What’s with this Travel & Leisure readers poll slapping yet another label on the residents of the Crescent City? Now we’re “the strangest.” Really!? The strangest? That’s just how I want to raise my kids and have them self-identify their home and rearing. ”Don’t feel bad about not being like all the other 21st century American children, we’re just stranger than everyone else.” Um, no. I’ll accept most distinctive, most resilient, and / or most fun to be around, but I for one veto strange, at least insofar as defined by most.
New Orleanians possess a certain affinity for their street names and the unspoken connotations that go along with them. As quickly as one expresses what part of town he resides, next comes the street name, and lastly the block. Though neighborhoods may vary incredibly block by block, it’s the demarcation of what part of town any given street might run that really determines what a street is called – or what I’m getting at – might have been called. For example, I live on South Liberty, but did you know in fact by today’s street map there is no North Liberty? And why? Not sure really, but I can tell you presently that North Liberty is Treme Street, and given the HBO media machine it is highly doubtful Treme Street will ever return to North Liberty Street. Conversely, I wouldn’t expect Treme to anytime soon become North Treme and as such my street South Treme.
Watching from the sidelines these last few weeks as New Orleanians applaud or boo proposed demolitions throughout the Uptown area, I am once again left scratching my head from what seems to be a certain sense of inconsistency. Here’s why.
This week, I catch up with an old pal. Emily Davis and I have known each other for many years, and I wanted to share with the readers of UptownMessenger.com and the world one of my favorite New Orleanians and soapmaker extraordinaire, a local lady my daughters rightly and simply call “Ms. Emily.”
My ears rang for 3 days the first time I saw Soundgarden and, despite the pain and hearing loss, the experience (to use the vernacular) was sweet. They opened for Guns N’ Roses in Houston on the second leg of Guns’ Use Your Illusion Tour; the venue where it was held, The Summit, is strangely enough now a church. The second night of a two-night stand but also a Friday night, three of my closest friends and I drove over from Beaumont to see the show. That Friday morning the select few in our class that had actually had the opportunity to see this double bill the evening before (read: Thursday) recounted their experience. And we listened in awe to their stories, furthering our already eager anticipation. We couldn’t wait to see Guns N’ Roses; not one of us had ever really heard of Soundgarden. The evening before Axl had said this. And Slash had done that. There were other visual spectacles on par with an evening on Bourbon during Mardi Gras. Nonetheless my 17-year-old self had no idea I was about to become a Soundgarden fan. That and my more-or-less girlfriend around that time, Leigh Anne, was into them. After all, most romances generally produce some level of musical compatibility, do they not?
Two weeks ago I wrote a piece contrasting the Hornets “I’m In” campaign to the city’s “Fight the Blight” with mixed responses. And that’s to be expected. Along with this, recently the city facilitated yet another round of tax sales for delinquent property owners in Orleans Parish, and some of these properties are, yes, blighted. By city ordinance, a successful bidder on a tax year for a property is entitled to a certain percentage of ownership of that tax year for that property. Depending on the outcome and competitiveness of the bidding process some times that ownership is 100% and other times as little as 1%. It gets more layered, so stay with me. On paper, the goal of the tax sale is to get these properties righted on their parish debt and back into commerce, whether through a prescriptive period of delinquency and subsequent sale or the offender’s righting of their own tax debt themselves. If the property is not deemed blighted the prescriptive period is 3 years, and if it is blighted it’s cut in half to 18 months. This all seems relatively simple and plainly spelled out, right? It is, kinda.
It’s a Sunday morning in New Orleans, and for the next few hours a ritual will unfold. Light traffic whispers through the streets as if trying not to wake anyone. Sunlight warms the dew on last night’s Dixie cups strewn on a nearby sidewalk. And corner newspaper purveyors appear like a sort of urban legend. For but a few scant hours and during these hours only, the South’s oldest and New Orleans’ only newspaper, The Times-Picayune, will soon be personally handed off one by one. And why? I have no idea.
Note: Immediately below was composed before the recent Fight the Blight day this past Saturday. Additional thoughts follow.
