A few months ago I mentioned a trip I made with my friend Josh to the great city of New Orleans. He was putting the finishing touches on the fourth issue of his magazine Habitus and I was tagging along. (Wrote a post about, want to hear it, here it go…)

The issue is out now and it’s very good, probably my second favorite so far. (Issue 02: Sarajevo is still holding down #1) Here’s a little blurb on the content…

Our edition features some of the leading writers and thinkers from the city and beyond: including Rodger Kamenetz, Andrei Codrescu, Nancy Lemann, and others. In addition to our usual array of terrific fiction and poetry, we have a meditation on disaster and memory from Ari Kelman, a celebrated environmental historian, a photo essay documenting the city’s unique and exuberant street culture from photographer L.J. Goldstein; an extraordinary memoir of the intersection of African-American and Jewish roots in one New Orleans family from Ronne Hartfield; interviews with musician-historian Ned Sublette and the Brazilian urban-planning innovator Jamie Lerner; and many more exciting features.

Regardless of the fact that’s its my friend’s project, Habitus really is a unique and constantly edutaining publication. Order a copy yesterday or better yet subscribe…

To celebrate the issue I want to post up a conversation that I sat in on while I was down in NO. It was between Josh and Ronald Lewis, an advocate and spokesperson for the city’s Lower Ninth Ward and the founder of The House of Dance and Feathers , a museum that honors the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans. The conversation provides as much background as you’ll need, so I’m just gonna get to it. VERY good read for anyone interested in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, parade culture, or hearing a southern black man describe the horrors of eating Gefilte fish…

Joshua Harry Ellison: How did this place get started?

Ronald Lewis: Well, you know, I started this before Katrina. I had a little building called The House of Dance and Feathers…

JHE: Here?

RL: Yeah. But it was a smaller building that faced the street. That picture in front of you there, that’s how the interior of the original building looked. And Katrina took all of that. And I remember, right after the storm, me and LJ [Goldstein] made contact with each other, and he came out with his little club – the 69 Social and Pleasure Club, Krewe du Jieux, and everybody – and got me some help to clean out my house and get my life back started.

Then I spoke at a conference called Reinhabiting NOLA at Loyola University, with Rachel [Breunlin]‘s husband Dan Etheridge and Dr Helen Regis. I spoke and told them that I needed help to rebuild to show that this could happen after all of this devastation. And the help came, and out of that came this: the new House of Dance & Feathers – a living story out of all this pain and suffering and misery.


JHE: What did you do before the storm?

RL: Well, I was retired. I’d been working for the transit system for 31 years. I was a streetcar track repairman, and I retired in 2002 at 51 years old. And from that time on, I dedicated my life to the community and our culture.

JHE: Did you grow up in the Ninth Ward?

RL: Right here in the Lower Ninth Ward, right where the breech in the levee was at, at 1911 Deslonde Street. So my entire life has been in this community. And the rest of my life is committed to watching it come back.

JHE: How many of your neighbors are back now?

RL: You can’t count by seeing them physically, you count by seeing the reconstruction work that’s going on, you see. They’re still in different places, but they’ve found ways to get back here and start the process of rebuilding.

JHE: Who is doing the construction? Are they hiring people?

RL: They’re hiring people, they’re finding family… Really it comes down to by whatever means necessary, yeah. See, the government here ain’t did like the government in Asia when they had the tsunami. Months after the tsunami, they started building houses for those people. Because I spoke at a conference last year at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte where this fellow that spoke before me to this group of architects showed where they were building these little houses, like 600 square feet or whatever, and making these people whole again.

Here, you’re talking about America, right? Richest and most technologically skilled country in the world, and going on three years later, nothing happening. Look what’s happening. You know? So that tells you something about neglect of the people. Anytime they can bomb up Iraq and automatically start the rebuilding process, what about an American city like New Orleans? You’ve seen, outside of the Central Business District, nothing. We’re still struggling. We’re still begging. We’re still saying, “We need to be whole. We need our lives put back together.” Just give us some honest help, and we can get it done.

JHE: So are you still waiting for Road Home money?

RL: Well, I got my Road Home money, so I’m whole, you understand. But it’s more than about me being whole. It’s about my community, it’s about my neighbors, it’s about the children being back on the street. It’s about community, viability. Yeah.

JHE: So what’s happening in the community right now?

RL: It’s one house and one family at a time. That’s a crux of this thing. When the people of New Orleans evacuated from this city, everyone of us thought that in two or three days, we’d be back home in our houses. Nobody expected for 80 percent of this city to be flooded. Now, since it happened, people left out in an exodus, and they couldn’t come back the same way they left out. So here it is – actually being in exile from the city that we love, that we want to come back to.

And really we maintain the viability of our city through our culture, through feel-good, you know? We get together on those given Sundays and give those street parades and all of that, knowing that come that Monday morning, we’re back to this pain and suffering.

JHE: So are you with a club right now?

