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Deep in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, just a block from the Industrial Canal (on the side that didn't break), and a few blocks away from the old Desire projects, a grid of dozens of cinderblock foundations sits in the sun. This is the site of the future Musicians' Village, the largest-scale, highest-profile, and biggest-budget rebuilding project to have gotten underway in the eight months post-Katrina. Eighty-one houses will be built on this tract of land, which Habitat for Humanity purchased from the city, and at least 200 more in the streets immediately surrounding it. The centerpiece will be the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a new cultural center named for the patriarch of the Marsalis clan.
Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., two of the biggest names in New Orleans music, are co-chairing the project. New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity has received $5 million in donations so far; the Dave Matthews Band, which performed at the first weekend of Jazzfest, pledged $1.5 million just last week.
In the absence (still) of any state, city, or federal affordable housing plan, non-governmental organizations are stepping into the breach. There are a range of local and national efforts to get musicians, the cultural lifeblood, back in the city: The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, the Tipitina's Foundation, the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund out of Preservation Hall, the Grammys' MusiCares, and the Musicians' Union provide everything from cash grants for transportation, to instruments, to paying gigs at places like the airport and local schools. The Arabi Wrecking Krewe is a team of musicians and friends who have gutted and repaired a couple dozen houses belonging to other musicians.
Yet the Musicians' Village project is completely dominant in terms of name recognition, fundraising, and volunteer traffic, and as such it is not without its critics.
photo: Anya Kamenetz
"The fundamental issue for me is that New Orleans music comes from neighborhoods, and this project does not respect the neighborhood as an institution," says a source close to the music scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The source says the Upper Ninth Ward location, four miles from the French Quarter, leaves a lot to be desired. "Public transportation is nonexistent down there. There's no way to get to a grocery store or an emergency room. It's not close to music venues. It's shouting distance from Desire projects. It's not where anybody wants to live."
How many people do want to live there? New Orleans Area Habitat says it has approved 46 applications post-Katrina, compared to 15 in a comparable pre-storm period, but wouldn't break down how many were for the Village and how many were musiciansnon-musicians are allowed to live in the Village too. Casey Adams, of NOAHH, says the location was "Just good fortune, actually. Harry and Branford had the idea for the village and the city had this land available. The idea, as I understand it, is maintaining the culture we have here. From the oldest to the youngest, just have a place where folks get together and enjoy New Orleans-style music."
Even in the best-case scenario, the Habitat process is a long-term solution for an extremely immediate housing shortage. It involves all the paperwork for approval of a 20-year, interest-free mortgage, with 350 hours of sweat equity accepted in lieu of a down payment. Meanwhile, immediate cash grants of as little as $3,000to pay a roofer, sayhave helped bring the leaders of brass bands like Rebirth, Treme, and the Hot Eight back home.
Tanio Hingle, a bass drummer, his wife and three kids, and his band, the New Birth Brass Band, have all been in Houston since the storm. His mother and grandmother are in Atlanta. "We all want to return. We just need housing, that's it. We really do need to get back," he says. Hingle has applied for a house through the Musician's Village, but he says he'd really prefer to repair the house he owned before the storm. That was on Lapeyrouse Street in Esplanade Ridge, close to the Fairgrounds where New Birth recently performed at Jazz Fest, and four miles from the Village site. Though his house took on some water, the historic neighborhood is within flood maps and viable for return. "I really want to fix my house up, but if I have to move I will to get back home," Hingle says. "Me, myself, I want to come back as soon as possible. I'm telling the truth."
Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt, now out with Riverhead Books.