Rainy Days and Tuesdays Wednesday, Mar 12 2014 

For the first time in years, we had a full bore, no doubt about it rainy day. Needless to say, our group did not go back to siding Steve’s house in Backatown. Instead, we went to John’s house on Deleray Street, literally across from Jackson Barracks. The other groups were already working indoors, therefore work would not be affected — or so we thought.


John’s house

John has been renovating this house for about a year. He has done a loving and meticulous job at bringing out its beauty and promise. However, working alone, he literally hit the wall when it came to, we’ll, the walls. Between installing awkward sheets of board, taping, mudding, sanding, etc. it is extremely time consuming and not a one person job. And that is where lowernine.org comes in.

We were able to bring a group in of largely inexperienced students to do work that takes a while but is easy to learn. While the guys installed Sheetrock, the rest of the group worked throughout the house doing multiple layers of prep work. It didn’t take long to see substantial progress made. Both John and Bob, our crew chief, seemed pleased. The other grounds continued to work at tiling and installing Sheetrock in other parts of the Lower Ninth.


Chalmette National Battlefield

And while we worked in poured. Clearly, this would not be a levee lunch day, so I proposed we meet at the Chalmette National Battlefield. Even in the rain, we could go through exhibits and drive around the site of the Battle of New Orleans. Inauspiciously my car was parked on the side of the street in what had become a five inch deep puddle. As a result, I had to remove my shoes in order to get into the car. The battlefield, which is marshy on the best of days, was not much better. We ate lunch; some walked around in the rain and mud; but evyone got a lay of the land, at least.


Ronald Lewis with students

Everyone returned to their respective tasks and had productive and rewarding afternoons. About four we broke for the day to make our annual pilgrimage to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. And just as in our visit to Kajun’s pub, it was useful that we had just finished reading Nine Lives. So, they got to meet Ronald AND gain a better understanding of the lace where they are working and staying.

Everyone went back and cleaned up. We ate our first dinner at Camp Hope which was not bad. After dinner everyone descended on a small Baskin Robbins in Chalmette where they overwhelmed the poor young woman running the place alone. They were patient, and from what I understand, tipped generously. Some went back to Camp Hope to chill while the rest of went into the City.


Aura Nealand and the Royal Roses

I walked about for a while before settling in for a couple of sets at the Spotted Cat. It has become so crowded I don’t get there as often as I used to, but one of my favorite New Orleans musicians, Aurora Nealand, was performing. It was crowded, but not wall-to-wall people. Her band was tight and she was her bright and exuberant self on the clarinet and soprano sax. A wonderful close to a day that some might call a washout, but to us, it was anything but.

The End of the New Orleans Class…for this Year! Thursday, May 23 2013 

Graduation at University of New Hampshire was this past Saturday and I had a chance to say goodbye to a number of former students. It also marked the end of the spring semester and the close of the eighth installment of the New Orleans class. For the past couple of years I’ve been on the lookout to see if the class became old hat to me or if I would tire of annual trips where I spend a good deal of time herding college students. Neither has come to pass.

Congo Square in Armstrong Park, March 2013

Congo Square in Armstrong Park, March 2013

I can accept some credit for that, as I constantly tinker with readings, assignments and course topics. The students also help, as each class has its own personality and just enough challenges to keep me on my toes. And then, there’s New Orleans itself, which has shown great promise and progress, but still displays the dysfunction and trials that haunted it prior to  Katrina. Thus the City remains a mutable  tapestry of wonder, beauty, and unapologetic chaos.

