Rarely do gentrifiers explicitly tell you their plans, but this flyer I picked up at the Trolley Stop in Memphis sets forth exactly what the Victorian Village Community Development Corporation wants to do with Morris Park. The urban park features two basketball courts currently and the best basketball in the city, but the Victorian Village folks claim that “families” are afraid to use the park due to “100” crimes that have occurred there in the last year. Their flyer calls for a “Greener, Cleaner, Safer” park, and at first glance, what could be wrong with that? But the problem is, the folks that like to hoop in Morris Park are mostly young Black men, and by “greener” Victorian Village Inc means getting rid of the basketball courts. To be such a storied town for basketball, Memphis has few public courts. The city removed most of them in the 1990’s after residents claimed that they attracted crime. Now, if the Victorian Village CDC is successful in their efforts, there will be no place for young people to play basketball in Downtown Memphis. While crime in parks is an issue that needs to be addressed, basketball doesn’t cause it and eliminating basketball will not prevent crime.
When I got back to New Orleans, I headed to a club called Vaso to check out the Young Fellaz Brass Band, one of a truly startling number of youthful inner city brass bands in New Orleans. Given the musical tradition of the city, it is perhaps not surprising that there are brass bands in New Orleans, but what is surprising is that so many of them are organized by young men from the inner city neighborhoods, men from the hip-hop generation that one would expect to be deeply into rap. As a matter of fact, many of New Orleans’ younger musicians are into rap, but the city’s brass band music and culture manages to maintain a considerable following with young people as well as tourists. For me, that is why this music is so important. Not only is a link to New Orleans’ storied musical past, but it is also a place of intersection where the street culture of young Black men is presented in a way that people of other backgrounds can appreciate and enjoy. Unfortunately, the city seems to be cracking down on brass band performance, increasingly relegating the music to clubs only. This is very unfortunate, in that there are more brass bands than there are clubs willing to book them, and young musicians have traditionally “cut their teeth” by performing on the streets. Besides that, brass band music is a street music, meant to be played outdoors. Something is of necessity lost when the music is moved indoors. As for the Young Fellaz, they are impressive to be as young as they are. With the exception of a conga player, they use their outdoor formula in the club, and get a good, full sound. They seem to have become the resident band for Vaso, so I’ll probably visit that club more frequently when I’m in the Crescent City.
Frenchmen Street is attractive by day, and downright exciting at night, when street performers come out, and the clubs open up, featuring every kind of music from jazz, to blues, to reggae to brass band music.
Back up the road from Lafitte is Crown Point, a small community whose main attractions are swamp tours and the Restaurant des Familles. This waterfront restaurant is more reminiscent of restaurants from the Lafayette or Lake Charles area than it is of those in New Orleans, and the food is excellent. Although the menu includes steaks, the obvious draw here is fried seafood, and the fried shrimp dinner I had was truly great, the breading perfectly seasoned. The menu also features desserts such as bread pudding and coffee. Prices are reasonable, and Restaurant des Familles is worth the drive from New Orleans. The only disappointment? Perhaps due to the rain, I caught no glimpse of the two alligators that my waitress said usually appear in the swamp behind the restaurant!
Friday evening, May 24th, I decided to drive out to the towns of Jean Lafitte and Lafitte south of Harvey and Gretna on the West Bank. These towns, along Barataria Bayou are named for the pirate Jean Lafitte, and are assumed to be close to where his headquarters was, the village of Grande Terre. Lafitte was a pirate who ultimately became a patriot. After being offered money by Great Britain to assist them in the War of 1812 against the United States, Lafitte refused their offer, then warned Governor Claiborne of their plans. Later, he and his Baratarians helped Andrew Jackson win a victory at the Battle of Chalmette. Today there’s no piracy, just picturesque scenery, some fishing camps and marinas, and a handful of restaurants
It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that New Orleans has an anarchist bookstore, because if there was ever an American city that suggested anarchy (the concept, not chaos) it would be New Orleans. New Orleanians seem to be fun-loving people, who want to be left alone to do what they want to do as long as they’re not hurting others, and in a city where government has often been corrupt or dysfunctional, people have learned to make do without government. All the same, the Iron Rail Book Collective got evicted from their old location by the self-styled Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, a group of gentrifiers who objected to the collective’s concern for the homeless. Now located in the French Quarter, the tiny shop sells a fairly decent selection of books on struggles, labor, Black liberation and gay and lesbian issues. Like so many left-wing shops, many of the interesting books stocked at the Iron Rail are not available elsewhere. There is also a small selection of music, mostly indie rock.
The French Market is New Orleans’ oldest public market and the only one that is currently open and in decent shape. Under its pavilion can be found everything from books and compact discs to T-shirts and art objects, as well as quite a few restaurants. In the part of the market nearest to Jackson Square are a couple of restaurants that usually feature live jazz, including the Gazebo Cafe.
If New Orleans is America’s most Caribbean city, then Frenchmen Street is New Orleans’ most Caribbean street, with its brightly-painted buildings and palm trees. The street is home to a number of the city’s best music clubs, including Snug Harbor, New Orleans’ only place for modern jazz, as well as a great bookstore and a coffee house. While the area can seem quiet during the day, it jumps at night, with large crowds, plenty of cars, plenty of music, street vendors, and street musicians.