Friday, July 8, 2011

Musicians’ Village: A Place of Tradition and Music for the Future

By Michael Gottwald

As I walked down Bartholomew Street with Margie Perez, a tall, graceful singer who lives a block away, stopped to show me a concrete slab where many of the Musicians’ Village’s most famous residents had scrawled their names. Little Freddie King, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Bob French, and others had marked the ground beneath our feet as theirs. I realized that I wasn’t just strolling down any New Orleans street. I was inside a kind of residential hall of fame of local musicians.

It was only five years ago that the Musicians’ Village, constructed on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Alvar and Bartholomew streets in the Upper Ninth Ward, with the support of big names and nationwide reverence for the area’s musical legacy, gave New Orleans one of its most prominent post-Katrina rebuilding success stories. Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, began an initiative to fill homes that would be erected by volunteers on recently purchased land for musicians who were displaced by the storm. If they met the criteria and were approved, they would receive a reduced-rate mortgage, with no interest; this was a traditional Habitat for Humanity deal, but entirely oriented around the city’s most famous profession. Ground was broken, pictures were taken and doors were opened. To ask how it is doing now, one should anticipate an answer as complex as to ask how the city itself is doing now.

On the surface, the story departs from the city’s own. Unlike New Orleans as a whole, the Musicians’ Village is at maximum capacity. All the houses are built, and all but two are without an owner currently. There are no plans to expand beyond its eight- acre spread of 77 homes. The construction, which began on Roman Street, then reached toward the lake on Alvar Street, and the final blocks were completed on Bartholomew Street in the last couple years.

Margie Perez’s home on the 1800 block of Alvar was one of the first built; you can tell by the fact that the solitary tree in her backyard, planted like everyone’s in the neighborhood as a gift from the LSU Agricultural Center, reaches up to the sky just above those of her neighbors.

“I lost everything,” Perez told me, in regard to what Hurricane Katrina did to the downstairs apartment in Broadmoor where she lived before the storm. Margie, a singer-songwriter in multiple bands, and a regular act on Frenchmen Street, has become a sort of de-facto spokeswoman for the Musicians’ Village – a role that has allowed her to meet former President Jimmy Carter and President Barack Obama, and even took her to Denver for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

A Musical Home

Homeowners who are approved are required to perform 350 hours of sweat equity in the construction of their home or other Habitat homes, in lieu of a down payment, and Margie takes pride in her experiences.

“I was involved in every step – except the roof. I got up on the roof once, and I said, ‘I think I’ll leave this to someone who has less balance issues than I do,” Perez said. She was also gratified by the fact that volunteers were coming to give a whole week of their time and their family’s time – sometimes their only vacation all year – to work on her house.

However, if one looks beyond the newspaper snapshots, Margie’s sense of ownership and home comes from a place that isn’t exactly what you would expect. Originally from Washington, D.C., she had actually been living in New Orleans for only a year before the storm. “Once I qualified for the house here, I said, ‘All right, I really got to step up. I’m a musician, and I was in a couple bands before the storm, but … if I’ve got a house here, I got to really represent,’ ” she added. “I started working really, really hard, and it’s stayed with me. I sing in a whole bunch of bands, and I get to make music with some incredibly amazing people, the way it’s supposed to be here.”

“Survivor’s guilt” is a term she threw out, as we strolled along the finely cut lawns, the uniform houses, and the pastel-colored facades, in what almost seems like a suburban utopia. She doesn’t just refer to the weathering of the storm; one must have good credit or no credit to qualify for a Habitat home; and, given the nature of the business, many musicians didn’t fit the bill. Margie has always had a second job to ensure against these problems, but the fact that several aren’t so lucky clearly weighs on her.

It’s almost hauntingly quiet on this sunny, humid day in June, as we greet young children on bikes and admire one of Margie’s neighbors’ solutions to a flower problem she’s having herself in her front yard. She hugs a friend she hasn’t seen in a while – Jesse Brunet, who lives between Houma and Pass Christian, Miss. The Musicians’ Village is home to Brunet’s godmother, who is renowned Voodoo priestess Mama Lola. Later, I’ll see Mr. Brunet, his wife, and two young people cleaning their boat outside Lola’s house.

As we walk down Bartholomew Street back toward Margie’s, she stops me and, whispering, invites me to listen. I hear the faint sound of someone practicing drums inside their home. It’s the only sound I hear besides police sirens off in the distance, and birds chirping.

Gabriel Velasco is a Venezuelan-born drummer in a number of bands in New Orleans, including, but not limited to Otra, Government Magic and Equal Opportunity Employment. He was living in a family home in the Irish Channel before the storm, and his story is in some ways the inverse of Margie’s, having experienced exclusion from good opportunities in the wake of Katrina. For almost a year, Gabriel sought refuge in California because it seemed that the only opportunities for musicians remaining in New Orleans were on Bourbon Street.

