Hard Times in New Orleans

Three years after Katrina, we’re still awash in death

Music Features New Orleans
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Last summer, I got a frantic phone call from my friend Jeanette. Her boyfriend had heard a noise in the front yard just after dark the night before. He opened the door, stepped onto the porch and was killed—shot in the chest.

Down here, stories like this are frighteningly commonplace. As if the glacial pace of hurricane recovery weren’t bad enough, assault, armed robbery, murder and rape all jumped in New Orleans between 2006 and 2007, according to NOPD stats, and have gotten even worse in the first part of 2008.

The carnage hasn’t spared our world-renowned music community. Mike Frey Jr., an indie-rock guitarist from my neighborhood, was shot to death in the spring of 2006 walking near a bar I visit at least once a week. Hot 8 Brass Band drummer Dinerral Shavers was murdered in December 2006. During the NBA All-Star Weekend earlier this year, a French Quarter reunion show by Lil Wayne’s first group, the Hot Boys, was canceled when three people were shot outside the club.

B.G., an original Hot Boy, is releasing a record this fall with his group Chopper City Boyz. When I interviewed two other group members—Snipe and Gar—their excitement was tempered by the April murder of original crew member VL Mike. Another rapper—’90s bounce artist Sporty T—had just been shot in his FEMA trailer earlier that week, and I mentioned him. “That was my cousin,” Snipe said.

I know a crime reporter who blogs about being driven into recovery by the job. Just days after the Shavers murder trial wrapped, she posted—in horrified wonder—about how a key eyewitness suddenly recanted when the suspect stared her down in court, claiming she “must need to go to the eye doctor.” Not long ago, my friend also reported that the prime suspect in the 2003 murder of local rapper Soulja Slim had just been released on bond.

In New Orleans today, we have rising suicide rates, even more substance abuse than we were previously notorious for, and shrinking opportunities for mental health treatment—not to mention hundreds fewer police than before the storm. So we’re violent, drunk, high, crazy and on our own.

It came to a head for my friend Vanessa the week of her very first gig at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She and her boyfriend, Dave—the bassist in their country-rock band—had been living in a cheap house owned by their drummer. The neighborhood was sketchy. Loading equipment into the house after late-night gigs, Vanessa and Dave heard drug dealers whistling messages to each other. One day, a brawl left a puddle of blood in the street. Dave had a small recording studio in the Quarter, and became uncomfortable leaving Vanessa home alone during long sessions. They slept with a shotgun next to the bed.

Vanessa called the police one particular night after hearing shots outside her door. When the cops came, Vanessa described the shooter’s car, and they picked him up a few blocks away. After the shooter was released on bail the next day—and seen cruising their street—Vanessa and Dave decided not to spend another night in the house. They crashed on an air mattress in the studio, signed a new lease and moved out. When they locked the front door for the last time, they had to wait hours ?before they could pull onto the street. Their neighbor had been shot again and was ?lying dead in the refrigerated coroner’s van, blocking their driveway.

One day this summer, I drove to the airport to pick up a friend for a weekend visit. Her husband—a native New Orleanian she’d met in the city—had a better job in the D.C. area than he could get here, which was the official reason they’d settled in Washington. But she’d also confided in me that—even after spending most of his life in New Orleans—her husband was afraid to subject his new wife to the city the way it is now. Driving to meet my friend, I saw a bright crackle in the late afternoon sky. Heat lightning, I thought to myself—pressure that builds, and catches fire, because it has nowhere else to go.