The trip to New Orleans over Spring Break is the centerpiece of the course. The weeks prior are concentrated on providing a basis of knowledge for the trip: the geography; history; music and culture; literature; and its own special language, or more correctly, languages. I call it “New Orleans boot camp,” grueling, but rewarding when it’s over. It provides the factual pegs upon which students can hang their experiences once they get back to New England. The second half of the class provides the opportunity to meld the facts with these experiences. We use them analyze what we saw, what we experienced, and use them to interpret for ourselves both the wonders and harsh realities of New Orleans. What may have been romanticized before the trip is tempered by stark truths. However, most students still come to the end of semester with a love for the City.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

As much as the trip is central to the course, it seemed even more so this year. Previous classes have worked in neighborhoods from the Upper Ninth to Carrollton, as well as in Slidell, LA and Waveland, MS. And we almost always stayed at locations distant from the work site. This year, we had the opportunity to work with lowernine.org. About a third of our group stayed there and the rest at nearby All Souls Episcopal Church. For the most part, our work was but a few blocks away in the Lower Ninth. Students generally find the work rewarding and eye-opening, but if their trip journals are a good indicator, which I think they are, this experience was a game changer. They undoubtedly embraced the sights and sounds of the French Quarter, but afterwards they returned to the blight, the potholes, and the poverty. When they returned to family and friends who asked: “What were you doing there? Isn’t it fixed yet?” they had answers buoyed by fact and steeped in experience. That is why we will be returning to the Lower Ninth next spring.

And no, a week is not enough, but that is all we have. I return home every year regretful of the many things that they didn’t see: a parade on St. Charles; Audubon Park; Super Sunday; St. Joseph’s Day; the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s; or a steaming hot Domilise’s oyster po-boy. I always vow to do better, but time and calendar always conspire to thwart me. Then, there’s the challenge of getting thirty students from two different locations, to one spot, on time. In addition, most of the students are underage, which in the new “improved” New Orleans, means they are unable to take in Kermit Ruffins at the Blue Nile or Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. And to paraphrase the old World War I expression: “How do you get them to Magazine Street once they’ve seen Bourbon?”

Second line on Broad St., March 2013

Second line on Broad St., March 2013

But I have learned that every year I get everyone back to New Hampshire safe and sound, it is indeed a good year. And this one certainly had some highlights for the class:

  • Second-lining on a Sunday afternoon;
  • An evening with Paul Sanchez, Arsene DeLay, and Vance Vaucresson in Gentilly;
  • Meeting with Ronald Lewis (and his granddaughters) at his House of Dance and Feathers on Tupelo Street;
  • the French Quarter Treasure Hunt;
  • Zydeco Night at the Rock and Bowl; and
  • Saturday morning at the French Market and on Royal Street.

I stayed a few days later, so I had an opportunity at add to my list of highlights. These included: Super Sunday; meeting JoAnne Guidos at her Kajun’s Pub; attending jazz mass; getting to the know the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth; the Dirty Dozen at Tipitina’s; St. Joseph’s Night; the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade; attending the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling competition at One-eyed Jack’s; going to a St. Joseph’s altar at a bar; and, of course, the aforementioned Domilise’s po-boy.

This is long-winded way of saying: “It doesn’t get old.” In fact, I’ll be back to New Orleans for a conference in August, but even when I’m there, I’ll still be looking forward to next year’s class and trip over Spring Break.

Mr. Lewis’ Neighborhood Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 

Putting in walls on Royal Street, March 2013.

Putting in walls on Royal Street, March 2013.

We woke up to a much clearer, albeit chilly morning. We huddled, shivering again in the yard of lowernine.org, but this time with sun on our faces. All three groups were sent to their previous locations. Van 2 to work on Royal Street to work on insulation and sheet rock. Van 3 to reinforce floors, rebuild walls, etc. for a sad shotgun house on Deleray Street. I returned with Van 1 to work on the floors of a home on Gordon Street.

We encountered some bottlenecks in work because we had to lay special board to serve as a foundation for a tile floor throughout the home. The board is like woven concrete, which means we do not to lay cement for the base. But is heavy and needs to be cut to fit in many places. Through the lack to tools, extension cords, goggles, masks, etc., there were some delays, but spirits remained intact. The long-term volunteers working with us provided a certain international air. Liam, the workhorse, from South Korea; James, the heartthrob, from England; and we’ll add the wise and acerbically funny Eileen, from the nation of Nevada.

Installing flooring on Gordon Street, March 2013.

Installing flooring on Gordon Street, March 2013.

