On this block, some traditions refuse to die

August 29, 2015

In a neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, some residents are determined to carry on its musical heritage

Upstairs in the house at 1907 Jourdan Ave., it’s as if the levee never burst. Kids are rolling through jazz standards on saxophone, trumpet and trombone, sneakers tapping. They sway some and, on a sweet note, their eyelids fall heavy.

 

Outside, though, the music floats into emptiness. The house stands alone as darkness falls on vacant lots with waist-high weeds, a toppled basketball hoop, a front walk that leads nowhere. Even the children playing jazz are outsiders, driven here by parents who live somewhere else.

Ten years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward is still largely lost. While the rest of New Orleans has regained about 90 percent of its pre-Katrina population, only about a third of properties in the Lower Ninth have been repopulated — some by newcomers unfamiliar with the traditions of the storied neighborhood that gave birth to members of some of the city’s premier brass bands.

“It’s kind of drab now,” said Velma Collins, 73, a retired federal worker who remembers a lively place full of music, working families, shared meals and open doors. “You just don’t have anything to do anymore.”

 

Velma Collins, 73, looks out her door. Her original house was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, but she decided to rebuild and live on the same property.

A tangle of factors explains the slow recovery: Battered by a catastrophic surge of water when the levee burst, the Lower Ninth suffered more severe damage than other parts of town. City officials struggled to restore basic services, and residents were forced to wait more than a year to return. Even then, many low-income residents found that the federal program created to help homeowners would provide them enough to relocate but far too little to rebuild.

Before Katrina, 17 families lived on the block bounded by Jourdan Avenue to the west, Johnson Street to the north, Deslonde Street to the east and Prieur Street to the south. The block lies beside the levee, and its geography is dominated by it.

Basically a hill topped by a concrete wall, the levee is supposed to protect the area from a shipping channel known as the Industrial Canal. When the levee burst on Aug. 29, 2005, all 17 homes were swept from their foundations.

Since then, eight homes have been rebuilt. Newcomers have moved into four. And of the original 17 families, four have come back home.

There’s Davis, an avid gardener who complains that flowers will no longer grow in the poisoned soil. She no longer knows her neighbors; her niece and her children have moved to Texas.

There’s David Hale, a seaman, and Don Cunningham, who bought a house across the river in Gretna, but ultimately decided to return to the Lower Ninth.

And there’s the Allen family, whose son, Shamarr, is an acclaimed trumpet player. Shamarr Allen, 34, grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, learned to play music here and is trying to rekindle the rich traditions that nourished his career.

Once a week, Allen returns to his parents’ rebuilt home at 1907 Jourdan and holds free music lessons on the second floor. This night, he is coaxing a solo from a timid 10-year-old with a buoyant enthusiasm.

Come on, Allen tells the boy: “You’ve been waiting for this moment your whole life!”

In a narrow sense, a neighborhood is just a collection of houses. But the old Lower Ninth registered as more than that. It was a place of long-standing personal connections and traditions, and it played a role in the distinctive culture of New Orleans.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area’s ability to nurture musicians. At least one bona fide legend was living in the Ninth when Katrina struck: Fats Domino, the now-elderly pianist who recorded “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Blueberry Hill.”

But the Ninth’s musical heritage was far richer, studded with local heroes. Kermit Ruffins and Keith “Wolf” Anderson, neighbors to the Allens, developed solo careers after stints with the renowned Rebirth Brass Band, a New Orleans institution founded in 1983. Bennie Pete, founder of the Hot 8 Brass Band, lived in the Upper Ninth, while the band’s drummer, Dinerral Shavers, came from the Lower Ninth.

Shamarr Allen has played with Harry Connick Jr. and Willie Nelson.

This density of celebrated musicians wasn’t happenstance. The place cultivated musicians, little kids playing horns and drums, the community celebrating its high school band, each generation of musicians passing their experience onto the next.

As a child, Allen said he would sit on the front porch or up on the levee for hours practicing new songs, and Ruffins or Anderson would come by, offering pointers.

“It was all hours of the night, man,” Allen recalled, “and nobody ever said, ‘That’s too loud.’ ”

Among outsiders who watched on television as Katrina struck and the Allens’ desperate neighbors were plucked from rooftops, the Lower Ninth looked like a poor and lawless place, a place from which everyone was frantically trying to escape.

 

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