As he sat glued to the television in the days after Hurricane Katrina, Davis Rogan feared what many did as they watched the floodwaters envelop New Orleans: that his hometown would be changed forever and that poor, black residents might not be welcomed back.
Being a songwriter, his anxiety manifested itself in lyrics that popped into his head: “I’ll meet you on Dick Cheney Street/At Rumsfeld Boulevard/ Right next to the statue of Michael Brown/In the new 9th Ward.”
They would become the opening lines to “The New 9th Ward,” a song Davis recorded in 2008 after three years of watching the city move forward in fits and starts. Rogan, a singer-songwriter known for satirical songs with a distinct regional flavor and a confessional edge, noticed how the recovery was changing the character of the 9th Ward and other ravaged neighborhoods.
In the song, he satirizes the well-meaning intentions of recovery groups that flooded the city with ideas for housing and other urban planning projects that left many feeling marginalized.
“Taking up the burden, we are the ones/ who came to save New Orleans from New Orleanians/ And every day we pray they do less misbehavin’/ So they deserve all this savin’!” he sings, accompanied by a chorus of dancing horns.
Later, the song comically shoots an arrow at the emerging gentrification of the Bywater, with its growing stock of craft cocktail bars and eateries that many say have driven up housing prices, making it unaffordable for long-term residents:
“We kicked out all the criminals, got rid of the blight/ It works a little better now, we made it uptight/ Best of all it’s safe to walk the streets at night/ This time around, we’re making it white,” he sings.
“It was just a matter of writing what I saw,” he said recently.
Seven years later, the concerns articulated in the song are even more evident. According to The Data Center, a New Orleans research group, post-Katrina housing is more unaffordable than ever, with 37 percent of renters paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent and utilities — a 24 percent jump from 2004.
Rogan said the transformation of rejuvenated neighborhoods will subside even though it is currently tilted in favor of out-of-town business operators who are catering to the city’s growing leisure class and millennial-aged newcomers. Both groups are creating a demand for more specialized services, as exemplified by the rejuvenation of the iconic St. Roch Market as the kind of specialized food emporium found in most major cities.
“I really do think that, at the end of the day, New Orleans will rub off on these people more than they will rub off on the city,” he said. “In a couple of years, hopefully everybody will learn to slow things down and have a cup of coffee before they leave for work.”
While Rogan’s house on Esplanade Ridge in Treme took only 6 inches of water, Katrina profoundly affected his life. In August 2005, he had just completed his first solo album, a collection of 15 songs. Eager to have a friend hear the results, he dropped them in the mail at the post office in Mid-City on Aug. 28 before evacuating. That package was among hundreds drowned in water from Lake Pontchartrain.
Luckily, the recordings were also on a hard drive another colleague had taken with him out of the city. By December, Rogan’s album was on store shelves.
Television producer David Simon picked up a copy that month and, impressed with what he heard, hired Rogan to contribute music to “Treme,” the HBO series that he was developing in town.
Rogan eventually appeared in the series in three incarnations: in a series of on-screen cameos; as the inspiration for Davis, a primary character in the show played by actor Steve Zahn; and in his music, which was featured throughout. “The New 9th Ward,” for example, appeared in the third season, performed by local soul music veteran Irma Thomas.
Rogan, 47, said that period was exciting but involved a touch of survivor’s guilt, considering all the people in his city who had lost loved ones and their homes.
As a former elementary school teacher, he also was dismayed when semi-privatized charter schools replaced the public school system, causing many teachers to lose their jobs and the teachers union to shrink.
At the same time, he was entering a second act as a full-time musician.
“I was ready for the moment. I had been living for the moment. When it came, I like to think I made the best of it,” he said.
A fifth-generation New Orleanian from the Carrollton neighborhood, Rogan said playing regularly in cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco now factors heavily into his income. He is currently promoting his third album, “Davis Ex Machina,” which has led to an invitation to play in Europe. In September, he will play his first tour of England and Ireland.
Audiences from outside Louisiana listen closely because they tend to be very interested in hearing tales from his city, he said.
An exception was the night he debuted “The New 9th Ward” at Three Muses and a man — who identified himself as a representative of the Make It Right Foundation, which has built scores of homes in the Lower 9th Ward — approached him and asked him to stop playing the song. Rogan said he would, in return for $50,000. The man refused, and the incident is now enshrined as the introduction to the song when he performs it live.
Like satirical work by Randy Newman that rides the razor’s edge of comedy and unsettling truths, the song forces the listener to confront realities he may never have considered.
Rogan said he wasn’t used to making music that did that.
“There was a period in my life I was really depressed and convinced everyone to not take me seriously,” he said. “The best revenge is living well and getting back to doing what I want to do. In that way, I feel incredibly fortunate.”