No one could say who would come back, or when. But it was natural to assume after Hurricane Katrina that evacuees with resources would be the best-positioned to rebuild.
And so it was also natural to worry about losing what makes New Orleans distinctive — a culture rooted in the largely working-class customs of jazz and brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, and social aid and pleasure clubs. The black community that nourished these traditions is still a shrunken one.
Yet as the 10th anniversary of the storm arrives this week, those fears have been replaced by a new anxiety. Cultural clubs and organizations have watched their numbers climb. Young newcomers to the city have boosted attendance at second-line parades and interest in the city’s cultural heritage while stoking a thriving storefront theater and art scene.
The outside world, jarred into recognizing what had nearly been lost, has invited local musicians onto a global stage that was not as open to them before.
“If anything, the brass bands and second-line parades in the city have not only bounced back, they are stronger than ever,” said Matt Sakakeeny, an ethnomusicologist at Tulane University and the author of a 2013 book on brass bands.
New Orleans culture did not succumb under the floodwaters, but it now faces questions about whether it can survive the city’s resurgence — the skyrocketing rents, the changing demographics and the glare of commercial attention.
Chuck Perkins, a local club owner, bandleader and talk-show host, has watched nervously as the young and affluent have flocked from the suburbs to city centers all over the country. He looks at a place like San Francisco and worries that he sees New Orleans’ future.
“San Francisco is a beautiful city, but the counterculture people who made it an interesting place to be, those people cannot afford to live there anymore,” Perkins said. “So you have this beautiful city, but it’s made up mostly of affluent people. I hate to think of New Orleans turning into that.”
This is not to say that the bearers of New Orleans culture are simply lying down.
Ed Buckner, the president of the Original Big Seven Social Aid & Pleasure Club, cites the tearing down of local public housing units as the greatest threat to local culture, not necessarily Katrina itself. “Public housing is where people worked and lived, and if they couldn’t come home, you couldn’t go to a parade,” he said.
But he added that local clubs like his own have worked to fill the gap left by official recovery efforts. They helped displaced members find apartments and acted as intermediaries with local housing organizations when families were still struggling to get home. Members raised money for ancillary costs like security deposits and moving expenses; they restored damaged housing and installed new appliances.
Those efforts collectively have helped his club exceed its membership from 10 years earlier, Buckner said.
The sudden attention brought to New Orleans culture in the storm’s aftermath — the countless articles, the HBO series “Treme” and the like — also created new opportunities.
Packaged tours of New Orleans musicians played at concert halls throughout the U.S. and Europe, such as the Symphony Center in Chicago, the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. Mardi Gras Indians now do performances at private parties and weddings.
Arts and cultural nonprofits in New Orleans also have benefited from the spotlight. Their revenue has surged to $428 per capita, or four times greater than their national counterparts, according to The Data Center, a local research outfit.
The spotlight has almost certainly boosted some careers. Some of the local brass bands that hadn’t gotten much attention outside the city — groups like the Hot 8 Brass Band, Soul Rebels and Stooges Brass Band — now play at international festivals in far-flung locales. In 2012, the Stooges Brass Band became the first American musical group to play in Hyderabad, a city in Pakistan.
“These are now internationally recognized bands,” said Sakakeeny, who pegs the number of brass bands operating in New Orleans at 50. “Katrina put a spotlight on the most distinctive traditions in the city, and those bands have been able to capitalize on that notoriety in bringing their music to the world.”
But assessing the health of the city’s culture through outside exposure can be tricky. While the renewed interest in New Orleans certainly created more commercial opportunities, the state of the neighborhoods that gave birth to those traditions is still in question.
The same violence that plagued some of those neighborhoods before the storm remains a daily reality. The 2013 shooting spree at the Original Big Seven’s second-line parade on Mother’s Day that injured 19 people landed a direct blow.
“We had to stand up and show the whole world we were not going to lay down and let that shooting deter us from our bigger mission, which is celebrating our community,” Buckner said.
Data also point to what most locals can feel intuitively: New Orleans is becoming a more expensive city with escalating rents, while wages aren’t keeping up. The Data Center reported this month that 51 percent of New Orleans renters spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing, up from 43 percent before the storm.
While wages have climbed in the city’s marquee culinary industry, they haven’t among musicians. A 2014 report by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy found that restaurant workers’ earnings had increased 5 percent since 2011 while earnings of entertainment industry workers, half of whom are musicians, remained the same.
Overall culinary revenue also grew far more than entertainment revenue — 71 percent compared with 16 percent — since 2010.
Veteran New Orleans bounce producer Mannie Fresh said he worries that music will no longer seem lucrative to young people coming up so they will be less inclined to pick up a musical instrument in school. “Since Katrina, the whole culture in New Orleans has shifted,” he said. “The younger generation is not embracing it like we did.”
The young people who are injecting new life into the cultural scene are largely newcomers who over the past 10 years have enlivened the city’s storefront theater and art scene, as well as its literary and indie film communities.
New operations such as the Marigny Opera House, the Cripple Creek Theater Company and Indywood, for example, have surfaced since Katrina and are considered hothouses for their respective disciplines.
“An awful lot of younger, imaginative, creative and often ambitious people have flooded here because of the sense of possibility that you find in a place that is dealing with a reshuffled deck after a disaster,” said writer Tom Piazza, author of the Katrina memoir “Why New Orleans Matters,” which is being reissued this month.
As much as things are changing, the cultural fabric of New Orleans is deeply woven into the city’s character and remains absolute.
Trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard said that when he was commissioned to write music for a 2012 Broadway revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, he insisted that the cast and director join him in New Orleans to understand the nuances of the play that are unmistakably tied to the city itself.
“If you read Tennessee Williams’ words, he talks about being in that apartment and hearing a band around the bend. That still exists to this day,” Blanchard said. “It’s not something we’re trying to maintain. It’s just something that just is.”