. Many of the locations where located on a piece of a street that was called, “a stroll.” They were usually in vibrant black neighborhoods. They had their own sort of life.
This is also what blended blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues and created rock n roll. It evolved over time. There is a lot of controversy about that. We’ll get to it.
Why “Chasing Ghosts?”
Or, very complex. Most of the musicians, promoters, club owners and so on have long left the planet. Most of the buildings in which they worked are gone or in ruins. The place in the picture is called The Dew Drop Inn. Just about four doors down was another club, cafe, hotel complex called “The Foster Hotel and Rainbow Room.” Today, it is a nicely manicured lawn.
That’s just in New Orleans. This goes on for cities, small towns and country juke joints through the south, midwest and even into the west. In many places there is nothing to photograph. Certainly, the original players are obviously not photographable today. It’s a very hard project.
Though the original owner of The Dew Drop passed many years ago, his family still owns it. They are making strong moves to restore and update it. Go to http://www.dewdropnola.squarespace.com to learn about their plans and maybe to contribute a couple of dollars. Luckily, unlike the old Club Desire, which may be completely torn down by now, this place still exists. I have photographic evidence. You’re looking at it.
Why do two big projects at once? “Chitlin Circuit” and “Ten Years Later” are both big enough to do on their own. The answer is simple too. They wrap around each other very well. They are both part of the history of music, the nation, the south and the city. Maybe a few of the pictures overlap. Maybe not. I start the day by photographing one thing and sort of drift into the other as opportunities present themselves.
I need your help. I’ll take any ideas, stories, street myth, locations y’all have. Anything.
This picture fits into my Ten Year Project very well. Especially in mid-spring. Well, almost late spring for us. It’s about rebirth. Yellow is about joy. Flowers are about happiness. Green. Well, what can I say about the new, fresh greens of Spring? You just like them. Right?
Lurking in the background is an abandoned house. The door is boarded up. It still has a fairly readable Katrina Cross. And yet, the lawn is has been mowed recently. The stoop is clear and clean. There is no litter anywhere. Somebody cares about this house. Maybe, one day they’ll get to come home.
Isn’t that the real reason for rebuilding New Orleans? So that anyone who wants to come home can come home.
So. I started. I wrote that I was going to begin about the recovery in post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We are approaching our ten-year anniversary. Seems like the right time. I am photographing what still needs work and what has been done. There are a lot of contrasts. There are a lot of similarities. In many ways, I’ve been doing that since I returned to New Orleans. But, the work is much more focused for this series of pictures.
I thought that I would start in the heart of things.
Rain was spitting or pouring down in turns. As they say, “When the weather turns bad, the pictures get good.” I don’t know about that, but the weather set the scene.
This picture is a bit of what is left of the Magnolia Projects, officially known as C.J. Peete Housing project. It is abandoned, condemned by HANO (The Housing Authority of New Orleans) and is slowly being torn down and replaced by Harmony Oaks Housing. Rebranded, as they say.
A quick little bit of history.
The original buildings were built in 1941 with the entire location expanding in 1955. The entire area was known for extremely high violent crime rates and for spawning a huge amount of hip-hop artists. At its height, there were 1403 units that housed some 2,100 people. Oddly and accidentally, I photographed Unit 1403 both from in the outside and inside. I’ll show those pictures to you in the next couple of days.
In the 1980s and 90s conditions deteriorated greatly with demolition beginning in 1998. By 2005, only the section built in 1955 had been torn down. Hurricane Katrina did the rest. Well… not exactly. These are strong brick buildings. They were flooded but not destroyed. Some people came back and were asked to vacate in 2008 with the further demolition still continuing. My little bit of poking around found evidence that there may still be a few people using the buildings for shelter. There is no water. No power. No appliances. But, the buildings are strong and somewhat secure. There are plenty of discarded food and drink containers in a few of the buildings as well as some beat up clothing and rolled up blankets and sleeping bags.
