DEBBIE ELLIOT, host:
While New Orleans is known for its elaborate Mardi Gras parades, the city has another, lesser-known parade tradition that happens year round. Second lines, or neighborhood street parades, where brass bands play and crowds follow, sometimes dancing and fancy-stepping for mile and miles. Before Hurricane Katrina hit, there was a second line almost every Sunday, hosted by one of the city's 54 social aid and pleasure clubs. Eve Troeh reports on the clubs' efforts to reunite their members, and bring back their traditions.
EVE TROEH reporting:
In January, members of more than 30 of New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs--from the Lady Buck Jumpers, to the Ninth Ward Nine Times--brought out their satin sashes, feather fans, and decorated umbrellas for a post-Katrina, all-star, second line parade.
Unidentified Man # 2: Everybody come on back, we're gonna make it. We're a strong city, and that's how we're gonna do it. We're gonna make it.
TROEH: Wearing shirts that said "Renew New Orleans," they marched and danced for four hours through some of the city's most damaged areas.
Mr. JORDAN HERSCH (New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund): Neighborhoods that were just totally abandoned, shipwrecks, were alive that day. Families hanging out on the porch, smoke in the air from people grilling, having lunch, waiting for the band to come around.
TROEH: Jordan Hersch works for the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which sponsored the parade. He says more than 10,000 people turned out for the event. Many came in from outside the city. He says that while the theme of the day was housing, jobs, and education, the main goal was simply to show that second lines could happen again in the city.
Mr. HERSCH: It was about letting people know that this culture is forceful, and it's meaningful, and it's powerful. It is what can bring the city back to life.
(Soundbite of music from a second line parade)
TROEH: For more than a century, social aid and pleasure clubs have been an important part of New Orleans black culture. They exist in all parts of the city. Some have more than 100 members, others just a handful. They have their roots in benevolent societies, formed in the late 1800s to cover burial costs for African-Americans who couldn't buy insurance. These clubs were the first to hold jazz funerals, and anthropologist Helen Regis says they may be best known outside New Orleans for their influence on music.
Ms. HELEN REGIS (Assistant Professor, Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University): Louis Armstrong began playing jazz because he wanted to play for second line parades.
TROEH: Regis says social aid and pleasure clubs today are formed more to create community than to meet everyday needs.
Ms. REGIS: Usually, a group of friends, often people from the same neighborhood, or people who went to high school together, who want to share happy moments in their lives together, and also helping each other to work through grief in putting on a funeral, for example.
TROEH: Club members also see themselves as important role models, and say second lines bring a positive influence to poorer neighborhoods.
Mr. EDWARD BUCKNER: You might as well come on back here.
TROEH: In the seventh ward, Edward Buckner invites family and friends to sit in his backyard.
Mr. BUCKNER: We've got construction going on around this joint--awhile to clean all the yard up.
TROEH: He wants to revive his irises, which were covered with floodwater. He also wants to bring back the Original Big Seven, his social aid and pleasure club. He says, the group usually works all year on their annual parade, and it involves the whole community.
Mr. BUCKNER: You have to have fundraisers, you're gonna have to have fish fries. You're gonna have to have dances, and you're gonna have to have cane shakes. There's just so many things--neighborhood grocery stores--ask them to (unintelligible) because you need everybody's help.
TROEH: Buckner says half of his clubs ten members are back, and they plan to parade in April. They don't know how they're going to raise the money to do it. And their traditional starting spot, the St. Bernard Housing Projects, is closed. Buckner has sent thousands of flyers, announcing the parade to Houston and Atlanta. He hopes Seventh Ward residents in those cities will pitch in and return for the event.
Mr. BUCKNER: We want to show everybody that we are back. And we figure, for that community, where everybody's displaced, if they know that we are back, they may come home.
TROEH: But social aid and pleasure clubs face another challenge on top of displaced residents: police protection. At the All-Star second line in January, three people were shot. Police responded by raising the fees to hold a second line more than 300 percent. They're now about $4,500. New Orleans Police Public Affairs Captain Juan Quinton says the clubs need to pay for more officers.
Mr. JUAN QUINTON (Public Affairs Captain, New Orleans Police): This is a concern for safety. The parades have grown extremely large, and we could not protect this large group of people on the city's dollar. This is not a city role, where he city picks up the cost of the event.
TROEH: Many club leaders say the higher fees will make their parades impossible, and effectively end second line culture. Tamara Jackson is president of a club called the VIP Ladies and Kids. She says the city is using images of second lines to draw people back, but not supporting their traditions.
Ms. Tamara Jackson (President, VIP Ladies and Kids): You know, every commercial New Orleans has, you see somebody with a umbrella dancing in a band, but for us to do our own unique parade, each club individually, you want to price us out of existence.
TROEH: And some, like Edward Buckner, say the city has missed an important opportunity to rebuild communities by not tapping in to the social networks of clubs like his.
Mr. BUCKNER: We are the people. And the people associate themselves with us. But if the city embraced the social pleasure clubs and done more, man, we could've had people home a long time ago.
TROEH: The Bring New Orleans Back Commission has pledged support for social aid and pleasure clubs. Their final report suggested the city build community centers where they could hold meetings and make costumes. But so far, the city hasn't said whether or not it will implement those recommendations. City Council member Oliver Thomas says he understands the importance of clubs to their neighborhoods.
Mr. OLIVER THOMAS (New Orleans City Councilmember): It's part of that urban economy, you know, where a lot of people, that's how they make their living for the year, with these organizations, a vital part of this community. We need to work with them.
TROEH: The clubs have formed a citywide coalition to negotiate with officials. They're asking the city to pass an ordinance that would protect their parades, and set guidelines for clubs and police alike. The city says they'll consider it after Mardi Gras. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.
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