Jean-Paul Villere: How I spent my summer vacation

As summer’s sizzle dissipates over the coming weeks, the back-to-school throngs may muse on their most recent season away from academia, and some may even have it as their premiere assignment upon recommencement.  While I don’t really recall in my younger years a time when this was asked of my fertile student mind, my 42-year-old memory ain’t what she used to be.  So color me pseudo-nostalgically amused when my oldest had this very task put to her and she wrote about our family train trip to Chicago.  Which I totally dug too.  Except, and in honest reflection, my real takeaway for summer 2016?  Pecking away, hours over days and largely singlehandedly, at an overwhelmingly under-maintained vacant corner lot in my neighborhood. Bottom line: I snapped.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I got all Network on this behemoth of overgrowth, harboring all the years of refuse, beer bottles, sodded styrofoam, spent syringes, and a seemingly endless collection of tossed tires and beyond repair furniture.  And oh the mattresses!  Oozing over sidewalks and lushly spilling into the streets.  One pauses to wonder albeit without gravity, “Isn’t the city going to do something about this?”  Then one recalls “No, this is New Orleans, where a month without a boil water advisory is like a gold star on your homework. Trash is our brand, sadly.”  And clearly the delinquent but titled property owner was not actively in the picture.  So, what to do?  Nothing?  I could no longer do nothing.  So I started. I rolled up early one May morning armed with hydration, sunscreen, a smattering of yard tools and volunteer garbage cans.  Weeds pulled, vines yanked, and repetitive flat shovel scrape and drag across the asphalt surface.  Looks aplenty from passersby, some trading morning pleasantries, most wondering “What that crazy white boy doing.”  The first day’s dent could hardly be described as such.  The results akin to one of those visual games on a kids paper restaurant menu where discerning the subtleties amounts to two burgers differentiated by one having a sesame seed bun and cheese and the other not.  They’re both still burgers, and I’d only just started undressing it. Every five to seven days or so I’d arise before sunup, cup of stovetop coffee down the gullet, and alit into dawn’s darkness wary of the leaching rays of the oncoming day.  Most days the neighborhood crackheads would make random if fleeting conversation with me, often along the lines of subtle discouragement but usually strung together indecipherable ramblings.  I developed a pleasant repartee with the mail carrier, sharing my goal of clearing the sidewalk for her by end of August.  Both of us were unsure of just how possible that might be, given the solo resource, myself.  Today is August 24th, so take note trusty timekeepers: the month ain’t over yet.

Jean-Paul Villere: Now and then — one Katrina returnee’s retrospective

The big exhale of 10 years has arrived as New Orleanians near and far reflect on the 2005 storm season that changed us all.  Personally, my experiences before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina pale in comparison to many others.  My journey to now may best be summed up from the wisdom of my stepfather who told me simply to “ride the horse in the direction it’s going.”  Not an easy thing to do when the unknown awaited, especially in the immediate aftermath of the devastatingly unexpected. Peculiar moments as I navigated what life had thrown in my general direction: wearing someone else’s clothes donated to me and my family, driving a spare car my stepfather happened to have, working my old job in the city I lived in years beforehand.  Effectively I was recast in someone else’s life, one that unsurprisingly didn’t quite fit. Those weeks after Katrina, once my wife and I elected to return to our sunken city we anticipated the challenging path that awaited, but who could have predicted the New Orleans we know now?  I submit to you: no one.  Below are 10 observations, mindful of this journey:

10) Waterlines remain.  You can always replace roofs and refrigerators, but it’s a world of difference when seeking to rekindle a neighborhood or revive one’s livelihood.  We are still recovering, and there are still ample reminders of crested water in embedded lines the city over. We should use an active voice when we discuss recovery and 10 years gone.  We must possess the present and convey the work is far from over. 9) Fatigue is real.  In short, one tires.  And that’s okay.  Or as my father-in-law is also known to espouse: all you can do is all you can do.

