When I first read Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives, I was engrossed in the stories of all nine New Orleans residents; however, the life stories of two or three of them really stuck in my mind. Chief among those was Ronald W. Lewis, lifelong resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, retired New Orleans streetcar worker, and curator/historian for the troubled neighborhood he still calls home.
Lewis’ voice helped take me back to a time, before Hurricane Besty, when white and black families resided in the Lower Ninth. Where chickens roamed the unpaved streets, homeowners tended to patches of tomatoes and collard greens, and where neighbors watched out for and scolded each others children. Across the Industrial Canal, the Lower Ninth had a culture and tradition all its own. And for much of his life, Lewis worked to preserve a small part of that.
Before Katrina, much to the dismay of his wife, Minnie, Lewis began collecting artifacts from local Mardi Gras Indian tribes, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Bone Gangs, and Parade Krewes. This collection became a backyard museum behind Lewis’ house on Tupelo Street. It opened in 2003, only to be flooded by the levee break two years later. Yet, like the proud and stubborn neighborhood in which it lies, the House of Dance and Feathers is open again.
When I was in New Orleans for a few days in June, My student Kendra and I had a chance to meet with Ronald (he can no longer be Mr. Lewis to me) in his museum. We ventured over the the Lower Ninth on a Sunday afternoon, not knowing that the museum was closed. Nevertheless, Ronald cheerfully joined us in his backyard to talk and show off his collection.
It was hot and sticky, and the portable fans did their best to move the air and the ever present ostrich feathers on the Indian suits. For nearly an hour, Ronald held forth about his neighborhood, its history, its problems, and its promise. All are inextricably linked to its people. But central to the discussion where the remnants of the local culture that he has carefully curated for years. And for Kendra, who is researching the Mardi Gras Indians in post-Katrina New Orleans, it was a window into her future endeavors: colorful and exciting, but also shaded in mystery and secrecy. And for that reason, Ronald served as an important guide to these performance traditions.
So, if you are headed to New Orleans, take the time to get away from the French Quarter and well-to-do Uptown neighborhoods to absorb a little- known and less-understood part of New Orleans culture. Behind a house on Tupelo lie incomparable, hand-made treasures, and an all-too willing guide to interpret them.
If you are unable to make it to New Orleans, you can purchase The House of Dance & Feathers (New Orleans: UNO Press, 2009), a product of the University of New Orleans Neighborhood Project. It is richly illustrated and contains many neighborhood stories and articles from Ronald and others. But it’s still more fun to get them firsthand.