As a New Orleans musician, when I think back on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ten years later, I can vividly recall the bewildering sensation of sailing without a compass, living from day to day, as I was relocated nine times and passed through all the stages of grief for myself, my loved ones and my city.
Things began to improve when I finally landed a significant gig that allowed me to move back to my battered and still-suffering city and resume my existence here. Here are some insights into what is happening on the current scene in the ever-evolving Crescent City, no longer the Big Easy.
The cost of living is rising faster than median incomes. Rents are up over 50 percent from previous times, and housing is at a premium. The Airbnb folks have been encroaching steadily into formerly less-desirable neighborhoods, and luring the landowners into deals that would greatly increase their take and consequently displace the current tenants – mostly artists who are in need of affordable housing and a space to create their work. This practice is breaking down our neighborhoods and sense of community. Another daily challenge for locals is the increasingly hazardous conditions of the streets due to construction and renovations, which seem to be suddenly happening everywhere and on a 24/7 schedule. Some of the potholes, particularly in heavily trafficked parts of town, are the size of small craters and appear without warning. Trips that formerly took a few minutes now take three times as long, and there is a disturbing battle of cars versus bicycles that has resulted in several fatalities. And this summer was brutally hot and humid, intense and long. The locals are “humid beings” indeed.
On a more positive note, there is much work to be found in all areas of the tourism industry. So if you want to do convention gigs, special events or high-end hotel jobs, this is the time for you. Of course, competition is also pretty fierce for this work, and there is an influx of new blood and first-time residents who are capable and focused on the creation of whatever New Orleans will become in its next incarnation. Several of our most beautiful historic theatres have been repaired and reopened, most recently the Orpheum Theatre (one of my favorites), which is the home of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. The Joy Theatre is another venue that has excellent acoustics and a gorgeous Art Deco-inspired interior. Several new clubs have opened on Frenchmen Street and beyond, with varying degrees of success and unknown staying power. And the music festivals continue to break all past attendance records. But I wonder why the promoters don’t give the locals more of a break. For instance, in the past JazzFest had a day that featured reduced admission for local residents. Now the cost is really up, and there are no discounts for anyone.
Most of the musicians and groups who I know have devised a viable formula that seems to be successful: tour for about half the year, play steady gigs locally, record and market their CDs, and supplement this with teaching gigs or part-time work in the evolving film industry. Some have had success in getting their music included into the soundtracks for feature films, or as theme music (the HBO project “Treme” helped several artists and continues to pay residuals). Any way you see it, life has become more hustle and less downtime.
Change is inevitable, and I love to see real progress, especially when it nurtures the community and residents and makes improvements on the status quo. What troubles me is the apparent and sometimes blatant disregard for our greatest resource in New Orleans: its precious, inimitable and uniquely resilient people and their many natural talents, gifts and joie de vivre. They are the heartbeat of “the city that care forgot”…and we should never forget to care about them. They are the resources most worthy of preservation, and possibly the most impossible to reclaim, if lost.
Nanette Ledet has written many articles for Allegro about her life as a musician in New Orleans. She directs and performs in Rhythmic Tapestries, a multidisciplinary performance project. She is also a teaching artist for Louisiana Wolftrap through Young Audiences and the New Orleans Ballet Association.