Hurricane Katrina bruised New Orleans’s surface, but it could do nothing to diminish the city’s spirit. Four years after the storm, the good times are rolling here once again, thanks to the proud, hospitable folks who call it home.Photographs by Danny Bollinger.
We walk into Sidney’s Saloon in New Orleans’s Seventh Ward and start talking to the bartender, Kyma Douse, a warm woman with a slight smirk. The club, frequented by many a well-regarded jazz musician, sits amid a cluster of bars and restaurants on St. Bernard Avenue; it’s located in the historic African-American neighborhood that spawned a world-famous Creole culture and produced countless musicians and city leaders. Yet, like so many other treasures in this city, though Sidney’s is less than a mile from the French Quarter, most tourists don’t even know it’s here.
After ordering some homemade gumbo, which is served in a Styrofoam cup, my friend and I ask after Kermit Ruffins, a horn player and New Orleans institution who is rumored to be in the process of buying Sidney’s. We’re hoping we might hear him play tonight.
“Kermit doesn’t play here right now. He’s doing that HBO movie, so he had to give up something,” Douse tells us. “He’s over at Vaughan’s tonight.”
She’s talking about Vaughan’s Lounge -- located nearby in the Bywater, a funky downriver neighborhood -- where Ruffins has been showing up late for his regular Thursday-night gig for 17 years and making up for his tardiness with steaming vats of red beans and rice, sausage, and turkey legs to serve for free. The HBO project Douse is referring to is Treme, an upcoming series about musicians, including Ruffins, and others who are rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina. It’s being filmed by David Simon, the master storyteller behind The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Locals are holding out hope that Simon will be able to capture the city in ways that have eluded so many other filmmakers.
The Seventh Ward still hasn’t fully rebounded from the flood of biblical proportions that occurred four years ago, but in places like Sidney’s and others on this strip, it’s clear that the city’s unique culture has slowly been restored along with the population, the substantial majority of which has come back. Returning natives have been joined in the resettling by a new class of mission-driven outsiders, many of whom initially came to work or volunteer in the recovery but then succumbed to the city’s mysterious charms. Though a few neighborhoods remain largely barren, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, and other hard-hit areas, such as Gentilly and Lakeview, are still dotted with untended houses, a visitor to New Orleans would find it difficult to find signs of the flood across most of the landscape.