Jean-Paul Villere: Deceptive density — Ain’t dere no more

In 2002 local musical impresarios Benny Grunch and the Bunch released a song entitled “Ain’t Dere No More.”  In it the group collectively bemoan, as only the natives may, the loss of landmarks around the New Orleans metro area.  It played in my head over these last few days as I watched yet more apparently salvageable dwellings, in this case double shotguns, meet their untimely demise in the 2400 block of Cadiz.  What was more upsetting to me was that their demolition was supposedly not going to happen, and the structures were to be saved by their new owner Arnold Kirschman.  Even be occupied by him.  Except guess what?  They gone. Kirschman revealed a few short weeks ago the doubles would be replaced.  And not with similar structures, but a greater-density new build.  So either Kirschman, no stranger to real-estate renovation or development (this ain’t his first rodeo, folks), either innocently did not do enough due diligence on the front end to accurately assess the condition of the shotguns, or simply had no intention of ever saving them.  Feel free to decide which.  For the record, the demolition permit for the dwellings was filed February 24th, 2015, many weeks before he shared this update with the neighborhood. The old bait and switch breathes long and deep in the Big Easy.  Right hand, left hand, what does it matter, right?  Once upon a time I resided in the Riverbend at 825 Dublin, a single shotgun.  I loved that house, I loved the block, I loved everything about the area — ’til I outgrew it, that is.  Twelve hundred square feet for a growing family of four gets small quick, trust me. Two blocks down from our home, also on Dublin and more or less directly behind Camellia Grill, there once stood a comparable single shotgun right in the middle of a huge 122-by-120 lot. The shotgun sat there for years, unoccupied, in disrepair.  Each evening as I walked past it to sit on the levee and watch the sun go down I often mused what might happen to that little dusty gem.  Before you know it, a developer purchased the house and land.  Afterward the developer presented a not-so-aggressive plan to demo the structure and build a modest modern structure to be called Dublin Lofts.  The demolition permit was issued, the home razed, and the developer suddenly had an idea.  Lo and behold, a different set of plans emerged!  These required variances of setback and height.  Subtle, right? Dublin Lofts quickly spiraled into an abyss of protest over deceit being the key to unlocking the never-to-be-developed development.  Yours truly even spoke before the BZA, even partially disrobing on camera to reveal a homemade t-shirt that read ‘Preserve My Levee View.’  These hearings used to air on cable access, I presume they still do, so yes, in every way I was trying to get my and my rallied neighbors’ point across.  Ultimately the developer withdrew their plans, Dublin Lofts never happened, and today at 621 Dublin there sits a new construction building more in scope with the area in a hospice called Passages.

