Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, a friend and I used forged credentials to sneak past the machine-gun-toting military contingent at the parish border and return to New Orleans. We found an abandoned skiff on the banks of Bayou St. John next to the wreckage of a crashed helicopter. We picked up broomsticks and palm tree branches off the ground and used them to pole ourselves through the inundated streets of Mid-City. When we passed Liuzza's on Bienville Street, the floodwater was still chest deep around the 59-year-old restaurant.
Flash forward to the second weekend of Jazz Fest and I found myself sitting at the bar inside the same restaurant drinking Abita beer from the frosty, globe-shaped mugs for which Liuzza's is known. The interior looks just as it did before the federal levee failure, with the addition now of a framed photo on the wall showing the restaurant when the floodwater was at its highest and the prospects for its Mid-City neighborhood seemed at their lowest.
Liuzza's building was tightly boarded up right up until its Jazz Fest reopening, and offered no hint that enough work was going on inside to make it ready for customers and commerce by early May. It turns out that was on purpose.
Michael Bordelon -- one of the owners -- did much of the reconstruction work, but in the beginning he could hardly get any work done because of the stream of customers and well-wishers dropping in to ask about the landmark restaurant's status.
"Without the boards up, everyone who drove past wanted to stop and check in on us," Bordelon says. "Even still, the brave ones would start banging on the boards and I'd have to stop work and they usually got a tour anyway."
It's much the same story on North Carrollton Avenue, where a strip of businesses that starts with Venezia Restaurant and ends with Kjean Seafood looks as dismal as can be. But in the middle of the block, behind the plywood boards on the windows at Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream & Confectionary, Arthur Brocato and his family are preparing their 101-year-old gelato business to reopen around the beginning of June.
Behind the boards -- and past the lingering piles of debris, and over the hoods of flooded, mangled cars, and around the corner from blacked-out houses -- there's momentum building in Mid-City, perhaps more than it appears in passing. The neighborhood was badly flooded, but it was not obliterated, and it can be viable again if people decide the place is worth the effort. The local businesses and historic restaurants are beginning to return. On many blocks, the population of residents back in their homes at night at last outnumbers the headcount of contractors and laborers working on their streets during the day. People are getting on with their lives and trying to build things better than they were, even if they have to step over a lot of debris along the way.
That's the spirit being celebrated at this weekend's Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a festival to be held along Bayou St. John on Saturday, May 27, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Jared Zeller, whose home-based business Mothership Entertainment promotes a stable of local musicians, had wanted to hold a music festival in the neighborhood for years. This year, with the neighborhood crawling back from the flood, he decided to go for it. The Mid-City Neighborhood Organization got involved, as did the nonprofit Mid-City Art Market.
The festival will provide music all day from a stage overlooking Bayou St. John, with at least 10 acts ranging from the 20-piece Afro-Brazilian performance troupe Casa Samba, to a combo of Walter "Wolfman" Washington and James Andrews, to Anders Osborne. The art market will set up shop on the Jefferson Davis Parkway neutral ground with dozens of vendor booths. Contractors, realtors, nonprofits and other organizations will have information booths near the music stage, and there will be a kids' area with games and crafts. Mid-City restaurants will be on hand selling food, including Venezia, Mona's, Juan's Flying Burrito, the Asia Pacific Caf and the new Market at Esplanade -- the grocery that has recently opened to replace the Mid-City branch of Whole Foods. Beer will be sold. Admission to the festival is free, and local businesses sponsoring the day are covering the costs and paying musicians.
Zeller was recently talking up the festival in the barroom of the Parkway Bakery po-boy shop, right across the bayou from where the bands will play. "What's it for, then?" the bartender asked him. "Just to spread the love?"
"Spread the love?" Zeller said. "Yeah, sure. Spread the music. Spread the food. You know, spread the news."
The news is that the boards are coming down around Mid-City as a hard-hit neighborhood rebuilds.
- Ian McNulty
- Mid-City residents young and old are happy to be back home and reviving their neighborhood.