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Hot 8 fights for the Big Easy

January 21, 2007|Jason Berry | JASON BERRY, a visiting professor of creative writing at Tulane University, is the author, most recently, of the novel "Last of the Red Hot Poppas."

THE New Orleans Saints football team, which plays in Chicago today against the Bears, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl, has been a rare force of unity in a city nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

For those of us who love New Orleans as a life force, the dead neighborhoods, surging crime and passivity of Mayor C. Ray Nagin cut deep. We wonder if the city can be saved.

We may have a genuine shot at redemption if an unlikely coalition of activists and artists develops an agenda. The first step was a Jan. 11 protest march and rally by an estimated 5,000 people at City Hall. It took the drama of the city's survival to a new level.

The galvanizing issue was the killings of nine people in the first eight days of the year. A protest of this size has not occurred in New Orleans since the 1960s' civil rights era. Equally remarkable was that the crowd cut across racial and class lines, also a sight not seen since the '60s. Downtown office workers joining a march is as rare as snow in New Orleans.

The mostly white crowd cheered the arrival of African Americans marching from the central city with signs reading "Silence is violence," a reference to black fears of giving cops information about murders, lest witnesses be killed in retaliation.

It was remarkable to see chaperoned girls from tony private schools cheer the Rev. John Raphael, a central city preacher who thundered, "A city that would not be drowned in the waters of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens!"

Blacks, who still are a slender majority in a city that has lost half its pre-hurricane population of 455,000, make up about a fourth of the crowd.

The leaders of the protest were musicians and cultural activists outraged by the killings of filmmaker Helen Hill, 35, and Dinerral Shavers, 25, snare drummer for the Hot 8 brass band.

Nagin, the protest's chief target, stood stone-faced behind a dais as people chanted, "Music in the schools!" -- a reference both to Shavers' role as a high school band director and to cultural advocates' long-standing pleas for a school band program to reduce violence and counter a gang culture.

"Get on your job!" Hot 8 trombonist Glen David Andrews thundered at Nagin, to bursting applause.

The Hot 8's home base is the Sound Cafe, a club in Bywater, a downtown neighborhood and the epicenter of the city's cultural and political activism. Owner Baty Landis, who teaches in the music department at Tulane University, comes from a prominent Uptown family.

Hill's death energized the independent film community. Crews led by Tim Watson of Ariel Montage, an editing studio, filmed the march and speeches, posting edited segments on YouTube.com to publicize the city's struggle against crime.

"Artists are the blood and guts of culture," Jacqueline Bishop, a noted New Orleans painter, said in a National Public Radio commentary. "The common mission for each community rally reads: It is time for our elected officials to face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods."

Soon after Katrina, with most people displaced, Nagin turned to the Urban Land Institute, a Washington think tank, for help in rebuilding the city. As if gods from Olympus, architects and planners descended on the few functioning hotels for meetings that augured a Paris-sur-le-Mississippi. Plans called for a "smaller urban footprint" -- writing off the worst-flooded areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

A mantra hummed in the dry neighborhoods, Uptown and the Garden District: "Now we can get it right" -- a city wiped clean of the underclass, smaller, whiter, more prosperous. Nagin breezily touted a "market-driven" recovery, telling neighborhood groups to submit their plans to City Hall. He assumed that poor folks stuck in other cities with FEMA rental vouchers would not return.

In his reelection campaign last year, Nagin backed off the "smaller footprint." Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson helped bus in displaced poor people to keep a black man in City Hall. Nagin, meanwhile, charmed conservative whites, who saw him as no friend of the underclass.

Stranger coalitions have succeeded, but as the recovery failed to gain momentum, addicts and thugs straggled back into New Orleans. National Guardsmen help patrol the streets, but the core problem is the lack of programs for poor youngsters and an understaffed, badly led and underfunded New Orleans Police Department.

The sea of signs denouncing Nagin, and the cries of people against him at the Jan. 11 rally, echoed themes in the Neighborhood Story Project, a series of books by residents in poor areas, published with help from scholar-activists. The books convey a view of the city from the bottom, with a message that poor folks like their neighborhoods, hate crime and fear police. "Lafitte [project] is the neighborhood I grew up in," wrote Ashley Nelson, now 19 and a community college student, in her coming-of-age account, "The Combination." "It's the place where I went through a lot of different struggles in both my family and the larger community, but it's also where I learned about caring."

With cultural activists working on a manifesto, the movement that was born Jan. 11 seems sure to gain momentum. If they succeed, New Orleans stands a chance of reclaiming its soul.

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