RL: Yeah, my club is the Big Nine Social & Pleasure Club. And I’m involved with LJ and them in Krewe du Jieux. I was king this year of the Krewe du Vieux parade, and stuff. But our social activities is our teflon coating for this pain that we’re dealing with, this suffering that we’re dealing with. That’s our medicine.

JHE: So who’s coming to see the museum now? You’ve got a lot of groups coming in now?

RL: I’ve had people coming here from before the completion of this building til… everyday. You name it, they’ve come through here. Two days ago, they had a US Senator from Michigan came through here. Because this here is a living story. There’s been many projects done here in New Orleans since Katrina, but very few of them are living stories, because some of the things they’ve done, once they were completed they had nobody to tell the story about them. They’re just done. This here is whole different thing – besides being a uniquely designed building, it has me to tell the story.

JHE: Absolutely. How did the building happen? Who built it?

RL: This fellow named Patrick Rhodes, a professor from Kansas State University School of Architecture, heard about me. And he contacted me, he was up at the University of Arkansas, in early 2006. He contacted me and said he would help me. And this is the group of people who came together and committed their summer of 2006 to designing and building this building, to make it happen.

JHE: They were all architecture students?

RL: Yeah, and some were educators. Because it was the hot thing. I was one of the first in the rebuilding process. When you look at those newspaper articles that are on the wall, that’s how the Ninth Ward was looking when I first started my project. Yeah.

JHE: So when people come down and say they want to help, and ask you what you need, what do you say? Is it money or people to volunteer?

RL: Well, when they was coming, we needed everything.

JHE: But today…

RL: Today, well for me, it’s money. Because I operate as a non-profit, but I’m a non-profit non-profit, see, because I don’t have any major funding or anything. You see that little donation box that’s sitting over there? That’s how I function. And, just like recently, this rabbi from Austin Texas named Rabbi Susan Lippe came by. This was her third time coming over, so I told I wanted to do a workshop with some children related to the culture. So she sent out an email to people requesting some money, and what you see in this container is for the workshop where I’m gonna get some kids together and let me do some parade umbrellas. You know? And this is what I need money for.

Unless you can come up with about three or four hundred thousand dollars and then I can tell my neighor, “Oh, I can buy you a hundred sheets or sheetrock.” Or “I can buy you the materials to have your house rewired.” Until then the only thing I can do is continue accepting small donations to do what I do about cultural education.

JHE: Do you do anything with the schools around here?

RL: Well, I done did work with the schools and things. But I prefer working out of here, where I don’t have to answer to anyone, you know. Yeah. Because when I was working at the schools, I had a project that I really wanted to do. But then they would say, “Oh this is coming up, you can’t come this week.” And then, “Oh, this conference is coming up” and all that. So that put me off for like a month, and after that I told them “Forget it!” Because I do have another life besides the service I’m trying to give to the schools. So I’d rather work out of here and develop my little program through the House of Dance & Feathers.

JHE: Do you still have a lot of family in the neighorhood?

RL: Yeah, especially my wife’s family. They’re all back in the city. My two sons are back in the city. My immediate family, my sisters, they both live out of town now. Since the storm. One of my sisters lives in our family hometown of Thibodeaux, Louisiana and my other sister lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, about 200 miles away. But our family home got washed away, where the breech in the levee was at.

BM: Do they plan to come back?

RL: Nah. One is 66 and one is 71 or 72 and they both done found their comfort zone. My oldest sister, where she’s at is just like being here in the city, because that’s where all our relatives are. They’re one house there, one house there, one house there. So, she’s in a spot where she’s being taken care of, where she doesn’t really have to miss home, like a lot of seniors. It isn’t like she went to a place where you haven’t had contact with relatives in 20 or 30 years and you’ve got to get to know them. These are relatives that in the city at time and went back to our hometown.

JHE: Do you guys have basic stuff in the neighborhood now? Like supermarkets or…

RL: Well, we lost our neighorhood supermarket before Katrina. So our supermarket is right across the Parish line in St. Bernard. But we got our corner groceries back, right there on Tupelo and Claiborne. We got two gas stations, a dentist office. We got a little health care clinic. We’ve got two of our local bars back, and so that’s part of the new beginning of our community.

But I always tell people who come here and visit, I say, “Remember, when you look at this empty lot and these empty houses, that was families at one time.” You know? And when they have bus tours, I tell them I don’t want nothing to do with that. And they say, “How can you pass it up? You could connect with them and they could pay you so much for coming here.” I don’t want to get paid for my community’s pain and suffering. Then I wouldn’t be no better than them. I’d rather live off that little box right there and know that the people appreciate what I’m doing, besides bringing 30 or 40 people here and talking to them for about ten minutes and the only thing that they done did is visit the House of Dance & Feathers.

BM: So there’s really bus tours that come down here and just drive around the Lower Ninth Ward?

RL: We call them “misery bus tours”. Everyday. 40 or 50 people to a bus coming from the hotels down here. Paying 40, 50 dollars to go on these tours. Yeah.