To the eye, Van 2 probably made the most headway, as it is easy to follow the progression of installing insulation and walls. And Van 3 clearly had the grimiest work situation as they were working with old rotten and termite chewed wood.

Our group, Sam and Casey’s Van 1 also suffered from the fact that we had to take Van 1 to the shop to get the windshield installed before the trip home. A previous replacement was clearly not properly sealed. And given the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, the nearest Ford dealership on this side of New Orleans is in Slidell. Casey made the trek across the City to Metairie and I followed to pick him up. And because this is New Orleans, a simple windshield replacement will take a day; well, as it turns out — more.

IMG_0303While I was out getting much needed Ibuprofin, James packed all of the vanless students into the back of a pickup and took them down to where the Industrial Canal flows into the Mississippi for a picnic lunch. The hazard did not escape me; however, the fact that I missed it was quite annoying. They had a memorable lunch, snoozing on the levee, although many returned with distinct pink patches of skin.

At 4:00pm our group walked one block to Ronald Lewis’ House of Dance and Feathers. The rest caught up with us and we spent the next hour being educated and entertained by the unofficial mayor of the Lower Ninth Ward. From a childhood on Deslonde Street to his current home on Tupelo Street, Lewis roots in the Lower Ninth grow deep. From laying streetcar track, to union organizer, to community leader, Ronald’s passion and determination flow throughout Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Meeting him will make reading the book all the more meaningful.

The New Orleans class and the Lewis family, March 2013.

The New Orleans class and the Lewis family, March 2013.

The House of Dance and Feathers is Ronald’s collection of Mardi Gras Indian and second line paraphernalia from groups in the local nine. Again, it reflects Ronald’s gritty pride in his neighborhood and the distinct African-American culture that it holds. Ronald took half of the class into his museum (although it had climbed into the mid 60s, he had the heat on), while his granddaughters entertained the rest in the backyard. Then we switched. Afterwards we took pictures and said our goodbys until next year.

As I left the yard, I encountered a French-born anthropologist from Brazil. She is studying the relationship between the Indians and similar neighborhood groups in Brazil. I gave her a ride into the City so that she could catch the streetcar to Mid City. I showed her the location of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, where Sylvester Francis maintains a larger collection reflecting the traditions of his neighborhood. I dropped her off in the Quarter and suspect that we’ll cross paths again on Super Sunday or St. Joseph’s Night.

IMG_0324In the evening, the students feasted on spaghetti and salad and returned to the French Quarter. I joined up with friends Burt Feintuch and Gary Sampson, who are working on an illustrated book of interviews with New Orleans musicians. Appropriately enough, we met at Bullet’s Sport Bar on A.P Tureaud Street in the Seventh Ward, for Kermit Ruffins’ longstanding Tuesday night gig. From Kermit’s showmanship  to some fabulous guest vocalists, to the grill of barbecued meats outside (yes, I did), it did not disappoint. In addition to neighborhood folk and tourists, the audience contained Derek Shezbie, trumpet player for Rebirth, and actor Wendell Pierce, the hapless Antoine Baptiste on HBO’s Treme. Gary, who has never been to New Orleans, was clearly living a photographer’s dream. Hopefully, I will get to talk to him at some point during his visit. As it approached 10:00 pm, we left the Tuesday night revelry and headed our different ways.

IMG_0321Between work during the day and too many options for entertainment at night, one has to pace oneself.

Strength and Rebirth: New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Wednesday, Apr 4 2012 

Bumper stickers at the House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

It was our last night in the city; the air was warm and the city was alive. Despite the fact that it was around one in the morning the city was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. It was then, as we were heading back to the van, that Shanti asked me what my favorite part of New Orleans had been. I thought about it, and gave her my honest answer: “I don’t know.”  I asked her the same question and she told me it was the spirit of rebirth that the city embodied.

I digested this and realized how perfect of an answer it was. I was even a little embarrassed that it did not come to my mind. When she had asked me I thought of obvious things like the food, the craziness, and the music. I know these are all a major part of the city, but when it comes down to it, none of that would be there if it weren’t for the strong inner spirit that the people of New Orleans have.