Jean-Paul Villere: Confessions of a Sleater-Kinney devotee

It all happened so innocently, my love for riotgrrl queens Corin Tucker, Janet Weiss, and Carrie Brownstein, collectively and arguably better known as Sleater-Kinney.  While living in Austin in the late 90s, I wanted to attend an in-store performance at Waterloo Records by this well-regarded female rock trio which at the time I had never heard of.  Unable to make the event I sprung for a copy of their third studio album, Dig Me Out, and lost my mind.  Just lost it.  What was this sound?  Who were these ladies?  The hungry, urgent beats, the sharp, frenetic guitar work, and the layered, waling vocals.  And the lyrics?  Each song was a visual field infused by carefully chosen wording arcing in harmony.  I was hooked, taken, even smitten, and I wanted more. Despite acquiring their catalogue over time and immersing myself in their sound on the regular, it would be years before I would be able to see Sleater-Kinney (often known as S-K to their masses) perform live.  In 2003 Pearl Jam toured in support of their album Yield and played the UNO Lakefront Arena; Sleater-Kinney opened, and I went.  Historically opening acts get brushed aside, plus their sets can be so short and rushed.  True to form S-K played a nice batch of their material but as quickly as they’d started it ended and bingo, bango, bongo on came Eddie Vedder et al.  And I like Pearl Jam enough, but not as much, so I called it a night just a few songs into their set.  That’s the kind of Sleater-Kinney fan I am when they open: I walk out on the headliner. In 2005 at the insistence of Hurricane Katrina having found myself again residing albeit temporarily in Austin, I inexplicably worked The Austin City Limits Music Fest which I was excited to learn S-K was to play.  Only they didn’t.  For whatever reason the Kaiser Chiefs played their slot instead.  And shortly after that Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus, a seemingly indefinite one.  Frankly, I never thought they’d re-form.  And if they did, well, would it be the same line-up?  Would the vitality remain?  I felt like my fandom would go on under-realized with but one live show having been attended.  A short time later in 2006 while rebuilding in New Orleans, Corin played sans Janet or Carrie at Tipitina’s alongside a host of other rock talent for the benefit of Musicians Bringing Musicians Home.  I had no money so I stood outside Tip’s and listened to her perform.  While still getting my bearings as a returnee, even hearing her from the sidewalk was a veritable highlight for me that year. Years go by.  I still keep listening to my S-K records.  At some point I sadly miss Carrie play guitar with the ensemble Wild Flag at One-Eyed Jacks.  Then Portlandia happens.  The world falls in love with Fred Armisen all over again while simultaneously discovers Carrie as his bonafide better half.  Some of the episodes feature Corin, or Corin’s husband Lance Bangs, or other rock icons in Aimee Mann or Sarah McLachlan.  But Carrie’s not playing guitar.  She’s funny, the theme song is, yes, hypnotic, but all the while those that knew Carrie well before this point were left to wonder: With this newfound success on the small screen, would she ever windmill again? Without fanfare and known to few, S-K reunite to record in 2014, and boom!

Jean-Paul Villere: What if Freret and Napoleon met in a roundabout?

For more months than I care to count, and for surely as many more to come, I have been watching and experiencing firsthand the utter madness that is the ongoing construction along Napoleon Avenue.  All for the sake of what we all cross our fingers will be improved drainage.  Hold your breath, boss!  Residing where I do half a block off of the thoroughfare in the middle of the stretch just two short blocks to Freret Street, the impact has been a daily reminder to take nothing for granted and be ready for anything.  Some weeks I can cross Napoleon at my street, most I can’t.  Some days I do a U-turn at Loyola, others it’s like a whimsical journey into the unknown peppered with hungry potholes and vaporous boundaries.  But with all these catch as catch U-turns, that’s when it hit me: why isn’t the Freret intersection a rotary anyway? “Time is a flat circle,” espoused New Orleans’ eternal crush Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle in True Detective, penned by Nic Pizzolatto.  The quote continues “Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”  And so let it be while navigating public streets I say!  Who doesn’t enjoy Lee Circle?  Rephrase: who doesn’t enjoy driving Lee Circle?  And that crazy elevated traffic circle where Airline Highway meets Causeway too.  Can you imagine what terrible, awful, no good vehicular carbuncles these two throughways would be like if they were stoplights proper?  True, Lee Circle has some smallish stoplight action, but mostly in my estimation to integrate the streetcar, yes?  And why isn’t more of our region designed like this?  Is traffic design a sort of rocket science I’m unaware of?  Should we blindly disassemble and reassemble as things were because, well, it was like that when we got there? Freret has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years.  Street traffic has just amplified.  And that’s what we have by today’s measure in the now.  Freret isn’t maxed out, nor is it even remotely finished developing.  In its ordinary use Napoleon provides a four-lane artery that more often resembles a speedway than residential corridor.  And mostly because everyone floors it to catch the light at Freret.  American drivers can be so impatient which bleeds into the unsafe.  I’m a driver too, but I also bike and walk a lot, and often with my brood, so if the average Napoleon Avenue driver never returns, I’m honestly super OK with that.  But I know they will.  Because they are you and me.  So let’s change our behavior.  Rather, just as the street construction has detoured our habits, let’s let a good design do the rest. A roundabout at Freret and Napoleon would require drivers to slow or stop into a one-way turn with no gunning it for green, and it would keep the traffic queue steadily moving.  Plus if designed without actual stoplights, it wouldn’t rely on electricity which for a city that often loses power during storm season, that’s a helpful feature, wouldn’t you say?  Lastly, public art or statue: let the focal point in the center of the circle be something celebratory and relevant.  Perhaps something embodying Dorothy Mae Taylor as she was mentioned recently as being overlooked in the light of potential street renamings.  Any addition wouldn’t change the intersection so much as improve it. According to Wikipedia, half of the world’s rotaries are located solely in France.  What gives, man?  New Orleans has more French heritage than any other American city, so why’d we leave a good design like this to languish?  I understand the automobile is relatively new in the history of our city, and maybe that’s why we are left with mostly, only stoplights.  We’ve let car culture dictate how our streets are designed, instead of the other way around.  At the end of the day, New Orleans boasts an unparalleled walkability that other like cities surely desire, so let’s enhance that.  Powers that be in City Hall: please read this, germinate on it, take credit for it and even name it after your great grandpappy, I don’t care.  This crazy construction is far from over and finishing it off with an idea like this is surely within the realms of implementation and doable.  Me, I want a safer city with traffic that makes more sense than not.  What about you?