BM: All these things – getting the bars back, dentist office, gas stations – this is all done with no government help…

RL: It’s just people who done spent their life in this community. Like our bar, Mickey Bee’s right there on St. Claude [Avenue]… The Morris family has been in business in this community for well over thirty years. So Mike Morris decided to rebuild the neighorhood bar – not because he needed the money, because this is part of the institution of our community.

And I gotta say that the Arabs opened the Magnolia store in the early going. Then they opened the big gas station on St. Claude and Mazant. But I gotta bitter taste for the Vietnamese community. Because their livelihood came from our community. They dominated the corner grocery market here in the city of New Orleans. The Arabs came in later. They dominated, but once Katrina came, they didn’t come back into the community that they blood sucked the money out of. Because they gave nothing back to our community before Katrina. You couldn’t get them to sponsor no baseball team or donate to nothing. But they blood sucked our community for every penny. You know, one store I went in one day, the child was a couple nickels short and they pitched a bitch. They wouldn’t let that child have that item off that marked up shit. For a nickel or a dime they wouldn’t let that child go. So I went in my pocket, I threw the money on the table, and I said, “Now give that child what they need!” Then I started my own personal boycott of that store. I would not go back in there, because one thing Dr. King taught us: trying to get something resolved physically, gets no resolve, but when you do it financially people come to the table and talk.

JHE: That’s right.

RL: Yeah. Because you think about it – when the people marched in the streets with Dr. King they got beat down, they got killed and everything else, bit by dogs and all that. But the process went on. As soon as Dr. King told them, “Don’t ride their buses. Don’t go in their 10 cent stores…” they said, “Come on, let’s sit down at the table and talk.” Because then it affected their livelihoods. So that’s the way I feel. And I’ll tell you, before the storm, Magnolia [grocery] had put a little window out so that people could come by that window and buy their stuff. I protested that. I started telling people, “They want to sell you their products, but leave out there unprotected. But they still want your money.” That’s that same Jim Crow window that they had down south where the blacks could go to the window and buy their products, but they couldn’t come in. So when I seen that window, it reminded of that old south attitude – we want your money but we don’t want you around us. So I started telling people, “Understand, they are putting you at risk. You go to that window 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night and those predators out there know that you got some type of money in your pocket, because you’re at that window buying something. So, you’re at risk and they’re safe in there. So if they want you to buy something, then let them have a built-in safety mechanism for them with their doors open. Not have outside on the street with the doors locked, no!” And as I started putting that on people’s minds, they started saying, “You’re right.” And you know what happened? They closed that window. Yeah.

JHE: Did you evacuate during the storm?

RL: I evacuated the city the day after the storm. I was in a little hotel on Magazine Street Goddamn little place fell apart. Anarchy was going on in the streets, because I was just a few blocks from where Harrah’s Casino is at, and my little car was in the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel. And shit man, I got in my old car and told my wife, “Look, we’re going to Thibodeaux,” which is 80 miles from New Orleans. And some friends of ours followed me up there. And I stayed up there for a year.

JHE: A year?

RL: Yeah. And I commuted back and forth in the process of working on my house.

BM: So how is it to be part of a Jewish social club?

RL: The past Passover, they had the Seder dinner here down here at my house. Over 40 people here, and from the house to here everything was opened up for their use.

JHE: Was that the first Seder in the Lower Ninth Ward?

RL: I think so. Yeah, I really do.

JHE: I think you made some history there.

RL: Yeah, and when I tell people that I’m part of Krew du Jieux, and I say it’s a Jewish marching krew, most the Jewish people say, ‘Oh that’s so funny…’ Then I tell them how I got involved, and you know, about cross cultures and the food and that horrible stuff called Gefilte fish…

JHE: Terrible. Digusting.

RL: And that I’m just part this clan. Eventhough I’m a Gentile, I’m part of this clan. That’s like me and LJ [Goldstein] went to New York back in Februrary. We went to the Ramah school up in Manhattan and just spoke about culture between blacks and Jews in the city of New Orleans. And there was an opportunity at this orthodox Jewish school to talk about life in the city of New Orleans and how culture brings us together. And most recently, we have a large Baptist congregation here, which is Paul Morton’s church, Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel. A couple of weeks ago the church got burned up. Well, Rabbi Cohn of the synagogue on St. Charles Avenue invited them to have service at the synagogue for a month. That’s historical. You know, after Katrina, people are making ‘people churches’. Not ‘color churches’ or anything like that. Bad things are happening, but somebody is there to embrace somebody. And that’s making a difference. And for me rolling with Krew de Jieux, you know, our little krew is rough little bunch, you know?

JHE: [laughs] Yeah.

RL: But for me it’s that I’m part of this family. If I walk in the door, everybody says, ‘Hey Ronald, how are you doing? How’s your family?’ You know? Embrace. And this is what it’s about. That’s what this building is about: I have stuff from Africa in here, from Belize, you notice my little set up in homage of my Jewish krew… This a people’s place. Yeah.

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