New Homes for a City's Musical Heart and Soul
ED GORDON, host:
Music is the lifeblood of New Orleans. But after Katrina, New Orleans jazz, blues and zydeco artists were scattered across the nation. Now Habitat for Humanity, with help from musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, has launched an ambitious housing development called Musician's Village. Its purpose is to bring back the people who keep the city's cultural heritage alive.
NPR's Farai Chideya has more.
(Soundbite of hammering)
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
So much of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has been painted in black and white. But here in the Upper Ninth Ward, New Orleans's future is a rainbow. Volunteers of all races build candy-colored new homes sold below cost to returning New Orleanians.
Reah McCaughley(ph) of Ypsilanti, Michigan came with her daughter and plans to volunteer for a year.
Ms. REAH MCCAUGHLEY (Habitat for Humanity Volunteer): Our aunt is Rosa Parks. I feel that if Auntie Rosa had been well the last stage of her life, she would have leant her name, her energy to helping Katrina victims. She's just would've. I'm so convinced.
CHIDEYA: Tiana Scott(ph) of Charlotte, North Carolina volunteers through the AmeriCorps program. She's taking a break from studying marine biology and loves the work she's doing now.
Ms. TIANA SCOTT (Habitat for Humanity Volunteer): The best thing, absolutely best, was the dedication of the houses, and when they all had their keys and were jingling them. It was - I definitely got teared up, because these are people that I worked with. I know that they're great people, and they're just trying to get by.
One of them was a 23-year-old musician who can't afford to stay in New Orleans unless - if it weren't for Habitat because the rent's gotten so high.
CHIDEYA: Mind you, the work's not easy. Lightning struck the construction site right between two volunteers. That day, they packed up early. But nothing seems to faze Bob Meri(ph), the development and church relations coordinator for New Orleans's Habitat for Humanity.
Mr. BOB MERI (Development and Church Coordinator, New Orleans's Habitat for Humanity): Okay. We're going to end up building 75 homes here. In addition to that, right across the street behind you is a place where we'll have the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music and five elder-friendly doubles. It'll actually be 10 rental units that we're going to set aside for our older musicians that, you know, for whom home ownership is not necessarily the right answer at their time in life.
CHIDEYA: So, Bob, I'm wondering if you can give us a tour of the house.
Mr. MERI: Sure. Okay, well, we're standing in the orange house, a nice burnt orange. And we're in the kind of the combination kitchen/living room/dining room/family area. It's the first area you enter in the home. Our homeowners chose from a palette of tile or carpet, if they want carpet in the home. And their countertops, both for the kitchen and the bathroom.
There's a single bathroom. This home has three bedrooms.
CHIDEYA: Why don't you show us the rest of the house.
Mr. MERI: We've got typical ceiling fans. This will be over in the seating area, and then there's a hall that runs back. The house is about 1,100 square feet.
CHIDEYA: Now although some of these houses are finished, are there any residents in them yet?
Mr. MERI: No. You may have noticed as you walked around that the electrical connections haven't been made. We do have electricity in the area, but we're not tied into any of the homes yet. And I don't think the water, electricity and sewage service has been restored to I think just about all of New Orleans, certainly in this area. But we have not had the connections made between the homes and, you know, those essential services yet.
CHIDEYA: A few houses down, a nattily dressed new homeowner greets us on the porch of his house.
Mr. JD HILL (Musician): I'm pretty happy for what they did with it. You know, this is all volunteer work and it's great. I just love it.
CHIDEYA: He's JD Hill, a musician who stayed in his home for a week after Katrina until officials told him he had to move. He and his girlfriend evacuated to the Convention Center.
Mr. HILL: Wow. The debris that was out there was a joke. Baby carriages, wheelchairs, clothes. You could smell the stench of bodies, you know. I mean people dying right in front of your eyes and not a thing people can do about it.
CHIDEYA: JD plays the blues, and bluesmen are no strangers to pain. In addition to surviving Katrina, JD is recovering from a mugging that left him with a shattered jaw, devastating considering that one of the instrument he plays is the harmonica.
Mr. HILL: I've been playing harmonica for about 46 years. It's one of my first toys. I'll be 51 in November. But I play congos(ph), the rub board, a little guitar. I play tambourine with my foot. A little bass drums with guitar. I try to do a little bit of everything. That way you can work.
CHIDEYA: JD's jaw is healing, and he proudly shows off the property he can't wait to move in to.
Mr. HILL: This is our back porch. My property - you see that house that Habitat's building over here? My property line goes all the way to that fence back there. I got the longest lot.
CHIDEYA: You're a lucky man.
Mr. HILL: Oh yeah. Going to have me a garden.
CHIDEYA: We go back to his front porch, where he introduces us to a musician he plays with, Deacon John. They improvise a song about a familiar theme: Katrina.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DEACON JOHN (Musician): (Singing) I just want to fix Katrina so she won't come back again...
CHIDEYA: Even Katrina can't dampen their love for music.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHN: (Singing) Cold, brown was my bed last night...
Mr. HILL: Yeah, I love playing my music. I think this is the best place in the world if you want to be a musician. Almost every top-name musician in the world knows about New Orleans musicians, and that's no doubt about it. And I'm happy for them, too. Just like me having this house.
Mr. JOHN: (Singing) I woke up this morning, (unintelligible) what in the world…
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.
GORDON: You can see pictures of the Musician's Village and hear more of JD Hill's music at our Web site at npr.org. Tomorrow we revisit New Orleans resident Brenda Morris, a single mother of four displaced after Hurricane Katrina. She's since returned to the city. But one year later, how has the storm affected her daily life and family? We'll find out tomorrow.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JOHN: (Singing) I just want to fix Katrina so she never comes back again. Oh, I'm going to let JD sing one now. Come on and put something in here for me, too.
GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Radio Consortium.
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