New Orleans Jazzfest: Scenes From a Recovery

At Evelyn’s Place in New Orleans’ French Quarter, change comes reluctantly if it comes at all. The walls and ceiling are covered in a dusty collection of novelty flags and global currency that have dulled and molded over time into a ubiquitous shade of pale brown. At the center of the bar, a makeshift memorial in the form of a blown-up black-and-white photograph, taken years ago of a smiling young woman with a sleek, shoulder-length bob, rests on prominent display. Green Mardi Gras beads dangle from the corners of the photo, and an inscription along the side reads, “Princess Evelyn.”

Evelyn, one of the French Quarter’s great characters, is dead.

“Technically, she died of pneumonia,” the new bartender explains, “but everyone knows that decades of hard living finally caught up with her.”

For more than 40 years, Evelyn was a permanent fixture at the end of the bar of her own name — white Russian in one hand, cigarette in the other. Put the right song on at the right moment and she’d get up and dance. Piss her off and you’d know about it. Legend has it she once beat the hell out of Mickey Rourke to get him out of her bar as she was trying to close up.

The first time I saw Evelyn it was 10 o’clock in the evening and she was passed out face-down on the bar. A friend of hers who was keeping her company graciously volunteered to fill in as bartender and spent the next three hours plying my friends and me with Jack-and-Cokes and change for the jukebox. As we were settling up our bill, out of nowhere, Evelyn suddenly sprang to life and shouted “thirty-five dollars!” at the top of her lungs. Thirty-five dollars it was. We left a big tip.

“It wasn’t a night in here unless Evelyn showed her tits, passed out at the bar or pissed herself,” her replacement says fondly.

In some cities Evelyn might have gotten help and dried up. In others she would have wound up homeless. In New Orleans she was a princess.

The corner of Bayou and Broad streets in the 7th Ward didn’t exist last year. Not in any real sense, anyway. Only blocks away from the Jazz Fest fairgrounds, it was basically a pile of rotted dry wall, sludge-filled refrigerators and waterlogged furniture — a giant, moldy ghost.

A year later, things have changed. In this historically black-owned and -operated neighborhood, music streams from the open doors of shops with names like Good Vibrations, and children run in and out of their refurbished homes, playing music and hocking bottled water to the streams of white tourists passing through.

Up the block, the iconic Community Book Center has reopened, and an unusually long line gathers out front. The neighborhood is back and so, it appears, is C-Murder.

Raised in the nearby Calliope Projects and a member of his brother Master P’s No Limit record label, C-Murder is a rapper better known for his personal exploits than for his skills as an MC. Sentenced to life in jail in 2003 after being convicted for the second-degree murder of a 16-year-old, his legend grew from inside the prison walls when he somehow managed to record both an album and a music video under the nose of Jefferson Parish’s powerful Sheriff Harry Lee. Months later, his conviction was overturned, and he’s now under house arrest awaiting trial for attempted second-degree murder.

Today, however, he’s been allowed out for a signing of his first novel, Death Around the Corner. Such is the intrigue behind C-Murder that the mere possibility of this appearance produced one of the greatest headlines in the history of the newspaper business, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “Rapper May Leave House.”

Dressed in a clean, white-collared shirt and dark slacks and sporting an eminently literary-looking pair of specs, C-Murder arrives with a huge smile and an entourage of cameramen. Passing a display of Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, he sits down and begins to chat graciously and pose for photographs with his fans. An example of the healing power of art? Perhaps, although I find it difficult to believe, coming from a man who continues to call himself C-Murder. Regardless of his intentions, the title of his book has proved prophetic — 11 people have been killed in this area in the past four months.

I want to ask C-Murder about the escalating violence, but I have to buy a book to get anywhere near him. After hearing a little girl in line say, “C-Murder, can I get a picture?,” I can’t bring myself to do it.

With a beer in hand and a belly full of Creole cooking, it could be easy to forget what happened in this city 20 months ago. Scanning the grounds at Jazz Fest, it seems like most people have. The emotion and nostalgia of last year’s festival has given way to a sense of normalcy — of recovery. Music is everywhere, the Crawfish Monica is as spectacular as ever — and at the Fais Do-Do stage, the same familiar faces are back, dancing the zydeco and the Cajun two-step under the hot sun.

