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New Orleans' cultural life in disarray, its recovery uncertain

NEW ORLEANS—Several of the turquoise-and-white awnings have been ripped, and the elegant patio is strewn with fallen tree limbs. A front-door window has been broken, a failed attempt at looting.

Yet Commander's Palace, the majestic Garden District restaurant famed for classic Creole dishes such as turtle soup and bread pudding souffle, has emerged from Katrina relatively unscathed, at least by outward appearance.

Owner Alex Brennan-Martin plans to reopen "as soon as possible." But with chefs and employees scattered, not to mention an uncertain customer base, "part of me thinks it will be years" before the restaurant and others that make dining in New Orleans a memorable experience will be back on their feet, he said, by phone from Houston.

Restaurants and the chefs they attract are only one part of the roux that makes up New Orleans' distinctive cultural life. Katrina has also put the musical and artistic community in disarray, causing a creative Diaspora that could threaten the city's eventual recovery.

For this community, often used to living from gig to gig, the losses were high. Inventories of paintings and folk art have been flooded. Band members have been separated from each other and their instruments. Many of the neighborhoods that flooded were those where musicians, chefs and artists congregated because the lower rents accommodated their itinerant lifestyle.

Even WWOZ-FM, the station that broadcasts New Orleans' music to the world from Louis Armstrong Park, has evacuated. It is now being broadcast on the Internet through WFMU in Hoboken, N.J., as "WWOZ in Exile" with a message board where musicians have been checking in to tell fans and each other that they are safe.

If the station doesn't get its roof fixed soon, it could lose its valuable recordings from studio sessions and the Jazz and Heritage Festival, said program manager David Freedman.

But losing the recordings would be nothing, he said, compared with what could happen to the music scene if the city fails to replenish its waterlogged housing with affordable rentals and homes to attract musicians back into the city. Otherwise, the marching clubs where toddlers learn to hold horns and the corner taverns where players form brass bands will no longer exist, he said, leaving this like any other Southern city.

"This music doesn't come from a recording studio; it comes from the people," Freedman said. "If the people don't come back, we'll be a Caribbean version of Atlanta."

Many musicians have ended up in Houston, where a fledgling organization called NOAHleans has welcomed them. Paul English, a jazz pianist, started the group after hearing that noted trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and 34 members of his extended family had arrived in Texas.

So far the group has worked with local clubs to help the musicians get instruments and gigs, and helped them find housing, English said. "The musicians here recognize that we have a bond and a lineage that comes from New Orleans," he said. "As long as they stay, we are going to welcome them."

Other cities have followed suit. The Portland Jazz Festival, in Oregon, is offering free transportation and three months' temporary housing for all New Orleans jazz musicians who relocate there. A slate of benefit concerts has been set up in many major cities. And most important for the city's psyche, the organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which employs hundreds of local musicians, say the annual event will take place in the spring.

Meanwhile, New Orleans' restaurants wait for their owners to return. A peek inside Galatoire's, the French Quarter institution where generations of diners have inherited the same waiter, shows the same tatty jackets hanging on the rack for those gauche enough to show up for Friday lunch without one. And at Cafe du Monde, the green and white chairs are stacked until a time when coffee and beignets are once again served.

When the restaurants do open, William Auchterlonie will be there. A former sous chef at the Redfish Grill in the French Quarter, Auchterlonie has stockpiled enough food and water to last two months.

"I bet every chef is as anxious as I am to get back to their kitchens," he said.

A native of Newark, N.J., Auchterlonie, 31, came to New Orleans with his wife in 1995 for a Widespread Panic concert. They've never left. Outside his apartment in Treme, a historically black neighborhood known for Congo Square and jazz parades, he said, "I can't imagine being anywhere else."

Not everyone feels the same. Frank Brigtsen, who operated the noted restaurant Brigtsen's in the Riverbend neighborhood, has reportedly decided to move to Shreveport. And even those who reopen may find themselves struggling until tourists and residents with enough disposable income fill the city again.

Artists, some of whom hawk their wares on the sidewalk in front of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, have similar dilemmas. Flooding severely hit the colorful shotgun homes of the Bywater, a neighborhood in the Ninth Ward that had been a magnet for artists.

Thomas Gallagher isn't sure that his work, stored in a house in a flooded Mid-City neighborhood, survived. Like many in New Orleans' diverse artistic community, Gallagher travels frequently. "New Orleans has a lot of soul. People always come back," he said, standing on an empty Bourbon Street corner. There are artistic reasons for him to stay as well: "I paint on slates and found objects, of which there's no shortage in the French Quarter now."

Bill Taylor, owner of the legendary Tipitina's music club, shares that optimism. Although Taylor has temporarily relocated to Asheville, N.C., he believes that the forces that allowed art and music to bloom in New Orleans will establish themselves again.

"New Orleans is a frame of mind," he said. "There is a tie to that region and that place that is unbreakable. Eventually, when the time is right, New Orleans will be born again."


(Gray reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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