If a motorist stops to ask directions, residents around Orleans and Claiborne avenues usually ask, "Do you want to ride upstairs or downstairs?" Upstairs means taking Interstate 10; downstairs means going on Claiborne and other city streets. Opt for a drive downstairs, alongside this area's open-air art museum and its nearly 40 full-scale murals, covering columns from Orleans Avenue to Hunter's Field.
For a century, a steady stream of people have walked under North Claiborne's shady promenade, edged by oak trees. Today, however, the trees are murals, painted onto massive concrete pillars. The shade comes courtesy of an elevated span of I-10.
In 1966, bulldozers uprooted the avenue's quadruple rows of oak trees and tore up its grassy neutral ground to make way for the freeway. Nothing can ever replace what was destroyed -- a thriving black business district, a cohesive community, a beautiful picnic ground. But a few years ago the nearby African American Museum began commissioning murals through a project called Restore the Oaks.
The murals are windows into the historic Treme neighborhood. But they're also a backdrop for residents' everyday activities. This part of Claiborne is still a place to gossip with neighbors, relax in lawn chairs, fry redfish or play basketball.
At the St. Bernard Avenue end, it's long been a parking spot for 82-year-old Bob Johnson, who sells watermelons and vegetables from his pickup in between daily dominoes matches. His scorekeeper, Herbert Clark, says they watched the painting closely. He approves of the result. "It makes a better appearance, instead of having the empty posts all the way to Orleans."
The murals are generally self-explanatory. Most people recognize civil rights pioneer the Rev. Avery Alexander and musicians Jelly Roll Morton, Ernie K-Doe and Fats Domino (the latter painted by cousin Atlantis Domino). For the more intricate pieces, such as Slim Domino's fantastic rendering of a Dutch Morial visit to the Lafitte project and local barber Nat Williams' detailed portrayal of a jazz funeral, passersby are often glad to explain who's who and what's what.
Painter Richard Thomas was a mere kid when the oaks came down. But he's a perfect tour guide because he's part of the mural-implementation team, which includes other eminent locals such as Charlene Jones, Charles Simms, Charlie Johnson Jr., Doug Redd, and Jerome Smith, whom Thomas calls "our historian, our walking encyclopedia."
Heading downtown from Orleans Avenue, the first block of columns focuses on Carnival. "This is where we celebrated," Thomas says, explaining how Zulu and other black groups were barred from Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue and so Orleans and Claiborne avenues became the center of black Mardi Gras.
About four years ago, as part of another project, Charlie Johnson painted this section's first pillar, an image of legendary Mardi Gras Indian chief Tootie Montana in pink feathers. A few years later, Restore the Oaks painters, each paired with a young (14- to 18-year-old) apprentice, began work on murals dedicated to traditional black Mardi Gras characters such as the Zulu krewe, the million-dollar baby dolls, and skeleton gangs.
Several sections are worthy of a short detour. In the block between St. Ann and Dumaine streets, for instance, a series of powerful paintings pay homage to chefs Leah Chase and Austin Leslie, and writer-activist Tom Dent. Pay special attention to Jacquinta Cherry's fabulous tribute to longtime Bell Junior High band director Donald Richardson, Damon Reed's portrait of Mahalia Jackson, and local painter-teacher Prince's harrowing account of a day in the life of the Freedom Riders.
The subsequent block is spotty, mostly white paint and unusable columns covered in a drab brick overlay. Of the 54 concrete pillars originally slated for this project, all were given a white basecoat by Orleans Parish Prison inmates. A third still stand bare, stalled, because of unexpected funding shifts.
The drab span stops at St. Philip Street, with Johnny Payton's painting of an uprooted Sixth Ward house, trumpet player in the doorway. It's a nod to a time when "you had musicians in every household in this neighborhood," says Thomas. Equally engaging is the neighboring column, Joy Ebel's mural of brass band players, which depicts past and present performers including James and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews -- whose mother, Lois, often walked by to admire the painting's progress and brag on her sons, says Ebel. For centuries, Treme's second-line parades have taken to the neighborhood's streets to celebrate life. This project matches that history perfectly, says Thomas. "Here is more art of celebration," he says, "and you find it in the streets."