Jean-Paul Villere: Is there Halloween after 40?

I’ll be honest.  When I think of Halloween these days at four decades in I get a little, well, meh.  For me the gusto goes primarily to my kids and their assorted notions.  “Nerd vampire” here, “moustachioed lumberjack” there, maybe a growling bat, maybe a smiley cowgirl.  Costuming druthers swirl into the ether, their ideas and pairings, until something likely unforeseen altogether comes to fruition.  The freedom of imagination and living in a town where almost anything goes.  Swoon.  And to be 12! Because when I was 12?  Man, I rocked it!  Growing up in the less-than-noteworthy burg of Beaumont, Texas, I truly savored the outlet Halloween graced us with annually.  OK, by New Orleans standards it was very tame or mundane, what have you.  And mischief was met in creative outlets that may or may not have included eggings and fireworks, but this was the 80s after all.  No scary Vine videos to loop into perpetuity.  No hashtagging afoot either.  Maybe a Polaroid or three and whispery remembrances scrawled on the back. Year after year at All Saints Episcopal — say it with me a la the Tappet brothers duet “our fair grade school” — the oft black-and-white robed, bespectacled and balding, lean-framed headmaster, Fr. Calcote, gave the same chapel service each October 31.  His voice echoed perfectly if not dryly off the stony walls the words, “All Hallow’s Eve,” while preparing without yet another communion.  But this was Halloween edition!  You see, we did chapel daily.  That’s right: d-a-i-l-y.  So. I mean, while each daily service sort of ran together, his voice recounting the religious basis for this haunted holiday was something — though at 40, the specifics are now fuzzy.

Jean-Paul Villere: Rocking October, Week 2 — The Muddy Line of Meta

In all likelihood your favorite rock band or artist got their wee start doing someone else’s material.  It remains the sort of natural path most musicians follow as they begin to hone their own sound.  Some artists do go forth and produce new and original works while others may wish to rely on other’s material still, hence the staying power of the cover band proper.  In the world of cover bands there happens to be a whole swath of styles, everything from the hardcore playing of all songs in any given single artist’s catalog to “wedding” bands who play very familiar material but from a spectrum of the well-known, like Steve Miller, the Rev. Al Green, and maybe some Hall & Oates or even Loverboy, for good measure.  The latter are the bands everyone secretly loves because they tap into the collective social psyche as most everyone may relate to much of the material, though few would ever claim true fan status. 

Finally, there’s what I’ve come to loosely define as the “meta” rock band. Meta, as you may know, can be defined as “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.”  There exists a fine line a cover band walks between being cover or meta, in my opinion.  Why?  Because cover is exactly that, but meta plays on a participant within the genre either going back to the good old days of when they sucked, perhaps playing a tune with a previous ensemble or just flat out paying homage to whomever.  