Levee along the Industrial Canal, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012, Taylor Frarie

Thinking about it brought me back to the Lower Ninth Ward where we had visited on Sunday, our first day there. I just remember standing there when we learned about the destruction and how all the houses we were seeing would have been completely submerged in water. I tried to take it in, to fathom the magnitude of the damage and horror, but I just could not. It was surreal, like none of it had happened. But I know it did.  Even when we saw where the levee broke, it still didn’t quite hit me, and I don’t think it ever will. No one can imagine such an event unless it happens to them, the rest of us just have to try to do what we can to help. And people did try to help, just as residents tried to help each other.

Today the Lower Ninth Ward, even though it has a long way to go, is looking infinitely better. I remember long-time resident Ronald Lewis telling us that one of the things that made him happiest was the sight of children playing in the street in front of his house.  This hit me and I thought it was a beautiful way to describe it. It meant that life was truly coming back to his home and neighborhood. At first, I was surprised to learn that not all of the efforts into helping the Lower Ninth were fully appreciated. For instance, the modern and energy-efficient homes built by Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” Foundation. But now I understand that many residents just wanted help getting back to their old lives, they didn’t want everything to change. They just needed some support to get back on their feet.

Cover of Dan Baum's "Nine Lives"

Although foundation support is mostly a good thing; I can see where the mixed feelings are coming from.  I think these feelings are embodied through a song written by Paul Sanchez for a musical based on the Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives.” Ronald Lewis’s story is one of the nine. The chorus of that song states: “We were fine in the Lower Nine.” These words are drawn straight from Baum’s interview with Lewis. The song reflects Lewis’s exuberant pride in his neighborhood and helped me to further understand the feelings held by him and his neighbors.

As I walked down the streets of New Orleans for the last time, these were my thoughts. As music played and people laughed and danced and stumbled all around me, I knew that the city was once again a place of high spirits despite the tragedy and devastation that it had faced.  It took me some time, but I finally saw and realized that the spirit of rebirth was alive and well in New Orleans and I watched as it pulsed through the city. And maybe, I thought, this is my favorite thing too.

–Taylor Frarie–

The REAL Spirit of New Orleans Monday, Apr 2 2012 

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn…” –Jack Kerouac

Bead work from Mardi Gras Indian outfit, House of Dance and Feathers, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012

Looking back to the weeks before my first trip to New Orleans, I remember being nervous and wondering what to expect from a city known for its indescribable culture. After spending one day in the city, I was hooked. Our first day experiencing New Orleans as a class helped me to understand the spirit and culture of the city that Bill had been trying to describe to us for the first half of the semester.

Our first full day in New Orleans, we started off by heading to the Lower Ninth Ward to visit Ronald Lewis at The House of Dance and Feathers, the museum located behind his house. The bright colors from the Mardi Gras Indian costumes filling the room made it difficult to look away. Each costume was created with beautiful beadwork and details. It is one thing to see them in photographs or videos but it is a completely different story to see them in person.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Once everybody had settled into the museum, Ronald shared some of his experiences with Hurricane Katrina. While I had heard a lot about Katrina before visiting New Orleans, I didn’t truly understand how it affected the city and her people until hearing Ronald talk about his experiences. He helped me to understand the depth at which the people of the city were affected. One thing he said really stuck with me. When asked about the response to Katrina and the progress that has been made over the past few years he said, “It not the hot story, but it’s an ongoing story”. This was a really great thing to hear right before we started our work with Habitat for Humanity. Living in a world filled with daily disasters and news stories, it is hard to remember that the problems that occur from these events persist long after the hype goes down and volunteering is not longer the popular thing to do. This concept resonated with me and was something I carried with me as I volunteered and hope to remember now that I am back home and far away from the damage of Katrina and the people of New Orleans. So often people jump on the bandwagon to support issues but forget about them shortly afterwards. It makes sense, but it is a shame.