“Each club has, in my opinion, sort of a level of how they treat musicians and why they pay and what-have-you, and unfortunately some of the better ones took a little bit longer to reopen,” Velasco told me. He would have stayed in California, too, but his Habitat application was approved, and he came back to New Orleans.

However, three years to the day after he moved into his new home on Bartholomew Street, he had to move out. Why? Because Gabriel was a victim of the Village’s most unfortunate problem to date: the drywall issue.

Drywall Dilemma

It began with a handful of residents comparing stories about blackened wiring, tarnished silverware, and air conditioning units turning off. Some had heard external reports of corrosive Chinese drywall, and, checking the label on theirs, put two and two together.

According to Gabriel, Habitat first declared to him and his neighbors that the drywall in the Musicians’ Village was not of this type. Then, when they did admit that it was, he says it took some time to draw their attention to the symptoms that would show up in homes like his, despite negative test results.

Aleis Tusa, the communications director for New Orleans Habitat for Humanity, refutes this claim. “I feel like we’ve been as diligent as possible about that.” In Habitat’s defense, the use of corrosive drywall is a problem that has crippled the Gulf Coast and its builders as a whole region since the storm. “I think we went above and beyond what was expected,” Tusa said. “A lot of homeowners in New Orleans, in the Gulf Coast, their builders and contractors are doing nothing for them.”

But even Margie, although not a victim herself, spoke to the perception amongst her neighbors. “For a while there, residents were feeling that Habitat was doing more damage control than speaking the truth about what was going on.”

More than holding any grudges, though, they talk about it simply as a deeply unfortunate revelation. It’s also one that proves that even New Orleans’ most lauded post-storm success story is not immune to the shadow of apathetic, bottom-line mentality that hindered so many other recovery efforts. On a personal level for Gabriel, temporarily moving out of his home so that Habitat could remediate it just meant an uncomfortable change to his professional habits. “Here, I have a lot of drums, I have recording equipment that I record people with and it’s a source of income as well…. [I] went from 1,100 square feet by myself to two rooms, basically,” he recounted. “I started taking every gig I got called for, gigs I didn’t even want to do, just so I could stay up on my chops with the drums and percussion, because I couldn’t really practice where I was.”

Storage pods dot the curbs of the Musicians’ Village streets these days, but only five or six homes on the blocks are left to be remediated by this point, according to Tusa.

The Village Stands United Through Difficulty

Beyond the drywall, the neighborhood isn’t an exception to the problems of the area that surrounds it. Crime has always been an acknowledged fact of the Village, ever since some neighbors started playing music together under the name The Copper Thieves, in reference to the materials thefts during the construction era. It became more grave when a few months ago, a teenager staying in a house on the 1800 block of Alvar was shot and killed on his porch, in what was reported to be a targeted hit-and-run. Months prior to that, across the street (not part of the Musicians’ Village) there was another homicide.

Mostly, however, surrounding neighbors are pleased to have a concentrated area of homeowners in a part of New Orleans that seems to be just about 50 percent occupied. “It’s beautiful. It’s quiet. Everywhere has its problems,” sums up Sandy Ricard, one of a handful of residents who is not a musician, (her housing here was sponsored by Habitat before it was deemed for the Musicians’ Village). For a woman who lost her job, her home, and eventually, after illness, her parents to Katrina, she is just grateful that Habitat was able to find a place for her. “I think other places have far more problems than we have going on,” she says. She enjoys sharing wine, food and conversation with her next- door neighbor, a Brazilian musician named Ricardo.

The Village Brings Hope of Music for Tomorrow

Finally, on August 25, the musicians will have a long-awaited opportunity to further strengthen ties with the community around them as well as their own internal community. A much-anticipated project ever since its conception five years ago, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, in the heart of the neighborhood, will provide recording studios, performance space and after-school classes for young people – specifically and exclusively kids in the Upper Ninth Ward. And the goal for these kids is lofty: “Mr. Marsalis has a vision for a jazz orchestra,” said Michele Jean-Pierre, executive director of the center. More than anything, though, this sprawling building, similar to the brightly painted wood-beam style of the homes around it, will give this five-year-old neighborhood a place to convene, see each other and share conversation and music.

Ms. Jean-Pierre was meticulous; too, in making sure that the design for the center’s use was organically conceived from its neighbors’ ideas. “We conducted focus groups and collected information from the residents on how they could best be benefited by the center…. From those focus group sessions, I went on to develop a work plan.”

When the center opens in August, it will be almost six years to the day since Hurricane Katrina left the Upper Ninth flooded and almost totally abandoned. As always in New Orleans, the sentiment in the Musicians’ Village in regard to the future is one of hope – hope despite tragedy, and despite the complications on the path to recovery.

Five years ago, the woman who gave Sandy Ricard her home in the Village joked with her about her admittance being contingent on a deal with Sandy’s musically inclined daughter, then 15-years-old. “She said, ‘If you just promise us that your daughter would be able to come in and help with the community center.”… My daughter, now [that] she’s grown, she wants to live up to her promise; she still wants to come in and help.”

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