A Sense of Place

I’m reading Harold Battiste’s autobiography, Unfinished Blues, and he writes about growing up across the street from the Dew Drop Inn. Yesterday as I drove by the Dew Drop on my way to work, that knowledge made the neighborhood seem a little more alive with possibility. How many other musicians lived within 10 or so blocks of there? How many stopped in the Dew Drop Inn because it was close by? Flash forward a few decades and the neighborhood across LaSalle from the Dew Drop was the Magnolia Projects and the home to Juvenile and a lot of New Orleans hip-hop.

Publisher Jan Ramsey has written often about the importance of a New Orleans music museum or a similar cultural preservation activity, but I’ve generally been skeptical. Recent history suggests they aren’t the economic engines civic leaders hope they’d be, and museums and roadside markers seem like ways to boil down complex history to a few easily consumed details that create the illusion of knowledge without making anyone meaningfully smarter.

In my interview with Wendell Pierce for my story on Treme, he made the best case I’d heard for commemorative plaques or something like them, an argument that dovetails with my experience with Battiste’s home and the Dew Drop:

We say we love the culture but some of our behavior doesn’t suggest that. You walk around Paris and do the scenic tour and you can go to every place where Dumas wrote, and Richard Wright wrote, and Sidney Bechet played, and all of that.

The average New Orleanian can’t walk the path from Central City to old Storyville to the French Quarter and say, “This is the path of history. This is where Bolden lived, this is the Odd Fellows Hall. Here we went through Storyville, here’s the French Quarter, here’s the connections through all of that.”

We have three of the most famous buildings in our musical history sitting on South Rampart and Perdido in shambles. Luckily they can’t be torn down because they’re on the National Historic Register. But they’re surrounded by empty parking lots, sitting there empty. And it’s where Buddy Bolden played, Louis Armstrong played, Kid Ory played – Odd Fellows Hall
And we have never found the political will to say, “You know something? This is our our Notre Dame. These building’s can’t sit here. Let’s repair them. Let’s have a musical tribute on the hour. Let this place be a mecca for musical pilgrimage for people to come from around the world who love this music.”
But that’s where we are. We always talk about “our music,” and “our cuisine,” but on the 100th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s birth, we could do no more than change the name of the airport because we destroyed all the famous places where he developed the music. We destroyed his homes.

Jelly Roll Morton in his Library of Congress tapes talks about specific places and we still – because it’s Central City or some place where it’s a harsh neighborhood – we still choose not to have the political will to say, “Maybe this will actually change things in the neighborhood, contribute to a sort of preventive nature against crime and hardcore living.”  Develop the very jewel that we have, you know? It should be a trail of different sites.
I remember a couple of years ago they said they wanted to take all the last houses of Jelly Roll Morton and different places where people lived and just bring them all to Armstrong Park and put the houses in there, and I’m like, no, you missed the whole idea of history. You want to go and see the house in Central City and go, “Oh look how close it is to Storyville and the Quarter. Look how it’s around the corner from our ‘Park Avenue’ – St. Charles Avenue – but it’s still impoverished. Look how on the corner there’s a church and on the other corner there’s a barroom.  So you see all the influence of Saturday night and Sunday morning to the music.  You just have to walk here, you pass this store, Buddy Holden worked as a plasterer, so I can see that beautiful home on St. Charles right around the corner from Liberty and First, I can see how this working man in this neighborhood went around the corner and did that, and I see he passed this barroom, and here’s where his barbershop was, and look how close he was to the Hall,” you know?

His vision of a program that contextualizes history is far more compelling than anything that traps it under glass or pins it to a corkboard like a butterfly collection.