New homes, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2012. Gabby Chesney.

After having spent a little time in New Orleans, I know I won’t forget. I am excited to explore ways I can get involved and support the amazing and spirited people affected by Katrina from a distance. Ronald’s words were inspiring and so truthful. His spirit and passion were contagious. I love people like that, those are the ones who stick with you and change your outlook. 
I think many of the people I met in New Orleans embody this spirit. A city is nothing without the people who fill it. The people of New Orleans, so filled with the spirit of life and music and resilience, are the heartbeat of the city. Throughout the week we heard stories of people who suffered greatly after Katrina but returned to the city with a strong spirit and sense of hope.

Gabby and Ronald, House of Dance and Feathers, March 2012. Gabby Chesney.

Those are the stories that made the week we spent amazing. Without the people, New Orleans would just be a picturesque city by the water. Once you add these eclectic and passionate people, you have a place that is impossible to forget and sure to change you in one way or another. 

–Gabby Chesney–

Fine in the Lower Nine Monday, Mar 12 2012 

Ronald Lewis and the House of Dance and Fathers, March 2012

For the first time, the entire group went into New Orleans. And heading from Slidell, we logically, and by planning, went from east to west. First stop was the Lower Ninth Ward, arguably the part of the City hardest hit by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.

We began our visit at 1317 Tupelo Street, home of Ronald Lewis and his backyard museum, the House of Dance and Feathers. I first met him last summer, but I got to know him several years ago in Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives. Ronald’s voice, as relayed by Baum, captured me, and before they read the book, I wanted my students to meet Ronald and hear him and his wisdom in person.

Students with Ronald Lewis, March 2012.

Ronald was heading off to speak at a onference at Tulane, but he took the time to talk about his lifetime in the Lower Ninth, the Mardi Gras Indian and second line traditions, and his collection which represents both. The students were mesmerized, both by his experience and his knowledge. And his warmth. It was a great introduction to the Lower Ninth before heading over to the levee along the Industrial Canal, where the worst damage occurred. It is always sobering, but it was heartening to see slow, steady, and sustainable progress in a place where an entire neighborhood was swept from the face of the Earth.

Students with parade loot, March 2012. Photo by Cora Lehet.

After our informal tour, we parted ways, the students to get a bead fix at the Metairie St. Patrick’s Day Parade and me, to go to the Keep N It Real Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line in Mid City. The students had a ball tastefully collecting beads and throws from marchers at the parade in Metairie. And they caught cabbages, carrots, potatoes and onions thrown from the two level parade trucks — it is not a parade for the inattentive. It would be interesting to get a total weight of the beads they brought back and I heard a couple complaining of sore necks resulting from wearing so many beads. Needless to say: a good time was had by all.

I joined Kyle and his friends for the second line, which started at Bayou St. John and Orleans Avenue. In keeping with the Nine Lives theme of the day, the To Be Continued Brass Band played behind the dancers. Their formation, under the direction of band director Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., was also chronicled in the book; a story, which to me, created some of the most moving parts of the book. So, here they were, the driving for for the throng which pointed itself towards Treme. And one which would not stop dancing, drinking, and eating until several miles and hours later. We followed for a couple of miles before taking

Second Line parade with TBC Brass Band, Mid City, March 2012

the car to catch up with them as they entered Treme. Highlight: the band and marchers version of  “A Closer Walk with Thee” that segued into “I’ll Fly Away.” Priceless.

We went into the City to listen to some great music and great musicians on Frenchmen Street, before polishing off three pounds of boiled crawfish. But the day was not over.

We reunited with the sunburnt and bead weary students at the Gentilly Baptist Church for a concert by singer, songwriter, guitarist Paul Sanchez. We were there as guests of Tom Brink and UNH Intervarsity, who are staying working in Gentilly. And it was fun for us to see and visit with friends and former students in a place far distant from Durham, NH.

Left to right: Alex McMurray, Paul Sanchez, and Arsene DeLay, Gentilly Baptist Church, March 2012.