Recently in a bid to generate enthusiasm for keeping the Hornets in New Orleans, a campaign was launched with billboards, TV spots, and print ads featuring everyone from the governor, to the mayor to Fleurty Girl all pledging their allegiance to our city’s basketball franchise. “I’m in!” they all repeated over and over again. “Are you in?” ”I’m in.” “Oh, I’m definitely in.” “You know I’m in.” On and on. To which I say “Great! I love it when people are in!” I’ve always said I’m a fan of fans. God bless the ones who make it all possible for whatever; without fans every successful franchise athletically or otherwise would be nowhere. Except, when I walk my neighborhood I feel like the being “in”-ness stops when the director says “cut.” Why? Have you seen the condition of some of our more visible parks? Especially the basketball courts? I do not profess to be expert of the city’s parks nor of the heirarchy that presumably should be keeping them in check. But my stomach turns just enough when I think of this campaign, and then visit my neighborhood park: Samuel Square.
The biggest movement in food these days is quite simply the movement of food. Cuisine mobility. Culinaria transportica. The anti drive thru. While some American cities have been experiencing a food truck culture for some time, the stride is just now hitting here in New Orleans. Case in point: the first annual Street Fare Derby coming up this Saturday, September 24th. And as this phenomenon is slowly becoming a mainstay to the American landscape I am reminded of another from yesteryear: the trucker.
Perched in an unassuming French Market building just steps from the Mississippi River each Tuesday evening the radio personalities known as Jivin’ Gene and his right hand man Neil spin The ’50s Rhythm & Blues Show from WWOZ studios, doing so with a flare and reverence for an era of music long forgotten in many corners. And when one listens to one of their sets, invariably one wonders “Where are they getting these cuts from?” At times the show is packed with local nostalgia but certainly songs that maybe never even came close to the top 40. And that’s a good thing.
There are a handful of days in your life that seem to leave you forever changed. When you graduate. Get married. Have a kid (or four). And of course - your first concert. Remember yours? I remember mine: Night Ranger! On their “Midnight Madness” tour opening for an Ozzy-less Black Sabbath at the Civic Center in Beaumont, Texas. It’s a lot to process, I know. I was 9 years old and in 4th grade, and we didn’t get to stay for Black Sabbath. Klint Rhodes’ parents took Klint and me, but earlier in the day there was a record – as in LP – signing at the neighbgorhood record store Sound Castle. We missed getting our LPs signed but caught a glimpse of Night Ranger up close. That night at the show it was, well, amazing. They played all the songs a 9-year-old me would want to hear. There was even a sea of lighters lit up during “Sister Christian.” During which Clint’s dad leaned back and asked the guy behind us “Son, what’s with all the lighters?” Good stuff. And guess what? Night Ranger are still doing it! This Saturday they’re opening for Journey and Foreigner at the New Orleans arena. And it’s even almost the same line-up. In fact if you look at their website you would swear that Will Farrell were in the band, but it’s drummer Kelly Keagy. Alas, no cowbell.
Sad but true: consistently blight attracts campaign signs. Why? Free and unregulated use of space. That’s why. If a property owner doesn’t care enough about the blight, then they surely won’t care if a campaign sign (or six!) get placed on it, right? Yuck. That’s wrong and disgusting. Aren’t our elected officials supposed to give a damn about blight!? Not adorn it to their own ends. Doesn’t this speak volumes about who we are electing, voting for, and expecting to enforce law? Or is The City that Care Forgot ultimately and only that? I’d like to think not. I’m guessing you’d like to think not also. I’d like to believe there’s some level of enforcement out there that punishes the offending. What about the Alliance for Good Government? Perhaps they only endorse candidates.
Graffiti. Street art. Tags. New Orleans has a graffiti culture, a well-documented and healthy one at that — which should come to the surprise of exactly no one with our moniker of ”The City That Care Forgot.” Webster’s says use of the word graffiti came into play in the early 60s and is Italian in origin. Um, okay, I can see that. Mostly we may define graffiti as “inscriptions, slogans, drawings, etc. scratched, scribbled, or drawn, often crudely, on a wall or other public surface.” But is it that easy? Isn’t calling something graffiti today a little like reclassifying a behavior exhibited from the dawn of time? Cave drawings. Wall art. Images telling us a story. Legally, illegally, or otherwise.
