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Nothin’ but the bones January 26, 2008

Posted by The Typist in assholes, Carnival, cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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The weekly newspaper Gambit brings us this story of the fearful future of the bone men and other African-American Mardi Gras traditional marchers. In on of the city’s oldest neighborhoods outside of the French Quarter, the local population is being squeezed by gentrification, rising rents and the demolition of the Lafitte Housing Project. What is at risk here is not just affordable housing or the comfort of coming home, but something infinitely more rare and precious: a living culture unique in North America.

For Bruce ‘Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.

‘We’ll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets,” Barnes says. ‘Mardi Gras is the one day we do that.”

How much longer will the bone men and downtown Indians survive? That’s part of the focus of the story, which first emerged when the police broke up a traditional second-line parade in Treme honoring a musician who had passed on, scuffling with and arresting musicians. These unscheduled events are a century old tradition cherished by the neighborhood’s longtime residents.

Speaking to the Times-Picayune back in October when the confrontation between musicians and the police took place, lifelong Treme resident Beverly Curry explained why she came out that day in spite of bad leg: “I need to be here, to show my support for our heritage”

For a century, she said, that heritage has included impromptu second-line parades for musicians who die, “from the day they pass until the day they’re put in the ground,” she said. Those memorial processions still occur with regularity, without permits, as is the tradition. But, increasingly, NOPD officers have been halting them, citing complaints from neighbors and incidents of violence at similar gatherings.

….”Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood’s historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood’s architecture.

“They want to live in the Treme, but they want it for their ways of living,” Curry said.

Who the hell decides to move to Treme, then calls the police when a second-line parade passes by? Why did they chose to live downtown, in this neighborhood of all places where second-lines (impromptu and the scheduled social aid and pleasure club versions), where bone men and Mardi Gras Indians are part of the very fabric of the place? What possible benefit is there to this redevelopment if it strangles the area’s culture?

Yes, you, yuppie scum. If you people feel you must live downtown, buy yourself one of those lovely high-rise condos being thrown up in the CBD and stay out of the traditional neighborhoods. You can climb into your Lexus and drive yourself to your favorite Uptown restaurant, if you can bring yourself to pass through or even (gasp!) park in the neighborhoods where the best ones are, neighborhoods full of the sort of people you apparently do want to live next to.

Is this the vision of the future of the city–gentrification leading to the death of the real New Orleans, what happened in Charleston after Hurricane Hugo, the threat I warned readers of WBG about over two years ago? It is a fearful thought, more so than a block-long trooop of possessed bone men: the death of the spirit that walks and sings and dances daily in the people of New Orleans. If the yuppie property flippers and their customers destroy Treme to save it’s quaint architectural charm, then it will not be Treme but something else. Only the bones of the houses of the old place will remain, and the spirits of three centuries will rest uneasily when the bone men no longer come to call on Carnival day.

Note: Hat tip to Anima Mundi and Library Chronicles for first calling out this story.

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