And in keeping with the theme for the day, Sanchez has spent the last three years collaborating on writing a musical based on the book, Nine Lives. Alongside guitarist Alex McMurray and singer Arsene DeLay, niece of singer John Boutte, they would highlight and draw together our collective experiences.

For an hour and half, they brought tired students to their feet. Had them dancing. Singing. Sanchez opened with Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” and later played one of my favorites, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” written in collaboration with John Boutte. My favorite part, however, were selections from the musical, including “Fine in the Lower Nine,” written in the voice of native son Ronald Lewis, and “It Could Have Been Worse,” which DeLay used to bring down the house. And it would not be the first time.

At about 9:30 p.m., the concert and singing and dancing and socializing wound down. What a day. The students still needed a beignet fix. I opted for a shower and some quiet time and instead headed back to Slidell. And when it was time to get up this morning, I was very happy I did.

Reader beware: these daily posts during spring break are often done on the run, usually in a McDonald’s. I generally don’t have the time to review or edit them as I might usually, and the chances that I’ll go back and catch things is limited. In advance, let me apologize for typos (especially this year since I am using a netbook) and missing words. It goes with the territory, but if I can, I ‘d rather post as often as time allows, albeit imperfectly.

Things to Do in New Orleans — Part 1 Thursday, Mar 1 2012 

We’re about a week away from heading down to New Orleans. In addition to working with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany Parish, we will be experiencing the history and culture of New Orleans. And in looking ahead, we will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2010

You’ll be arriving in Slidell next Saturday. If you arrive early enough, we can go into the City. If it a little later, there is a fire pit where we are staying. We can can hang out. Rest after 30 hours on the road. And be well prepared for an action packed Sunday.

On Sunday morning we will head down to the Lower Ninth Ward, ground zero for flooding from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. We’ll head to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, once the center of a vibrant and close-knit community.  Much of it was washed away in August 2005 and of the all the neighborhoods hit by Katrina, it has been the slowest to be rebuilt.  Many of the houses near the levee are the product of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right initiative. The houses are innovative and sustainable. And other charities have built houses in the Lower Ninth.  Development has been slow, but it is being recognized as a model of sustainability.

Kendra and Ronald Lewis, House of Dance and Feathers, June 2011

After that, we’ll head over to 1217 Tupelo Street, also in the Lower Ninth. There we will visit one of the most personal museum collections anywhere. We are going to visit Ronald Lewis’ home grown museum, the House of Dance and Feathers. Long before Katrina, Lewis, who spent years repairing street car tracks, began collecting Mardi Gras Indian and Second Line memorabilia from the Lower Ninth of his birth. Remarkably, much of his collection survived the flood. And since, he has built a place for people to come and appreciate his handiwork and the work of others.

Afterwards, I’ll turn you loose. I suspect most of you will head over to Metairie for the St. Patrick’s Parade. There you find beads and catch cabbages. As fun as that sounds, I’ll likely be off chasing a Second Line parade (I plan to catch the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade on March 17th). In the evening, we’ll meet with our friends from UNH Intervarsity for a concert  by New Orleans born singer, song writer, guitarist Paul Sanchez. I saw him for a brief set with John Boutte several years back, so I’m looking forward to hearing him again.

St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 2010

Uncharacteristically,  we have Monday off, so we will make full use of it. I’d like to hit the City early so we can visit some of the cemeteries. Afterwards, I’ll leave it up to groups. Whether you want to kick around the French Quarter, take the ferry to Algiers, or ride the streetcar uptown — it’s up to you. All I know, we have to back out in Slidell by 1:30pm for a swamp tour on the Pearl River watershed.  Hopefully, it will be warm and sunny so that we get bored seeing alligators and other reptiles.

Afterwards, I suspect we’ll head back to the Peace Mission Center, have dinner, gather around a fire, and call it a day. Stay tuned for Part 2. I’m still looking at what music is playing week after next.

The House of Dance and Feathers Friday, Aug 12 2011 

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.

Ronald Lewis holds forth in his museum.

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.

Some of Ronald's bead work.

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.