New Orleanians possess a presence that in my experience remains unparalleled, and we know our neighbors no matter what. By this I mean we all participate in the characterization of the city, and we do so seemingly effortlessly. Whether you’re John Goodman, John Georges, or John Fitzgerald. You live here. We know who you are and to a degree we don’t care. This remains one of the reasons the celebrity set can be drawn to the Crescent City. Anonymity in the light of day. We don’t care if you throw Super Bowl touchdown passes, win Grammys, or sautee garlic. It’s all the same, and you put your pants on one leg at a time like everybody else.
For years in my early days of slinging coffee at PJs on Maple I used to wait on this super nice guy. He came in generally in the late afternoon / early evenings and always ordered a cappucino. He was tall and real lean, salt and pepper hair usually kept under a beret or similar chapeau, and always a smile and a greeting. But I didn’t know his name or what he did. And it went on like this literally for years. One day, a co-worker said to me “You know who that is, right?” I didn’t. It didn’t matter really. “Charles Neville,” he said. “Oh. (pause) Oh! (pause) Oh, okay. Well,” I thought, “he’s a cool guy.” And good for him. He’s Charles Neville without being “Charles Neville.”
Years later after Katrina I moved to a new neighborhood, and I met another noteworthy saxophonist in my new neighbor, though like Charles, at the time I had no idea who he was or what he did. Initially Steve and I met while my wife and I began renovating the house next door. He and his wife Sharon were just as welcoming and warm as could be. And the more we got to know them, their presence became so ordinary and familiar, you could almost take it for granted. I knew Steve was a saxophonist, but I didn’t know much more than that. At home sporting a Monster Magnet tee or overalls or both and usually in Crocs, Steve comes across fairly unassuming, despite any distinctive eyeware or his wildish white mane a la Doc Brown.
So I began to wonder. I know those in his industry know Steve, but do his neighbors, neighborhood, and city on the whole? Maybe. Maybe not. But here’s a little insight into “the man in the purple house” next to me, a man my girls know simply as “Mr. Steve.”
It’s no secret. As the summer creeps to a close in the Crescent City, your favorite place to sidle up for a meal may well be closed for a substantial amount of time. Like weeks. Like from now til after Labor Day. Like a sign is posted on the door along the lines of we-know-you’re-hungry-but-try-our-friends-around-the-corner. Ugh. Really? Everyone needs a vacation though, right? And historically the remaining summer weeks can be so quiet. ”How quiet?” you ask. So quiet it’s less expensive for the establishment to close than to stay open. Business sense. But that was the old school, pre-K, if you will. There’s a whole new school that may or may not subscribe to the wisdom of the ages. But then the population of the city isn’t today what it has always been.
Slowly, craft beer has carved out a noticeable niche in an industry once dominated by “big box” beer: the Bud, Miller and Coors that for the longest time ran the beer game. Then came a shift. Like all industries, there’s an evolution that must take place, a course that is followed whereby ideas are born, tried, and either die away or begin to thrive. It’s the evolution of business. Successful, stable businesses really only remain successful and stable for so long, until competition forces their improvement or sounds their death knell. (OK, maybe it isn’t that dramatic.)
So it went with beer. Locally, over 20 years ago Abita Brewing tested the waters of craft, and look where they are today. Other communities around the country have similar stories. Today, craft is just hitting its stride, with new breweries popping up in an unprecedented fashion. From a beer lover’s point of view, it’s nothing short of amazing. Locally, in the last few years we’ve seen the rise of Lazy Magnolia, Heiner Brau, NOLA, Bayou Teche, and Covington brews. The latest is Tin Roof. Maybe you’ve heard of it. And if you haven’t, now you will.
You know when you’re at a party and someone is telling a story, and you think to yourself, “That can’t be real. I mean, really, what they’re saying just can’t be true. Fiction. Fiction, I tell you. It’s gotta be fiction.” At a recent gathering I was half listening to a story about City Hall and “bumping” and these same thoughts clouded my head. Based purely upon seniority, city workers can take someone else’s job when the senior party’s present position becomes eliminated. OMG and LOL, what a funny story! That’s a good one! Hooo, you had me. I mean, you got me. Ahhhhhh. (Wipe a tear from eye). Only it’s true. (Pause). Wait. What? It’s true!? WTF? Really!? Though it reads like something out of Rocky & Bullwinkle, the bump is on the real.