 

But despite the carnival atmosphere, the fetid stench of floodwater permeates the air. No, not from Katrina — from yesterday. Bombarded with five inches of rain in two hours, the city’s still-antiquated pumping system suffered a meltdown — causing floods that swamped cars in some areas and covered the fairgrounds in a foot of water. The Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to have installed 34 new pumps, but after buying them from a notoriously unscrupulous manufacturer in a $32 million sweetheart deal, the new pumps proved defective.

For tourists, the flooding is but a minor inconvenience, and Jazz Fest goes on as scheduled, but for locals, it’s yet another terrifying reminder of the eminent threats the city still faces: faulty pumps, structurally unsound levees and rapid coastal erosion.

Savvy New Orleanians note the irony in Shell’s sponsorship of this year’s Jazz Fest. Oil exploration off Louisiana’s coast by that and other gas companies is a primary culprit for the erosion of vital barrier wetlands that protect New Orleans from hurricane storm surges — the kind of surges that top and breach fragile levees.

Even savvier New Orleanians will point out that the year before Katrina, Ed Theriot, then-director of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, was relocated from South Louisiana to Iraq to help refurbish the marshes in Iraq thought by many to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. Theriot’s ensuing efforts in Iraq drew wide praise. Louisiana, thought by many to be the modern location of Sodom, continues to lose 30 square miles of wetlands a year, an entirely preventable loss.

And so the pumps fail, the levees remain unstable, and the Gulf of Mexico rapidly advances on the city — as if Katrina never happened. None of that matters for the moment, though. In a city whose economic lifeblood is tourism, the party can’t stop — the drinks and the music keep flowing.

Across town at a Bywater bar called Cowpokes, I’m taking a shot of Southern Comfort from within the tight embrace of a strange man’s thighs. Across from me on the dance floor, several men in formfitting jeans and cowboy hats line dance to Justin Timberlake. It’s Cinco de Gayo.

Friend and New Orleans denizen Pete Syverson came up with Cinco de Gayo to see what happens when a bunch of straight people and their gay friends go on a tour of New Orleans’ rowdiest gay bars. The results have thus far exceeded our wildest expectations.

As we crawl from bar to bar, our original group of 15 has grown to include a group of sexually frustrated straight girls, several gay loners and a pack of wife-beater-clad lesbians. To think — some would wish the destruction of this city all over again to stop such camaraderie.

Hurricane Katrina hit the day before one of the city’s biggest parties, Southern Decadence — otherwise known as gay Mardi Gras. After the storm, many prominent Christian evangelists around the country announced that Katrina was sent from God to stop Decadence and to punish the city for its acceptance of homosexuality. They obviously weren’t paying attention — Katrina never hit New Orleans, making a miraculous zero-hour turn east, missing the city. What destroyed New Orleans was the catastrophic failure of its Army Corps of Engineers–constructed levee system — as University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Bea, who led the National Science Foundation investigation of the levee failures, called it, “the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”

With continued support from the city, however, gay culture survived the disaster and is accepting us with open... er... thighs. Now roughly 50 in number, we exit Cowpokes and head to the French Quarter — our motley gay, straight and lesbian alliance dancing through the streets.

As I sleep off my hangover most of Sunday afternoon, six people are shot across the city. No one dies — a minor miracle in a city that has averaged roughly a murder a day since the New Year.

Recovery is a strange thing. Can we know it when we see it? Is it tangible? Is it even worthwhile — a delusional marker we use to mask a lack of progress? After all, what’s recovery without progress? What’s Jazz Fest without pumps to keep it dry? What’s a community without levees capable of protecting it? Why rebuild a city if the government plans on letting it erode into the sea?

 

These are questions facing hundreds of thousands of still-displaced New Orleanians, as well as those who have returned to make their city beautiful again — living a fragile life of hedonism and acceptance between a shoddy network of levees. Later, on the plane back to Los Angeles, I pray that next year she’ll still be there. For New Orleans, recovery is a tenuous state between salvation and death.

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