Maybe one of my favorite examples of meta goes back decades when Jimi Hendrix played Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band title track in his set while Paul and Ringo were in the attendance.  I mean, come on!  Hendrix, no stranger to a cover, transcended the moment and blurred the line here.  While I of course did not witness this, I was thankfully witness to a Butthole Surfer VooDooFest set when their time slot opposite of REM’s apparently caused them to feel a need to cover Athens’ darling’s arguably first hit “To the One I Love.”  As I recall, lead singer for the band Gibby Haynes said something to the effect of “We have to do this.”  Or maybe he apologized.  Or both.  And that’s art in a nutshell, isn’t it?  The artist has to do what they’re doing.  To be meta, to be cover, to be neither, or to straddle the line in between. Later this month when the Foo Fighters headline an evening of VooDooFest (some may wish to tag it #FooDooFest – you read it here first, folks!), those in attendance may be in for a treat.  The Foos, no strangers to the Crescent City with their recent Preservation Hall residency, have been dabbling at some recent gigs as part of their set as a the glorified wedding band genre under the guise known as The Holy Shits, playing songs from The Rolling Stones to Van Halen to Alice Cooper.  A treat for any rock lover’s ear and unexpected delight for sure — who doesn’t like to be surprised by their favorite artist riffing on the familiar, making it their own, or even just throwing in a lyric that’ll reference another artist’s work without changing too very much? When Beck graced the House of Blues on Sunday evening and broke into his “Hell Yes”, if you listened carefully he threw in a whisper of Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” with that song’s chorus, or hook, if you prefer. But what about when in lieu of a cover, or meta, or even the inescapable super group, an established band just dials it back a few decades and plays another band’s material but with that band’s actual lead singer?  This year the eels did just that and many times over with former Journey frontman Steve Perry.  Apparently a fan and friend of the band, Steve happened to follow the eels on their tour and here and there happened to belt out a familiar Journey song or three.  Pretty crazy stuff and very fun, if you catch any of the videos on the web taken by fans.  By comparison maybe you have Weezer followed by Ric Ocasek and oh yeah, by the way, we’re going to be playing some Cars songs at the end of our set tonight.  Rock fans could have a field day when it comes to these unforeseen amalgamations of live performance.  While the eels skipped New Orleans these last two tours, here’s hoping the Crescent City may see them soon, and to have Steve Perry in town would be a welcome addition as well. Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls.

Jean-Paul Villere: Well, well, well; the culture of ‘not my job’

“How are you doing?” “Good”

“No, Superman does good; you’re doing well”

So goes the old exchange that quickly provides the context of good versus well, and how one should really use them properly.  Among the titles New Orleans carries, The City that Care Forgot remains very real despite the influx of the educated and employed.  And you can see it almost anywhere. Just yesterday as I passed the Uptown / Lake corner of Magazine and Napoleon, right where there’s a field for Laurence Square, I noted a demolished collection of blue plastic shards and black and silver metal mangled, once a phone booth strewn across the city sidewalk but with a touch of caution tape and orange and white striped caution folding pylon, whatever you call those things.  And I just thought, “That’s ridiculous.”  At the center of a buzzing intersection in the shadow of open businesses, parks, schools, a library, and even a police precinct: this (dating back to April 10). We can’t remove it proper or I’m too busy to really address this, goes the thought process, so we’ll just put a little flare on it so passersby will know this is here.  Really!? When Coach Sean’s stern countenance was recently circulated in various media while absent from the Saints along with the words emblazoned “Do Your Job,” I always thought “Hey, that’s great.

