Tremé's Cultural Heartbeat

The Backstreet Cultural Museum, like its battered Creole neighborhood, struggles to hang on post-Katrina.



The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a temple to the culture of "the second line" — the city-s dazzling street parades that celebrate the mythical terrain of the Mardi Gras Indians. New Orleans was in a freefall when Sylvester Francis came back from Texas on Oct. 2 after a harrowing odyssey that began in a flooded Ninth Ward apartment complex with 11 stranded people, including his wife, mama and a sister in a wheelchair. They landed in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center for five squalid days on toilet-soaked carpets. A helicopter evacuation to the Louis Armstrong Airport led to four nomadic weeks by bus and car, staying on gym cots, kinfolk's couches and motels in three Louisiana towns, then Dallas.

At 59, Francis has resilience in his veins. His goal was to safeguard the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which he founded in 1999 as a temple to the culture of "the second line" -- the city's dazzling street parades that celebrate the mythical terrain of the Mardi Gras Indians. On Oct. 6, Backstreet became the first New Orleans museum to reopen.

Homeless since the flood, Francis and his wife, Anita, have been living in the office at Backstreet, located at 1116 St. Claude St., a small clapboard building that was for many years a mortuary. The museum is a thriving cultural center in TremŽ, the nation's oldest African-American neighborhood.

Backstreet honors the Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition of symbolic rebellion begun in the 1880s, commemorating Indian tribes that harbored runaway slaves. In afternoon light the plumed headdresses and beaded breastplates of the costumes radiate like colors in a rainbow. The walls feature photographs of stately grand marshals leading burial processions. A TV monitor plays videotapes that Francis has made of second-liners parading behind brass bands, all for his agenda of "keeping jazz funerals alive."

Backstreet has 300 members, mostly local, who pay $10 to $20 per year. Admission is $5 or whatever you can afford. The museum is a hub for people in TremŽ and downriver neighborhoods, like the Seventh and Ninth Wards, which have a long history of social aid and pleasure cubs whose members make color-coordinated costumes for parades held on various weekends between September and May -- until Katrina.

TremŽ holds a mirror to this city's complex and sometimes tortured history. Some of the 19th century Creole cottages and Victorian shotguns, built by free persons of color, show the hand of gentrification. A number of writers and artists live in TremŽ, yet certain areas were blighted before Katrina. Drug violence took a toll on the lives of many youngsters there.

On Jan. 15, some 300 members of 30 parading clubs gathered at Backstreet, wearing black T-shirts with the logo ReNew Orleans, and marched behind several bands in a parade that was intended to promote unity. At 4 p.m. the parade ended a mile away, near a housing project, with three people wounded by gunshots.

The violence came the day after Mayor Ray Nagin called New Orleans one of America's "safest urban areas," alluding to the dispersal of the city's underclass -- roughly 30 percent of the 467,000 residents who lived at or below poverty level. Crime has plummeted with only about a third of the people returned, but for some the streets are still not safe.

The shootings came as the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission released a report by a cultural subcommittee led by Wynton Marsalis. The recommendations include a National Jazz Museum and a housing policy to assist hundreds of displaced musicians.

A report appendix lists 47 Mardi Gras Indian tribes -- with names like 7th Ward Hunters, Young Magnolias, Guardians of the Flame, Wild Bogacheeta -- and 70 social aid and pleasure clubs, with names like Calliope High Steppers, Lady Buck Jumpers, Money Wasters, and Ladies Prince of Wales.

Backstreet's collection of costumes and memorabilia comes from people in these groups. "They give things in their lives, and some of this stuff to me is very precious," says Francis.

He gestures to a coffin doorplate with an inlaid photograph of a 17-year-old boy who was murdered in a housing project. "His mama gave me that, took it off her own wall," he says.

The fate of this fertile folk culture is anybody's guess. The Seventh and Ninth Wards are ghost towns, most of the streets without electricity, dark at night, houses empty. Not even Fats Domino, the illustrious singer, has been able to return to his mansion in the Lower Nine.

TremŽ, on higher ground, suffered much less flooding. Francis had electricity restored relatively soon at Backstreet.Ê

His collection began in 1992 in a three-car garage of a home he was renting in the Seventh Ward, which is adjacent to TremŽ. He began by taking photographs and filming parades with a Super-8. When a relative died, his wife held the repast, or dinner, after the service. He hung photographs of Mardi Gras Indians in his garage. People began donating things.

Members of the Rhodes family, who own several funeral homes, saw the collection and hired him as a general employee. As his collection grew, the Rhodes' offered him free use of the old Blandin Funeral Home, a tiny building by today's mortuary standards. "When the word got out that I was opening up," he says, "more people started calling up, saying, 'I got my daddy's stuff, I got my momma's stuff.' And that's how I filled this building up."

