Outside Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge on North Claiborne Avenue, flowers are blooming in half a dozen scarlet-painted clawfoot tubs on the sidewalk. A sign propped up on the street declares the neighborhood landmark, named after the colorful R&B star's Allen Toussaint-penned hit, will "reopen August 29 ... to bury Katrina!" Outside, now, the bar looks fresh and practically untouched; so, for that matter, does Antoinette K-Doe, who sits as regally as ever in the bar's semi-renovated front room, dressed in white, smoking Winstons, her manicure perfect except for one missing fingertip on her right hand. But it's been a long road.
"When I came back, we had no lights or gas or hot water, and it was cold, cold, cold," says K-Doe. "But I was determined to stay. And when you work all day, you're too tired to care if you have lights or gas." The bar took on five and a half feet of water, which ruined the familiar cozy interior of the lounge, not to mention several thousand dollars' worth of K-Doe merchandise. In the months after Antoinette returned, a group of local musicians began the gutting and structural work to get the lounge back in order; the job was finished pro bono by Stewart Electric and Hands On, the volunteer group that includes the R&B star Usher. After the 29th, the bar will reopen by appointment for tourists on weekdays and for live music on weekends.
Most larger music venues in the Quarter and Uptown have reopened since the storm and have enjoyed obvious support from tourists and locals alike. Flying more under the radar are the neighborhood bars, the second-line pit stops where brass bands often jam and Mardi Gras Indians practice, which cater mostly to the lower-income black clientele for whom it's been hardest to return. The Studio 504, the Fox, the Duck Off, Joe's Kozy Korner and others: a trip around Uptown and Treme show some remain shuttered, a few even look like they've been that way since the water receded. Some, though, have opened their doors, and are even reporting a booming business.
A few blocks from the Circle Food Store, where, directly after the storm, news channels looped footage of stranded New Orleanians wading through waist-deep floodwater carrying food and toilet paper, is the Other Place Lounge, one of the only bars on a formerly hopping strip of clubs and lounges to have reopened. Before the storm, the bar was a regular gig for the Hot 8, Rebirth and New Birth brass bands. Kermit Ruffins often gigged at the Next Stop across the street.
"At first I'm like, what the hell am I doing here?" says owner Victor Dawkins, who returned in October to find the bar's liquor stock, ATM and jukebox thoroughly looted and the building sodden from 3 feet of water. "But I had to get back in business again."
Before electricity was returned to Treme, Dawkins slept in the bar on an air mattress and began repairs using a generator. The refurbished bar reopened New Year's Eve, and according to Dawkins and manager Karika Butler, the crowds have been good, with enough local traffic to stay open until after 2 a.m. on an average weekday. Butler, who stayed for two days after the storm before finally going to the Dome to get bused to Houston, agreed that returning to New Orleans was always her aim. "You go out in Houston, it's not the same. I didn't feel at home." The Other Place hasn't returned to a regular schedule of live bands yet, but they plan to. Corey Woods, another employee, belongs to the Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and has been working with a grassroots group to bring second lines back to the neighborhood -- and keep locals coming to bars like the Other Place.
"We want St. Bernard to be the same again, with locals and tourists coming," he says.
Uptown at the Bean Brothers lounge, owner Mike Anderson is open for business as well, although the bar's interior is still pretty bare-bones. Pints of Old Granddad and Crown Royal sit on an unfinished plywood pyramid hung with gold tinsel behind the bar.
"This place is a landmark, the Bean Brothers," says Anderson, who bought the bar when he returned to New Orleans in October. "The National Guard came, and I got a broom, a mop, a gallon of bleach and a case of canned water. I appreciated that," he says, adding that he hopes the Guardsmen come back and visit. "And I took that broom and that mop and that bleach and I got that mold out of here."
After that, drumming up business was pure street marketing. "I just stood out on the stoop, saying 'Hey, man, hey, man,' and waving," says Anderson. "Around Christmas, everyone got back." Anderson hosted Black Eagle Indian practice at the bar a few times -- "it was off the hook," he says -- but he chose to take it easy over Mardi Gras. "You can't miss money you don't have," he says. Lefty Parker contributed to this story.