New construction has begun in what is now called Harmony Oaks. The first of it was completed in 2011. There are 460 units, a new YMCA and a new school located within it’s boundaries. It includes public housing, mix-income and market rate units. There is a lot more to come, especially as Central City continues on its steady march toward gentrification and new urbanism.
WordPress sent me an email yesterday. I’ve never had one of those. It seems that Storyteller is now one of 99 photography blogs that it on their recommended list. I guess that’s something. WordPress claims about 120,000,000 blog sites. Of course, that’s very mixed content. It also includes I- don’t-know-how-many sleeping or dead sites from which there haven’t been posts in months. Or, even in years. Even so… congratulations to me. It does mean a lot.
In the last — well, less than 24 hours — I’ve had a large number of new subscribers. Welcome, all of you. I hope you enjoy my work which does veer around a lot. At its core, Storyteller is always about pictures. Sometimes I write a lot. Sometimes I don’t. Since I’m embracing on this new project, I’ll be writing more.
One more thing. My usual style and color palette is pretty bright and energetic. I’m not all that sure that is appropriate for the subject matter. What do you think?
Inner Harbor Navigation Channel. That’s its formal name. Around here we call it The Industrial Canal. It is lined by a levee. Or, more accurately, a series of levees. This structure sort of site in front of one. One of the very levees that broke so badly during Hurricane Katrina and destroyed the Lower 9th Ward. It’s still pretty much destroyed.
This place was a grain elevator — I think — that was working along the upper end of the canal, closer to Lake Ponchartrain. I’m not sure if it was abandoned before the storm, but it is now. I sort of discovered it while I was wandering about after photographing a second line parade. Remember… I “discover” stuff about a decade after everybody else is well aware of it. The best thing about this place is that it is wide open. No locked gates. No barbed wire fences. People drive down to the docks and fish from it. They seem to catch a lot. I’m not sure I’d eat what they catch. The water is full of oil and benzine, and chemicals.
A little change.
In a few months. A little over two months to be exact, we will be heading into hurricane season. Yeah. Another one. It is what it is. If you live in the Gulf Coast you accept it, prepare for it and say a lot of prayers. 29 August marks a decade since so many people’s lives were uprooted and changed forever.
I have a whole host of projects to work on, but I’m starting one more. Call it, “New Orleans Ten Years Later.” That’s a good working title. Yes. I’m going to write a little more. And, I’m going to focus on the neighborhoods that were most deeply hurt. I can tell you this, just from my wandering around, things are getting better. Buildings that were flood ravaged and destroyed are being repurposed. It may have taken eight or nine years, but stuff is happening. Will we ever be whole again? I can’t say. Can we be better? Probably. Lots of problems within the city. I’ll just on those too.
Rain is falling pretty hard as I write. Not to worry. It’s only March.
If you didn’t take a picture, you weren’t there. That’s what they say. Today. I guess that means that I’m always there. Every time. Every place. Just a few remaining scenes from the second line. And, some of the people who watch them. Or, who participate in some way.
Second lines. They are a neighborhood thing. They are for everybody. Even though the parade is led by some specific group, anybody who wants to join in, can. That’s the whole point of the name, second line. The second line is everybody who wants to participate. Anybody at all. Once, I said to another photographer that I was just taking pictures. He told me that there was no “just” about it. I walked with the parade. I work from just in front, sometimes in the middle, sometimes from the edges. I’m no longer a bystander. I’m part of the parade.
You never know. Yesterday, when this picture was made, the temperature at parade time was in the low 80s. It was hot. It was humid. Rain was starting to fall. It appeared that summer arrived and skipped right over most of spring. So, those of us involved in the second line sort of felt like we were playing by summer rules. Umbrellas. Water. Big hats.
I suppose it didn’t help that there is major construction — streetcar tracks are being laid to replace the ones torn up in the early 1960s — on Rampart. So, most of the paraders didn’t know exactly where it was going to start. So we milled around. First we started in one direction. Then, another direction. Finally, it was sorted out. That added to the general misery of the early warmth. This young guy figured out a solution. He sipped on his Ozark water. From Texas.
Today. Oh, the temperature is in the mid-60s with a coolish breeze. Big clouds.