Backstreet's celebration of Carnival took on a quaking poignancy as the city geared up for Mardi Gras. "We got to bring the culture back," says Francis, taking a break from mopping an exhibition floor on a recent afternoon. He gazed at the large grassy yard of St. Augustine Church across the street. "If you don't have Indians and second liners, you ain't got a real Mardi Gras."

Reviving Mardi Gras struck many people outside New Orleans, and some within, as callous toward the many people who have lost homes or were displaced forever. But Carnival also has deep roots as a neighborhood tradition, especially to African Americans.Ê

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission's cultural report echoes Francis on the vitality of second-line parade groups. But the commission's housing report, influenced to a great degree by the consulting Urban Land Institute of Washington, D.C., has advocated making parks out of certain flooded -- and predominantly black -- neighborhoods.

"They're trying to keep poor people from coming back," Francis insists. Although affluent homeowners in Lakeview and New Orleans East are equally upset by the notion of a "smaller footprint," Francis' issue is the cultural life of poor people.

"Nagin's not a culture man," he snorts. "They're worried about the French Quarter, the tourists. He's not a man for the second line. The city don't see this museum. They don't see what kind of history and culture is in here."

To be fair, Nagin has supported the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, led by Irvin Mayfield, with a $400,000 grant. He also has denied any class bias in repopulating the city.

However, the mayor's decision to close an elegantly restored 19th century mansion called TremŽ Villa Meilleur: The New Orleans African American Museum of Art, has not burnished his credentials as "a culture man." The manor house dates to the 1830s and was a centerpiece of revitalization efforts under former Mayor Marc Morial, now president of the Urban League. TremŽ Villa, which opened in 1996, held exhibitions and conferences, and boasted a permanent collection of African art and paintings by New Orleans artists. With Backstreet, it anchored what many hoped would become TremŽ's cultural and economic renaissance. Now, a large tree that destroyed the fence behind TremŽ Villa lies in the yard, waist-high in weeds. Throughout January, shutters on the handsome porch were open, windows broken, the paintings inside an easy snatch.

"I can't believe they still have art on the wall with the condition the building is in," says Vincent Sylvain, a former Morial executive assistant for housing policy, who guided the renovation. Sylvain, a Realtor and publisher of New Orleans Agenda, an online newsletter, lost his home in eastern New Orleans. He discussed the museum's history in a series of telephone calls while driving a daughter to Memphis.

"There were squatters in that place when we began the restoration in '95," he says. "We wound up going to court to get them properly evicted." Clinton HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros approved the restoration. "Henry asked for a plan and wanted the funds under the control of the mayor's office," Sylvain continues.

In November 2003, the Nagin Administration padlocked the gates, fired the staff and handed operating documents to the U.S. attorney. Kenya Smith, Nagin's executive counsel, told The Times-Picayune that the museum "was attempting to be reimbursed for operational expenses, which are disallowed under federal guidelines."

"Closing it was a way of shutting down a legacy of Marc Morial," Sylvain says, alluding to legendary spite between the past and present mayors.

A key board member, Dr. William Bertrand, a Tulane University epidemiologist who directed an AIDS-prevention program in Congo, donated tribal art works to the Villa. "I thought it had the potential to be a real cultural base not only for that neighborhood but the entire city," says Bertrand. "In the change of administration the museum fell out of favor. It was clearly a Morial project. For all sorts of reasons, the new administration chose not to support it. I think that was a mistake."

Morial put the Villa under an independent board, with staffers on city salaries. His administration used HUD funds to buy several other historic buildings adjacent to the Villa for an envisioned cultural complex. A 2004 HUD audit ruled that the Morial Administration improperly used funds from block grants for the development. Sylvain insists no funds were misused. Whatever the semantics, no one was indicted.

Meanwhile, Nagin brought changes to the museum's board of directors, with an eye toward broader changes in its direction. The city has not had to repay funds to HUD, confirms attorney Smith, speaking for Nagin on the issue. "For the long-term health of the museum, the mayor felt it was necessary to diversify funding streams." The museum remains closed.

"There is no broken glass now," says Jim Thorn, who now chairs the TremŽ Villa board of directorsÊ "We haven't lost a single piece of art work. ... There was some roof damage." Repairs will begin after resolving insurance issues, he adds.

"We've had several visits from the National Museum Association and we've identified someÊgood candidates for sources of revenues. The post-Katrina environment probably put us in a good position to raise funds. ... We hope to have a reopening event to coincide with Jazz Fest" in late April.

With the Villa closed, Backstreet is the lone cultural heartbeat of TremŽ.

"To come to this museum is to ask about the culture," says Francis, smoking a Kool as the floor dries. "People leave and have a whole new feeling about the culture. It's spreading the love of our history."

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