In The Music Box, New Orleans Residents Hear Hope When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it left behind a city full of destroyed homes. Now, artists have reclaimed one of the city's blighted properties in the 9th Ward — and turned it into a work of art and music.
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In The Music Box, New Orleans Residents Hear Hope

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In The Music Box, New Orleans Residents Hear Hope

In The Music Box, New Orleans Residents Hear Hope

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More than six years after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of blighted properties dot the landscape in New Orleans. A group of artists has taken one property and transformed it into something surprising, a structure that makes music. Kathleen Osborn paid a visit.

KATHLEEN OSBORN, BYLINE: It's called The Music Box. In fact, it's a small village of ramshackle sculptures huddled together on Piety Street in the Bywater section of the once flooded 9th Ward. They're outfitted as musical instruments and made almost entirely of the remains from the 18th century Creole cottage that used to sit on this lot.

Curator Delaney Martin points to a rotating organ speaker on top of half an A-frame shack called the Heartbeat House.

DELANEY MARTIN: A stethoscope plays your heartbeat through a spinning Leslie speaker and it spins round and round and, you know, unlike a church bell that calls people to congregation or an alarm, what we want to have is a heartbeat, this primal beat that calls to the people of New Orleans and says, come out and dance. Come out and sing. Come out and have fun.


OSBORN: Local and national artists were invited to dream up the instruments and structures that inhabit the lot. Taylor Lee Shepherd is a mechanical sculptor who moved to the city after Hurricane Katrina. He's built a singing wall that samples and plays back the voices that fill the home.

TAYLOR LEE SHEPHERD: Just start recording people as they come through with little kids and anybody that seems interested or curious and it'll just change all throughout the day and I have all of these different textures and rhythms all mixed together. It sums up a moment in time.


OSBORN: These structures are an experimental first step towards building a fully functional musical house that will be the headquarters and residency space for the New Orleans Airlift. The organization was created after Katrina to raise the profile of local artists, often through collaborations with more famous creators.

New York-based street artist, Callie Curry, known as Swoon, designed the house for Airlift.

CALLIE CURRY: I hope it represents this very basic need in people while rebuilding to rebuild joyfully and with imagination.

OSBORN: Transforming that hope into reality by bringing in outsiders is a touchy subject in the city, says Music Box associate curator, Theo Eliezer, who grew up in New Orleans.

THEO ELIEZER: There's a lot of resentment that existed over the past six years of people coming to New Orleans to contribute in a way that was about fixing New Orleans. And there were legitimate things that needed to be fixed, like houses that were flooded but, culturally, we didn't need to be fixed and our communities didn't need to be fixed.

OSBORN: Everyone involved in the project is keenly aware of striking the right balance in the city where Hurricane Katrina turned long term homeowners into renters.

Jay Pennington is Airlift's co-director.

JAY PENNINGTON: There is a natural antipathy in this neighborhood to seeing anyone do anything with a house that's not going to put somebody in it to live and it's something that people are really sensitive about here.

OSBORN: As the city continues the long process of rebuilding, Pennington and Delaney Martin hope the final house will be an example of the beauty that can emerge from all of that destruction.

MARTIN: I, amongst many of my other artist friends, can look at an old falling down house and see a great deal of beauty, see a great deal of salvageable materials and see a great deal of inspiration. What I don't want to see, as much I want blight to be resolved, I would hate to see all these beautiful old properties bulldozed and thrown away and new developments put in. That's not our neighborhood anymore if we do that.

So this was our answer to it and I think what is important to us to create out of this blight is a sense of wonder and possibility. We have 30 school children in the yard right now, so I'm going to go and tend to them. You're welcome to join.

OSBORN: Fifteen-year-old D'Angelo Faulk, who came with a group of students from the New Orleans Center for Creative Art, tried out the musical rocking chair.

MARTIN: What do you think?

D'ANGELO FAULK: It's so cool. I think this is the most - best music I ever heard made on my own.


FAULK: It's very artistic. I never seen something like this and I live in the neighborhood.

OSBORN: And that's the point, says Delaney Martin.

MARTIN: Right across the way there, across this big street on the other bad side of the tracks, there is this utter lack of wonder and possibility. There's a lot of closed doors. There's not many options and what I hope that, you know, can happen is that they can come here to the Music Box, which is really like a Peter Pan wonderland, and remember this blighted house and now see this sort of resurrected, amazing thing and that that does have value because when you don't have options and you see something that totally is from another world, that is about expanding your imagination and your options. And I think that there is true value in that.

OSBORN: As one neighbor put it, the Music Box also brings something else to their community: hope. For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Osborn.

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