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But violence has also erupted more than once in the wake of second-line gatherings, albeit in contexts unconnected to the parades. As a result, the city raised permit fees for such gatherings, which, in turn, prompted the ACLU to file suit on behalf of 17 sponsoring clubs. As Times-Picayunereporter Katy Reckdahl noted in a recent piece, this policy "in essence amounts to a tax for crimes the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs don't commit and can't control." Similarly, Mardi Gras Indian tribes have found increased resistance to their assemblies, and heightened tensions with police and city administration since Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, several club owners have found themselves fighting the city and various neighborhood organizations, as rarely cited ordinances to limit live music have been employed to effectively shut down venues in areas now coveted for residential development. A recent report on the website neworleanscitybusiness.com detailed the uphill battle North Rampart Street jazz club King Bolden's is fighting to renew its licenses, due to staunch opposition from neighborhood organizations. Consider this passage: "Carol Greve, president of the French Quarter Citizens for the Preservation of Residential Quality, said her group wants art galleries along Rampart as opposed to jazz clubs. She also said she is not convinced that Rampart Street ever played a historic role in the rise of New Orleans music and so there is no reason to restore it as a musical corridor."
Perhaps Greve has never walked across the street to Louis Armstrong Park, which commemorates Congo Square, the point of origin for the rhythms underscoring all the city's jazz. There are forces at work in New Orleans that wish to stop the forward flow of culturewhether by taxing its future or erasing its history.
It's no accident that when Marigny District residents met to plan what turned into a 5,000-strong January 11 march protesting violent crime and a lack of police protection, they gathered at the Sound Café, a coffeehouse that hosts weekly performances by brass-band musicians; participants took turns voicing their ideas by passing around a feather-laden Bayou Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club fan, which they used as their "talking stick." When the march reached City Hall, trombonist Glen David Andrews addressed the crowd: "We are young black men of New Orleans preaching culture." A spontaneous chant sprang up: "Music in the schools."
Silence Is Violence, an anti-violence campaign, sprang up from those earlier meetings. And throughout New Orleans, a constellation of grassroots nonprofit groups are the ones doing the hard work of maintaining culture, which these days means dealing with issues of housing, bureaucracy, economics, and crime: These include Sweet Home New Orleans, the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, the Tipitina's Foundation, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, among others.
A few weeks ago, Tamara Jackson, president of the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force, stood in front of a statue of Henry Clay, the statesman known as the "Great Compromiser," to announce the brand-new compromise: "The Original Pigeontown Steppers will be parading this Easter. We're here to proclaim that we are reclaiming the city streets. We're going forth."
The club's annual Easter Sunday parade had been in doubt, owing to the city's prohibitive permit fee of $7,560 (a price inflated yet further due to the holiday). A crowd gathered at the federal courthouse for an evidentiary hearing, but the city had backed down late the night before, and offered to cut the fee by two-thirds. When deputy city attorney Joe DiRosa left the courthouse, I asked him how the fee could be so easily recalculated, and whether it had been unfairly hiked in the first place.
"Why would we do that?" he shot back. Three days later, after a brief rain subsided and clouds parted for a spot of sun, the Original Pigeontown Steppers proudly made their way out of Stanley U's Lounge in suits, fedoras, and sashes of powder blue offset by pale yellow. As he rolled his wheelchair, Joe Henry, the club's president, offered an answer to DiRosa's rhetoric: "They're trying to keep us down, no doubt. But we had to come out and parade, just had to. People count on it. They need it now more than ever."