Jean-Paul Villere: Flipping frenzy extends to Central City

It’s no secret to those that have dipped their toe in the water of New Orleans real estate recently that the stream of activity resembles more of a rushing rapid with unexpected twists and turns included.  The tone of the market possesses a buzz that surprises even the most seasoned flippers and investors, and it shows more promise than concern.  We all know these things ebb and flow, but it’s the perception of spaces that is changing the fastest, the intangible becoming realized in the tangible.  More specifically, let’s look at a cute double that recently flipped in the heart of Central City, but hold on to your hat.  And, as usual, for clarity/disclosure, I did not participate in any part in any of these sales; effectively, I am only an observer fascinated by the pace at which these changes are taking place. Two years ago, a poor-condition side-by-side shotgun home at 1817-19 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd came on the market for $35,000 on March 6, 2012.  Not without its charms or potential, the dwelling sits on the market for a few weeks before going under contract on March 23, then going to sale 2 months later for $29,000 cash on May 14.  A full-on renovation ensues which one may imagine takes longer and costs more than the party to the transaction anticipates; they usually do.  Nonetheless the market moves along, hammers are swung, paint is applied, and voila on Nov. 12, 2013, roughly a year and a half from its initial sale date 1817-19 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd returns to the market as a beautifully restored multi-family home at an offer price of $369,500. And then a long cold winter sets in, all holidays come and go, and a new year is born.  At some point, a price reduction takes place to $349,500, and on Jan. 8, 2014 it goes under contract.  The act of sale takes place four weeks later on Feb.

Jean-Paul Villere: Hens Forth

It began innocently enough.  Years ago, spring 2009, while rebuilding, my wife elected to get a batch of chicks to raise.  Pairing her love of gardening with the future production of yard eggs, these were the things she loved and that her parents had shown her growing up.  And now being a mother herself she wanted the same for her own growing family.  Except we didn’t live in once-sleepy River Ridge but still drying out New Orleans, and well, chickens weren’t the norm yet. With our first batch we kept them outdoors in a side yard well wired in a framed pen, at the time a constant distraction for our cats we’d named after the storms: Katrina and Rita.  The latter I called lovingly The Huntress for her knack of decapitating neighborhood rats and presenting her kills on the doorstep some mornings.  Gruesome and amazing.  This was the same cat that I’d permitted to sleep in the crib of my children.  Maybe getting a batch of chicks wasn’t such a good idea after all?  Maybe her nocturnal visits needed to be better monitored?  Ultimately over the course of years she never once nabbed a baby chick over successive springs nor did she do anything other than nightly watch over our babies.  But many more rats did meet their untimely demise under her watch.  Oh how I miss Rita. With that first brood though, as they grew and as quickly as they did, we needed more space and sooner than expected.  So we sacrificed a chifferobe rescued from Katrina water and tricked it out into a hen house we adorned in gold paint: The Chick Inn.  Some NOLA ex-pat friends in from Seattle at the time helped with the avian renovation.  We even placed casters at the base with the notion of making it mobile.  With the outdoor exposure plus the wear from the hens The Chick Inn collapsed a few years later.  A good run, if not a great learning experience of what not to do in hen keeping.  Future renditions of coops were fabbed faster, lighter, and freer of even more recycled materials.  One of the present ones actually has an old chandelier for décor.  Yes, we now have more than one.  I did open with ‘It began innocently enough,’ remember? Today we keep two chicken sites sans roosters under constant care in the city.  To keep them together would frankly be too much for one urban area, outside of code, and so on.  Too once you are known for keeping hens, you sometimes become a home for the wayward and feathered, from friends and neighbors who give the urban-chicken movement a go but either move away or just give it up.  Worse are breakups or divorces when the hens don’t leave town but the spouse does, and next thing you know you get a request to take in what’s left behind. This spring marks the first in the years of hen keeping my wife has elected not to get a new batch of chicks.  Effectively there are no more rooms to rent in The Chick Inn, and until there is the “no vacancy” sign will be aglow.  Too we recently invested in a little land a little north of the city, a hurrication spot, and while I don’t expect the egg production to move out of Orleans Parish anytime soon, one never knows.