Every time someone of a certain age passes, they take with them a bit of our history, which, if not documented or passed on to another culture bearer, may be lost forever. As New Orleanians, as Louisianans, we are the recipients of some remarkable creativity. And this is a collective of creativity—yes, collective because anyone worth their salt here adds to the magic, which is perhaps more powerful, more pungent, here than anywhere else in this country. And a sense of regret and loss fills me each time an elder of our music community or a neighborhood eatery or bar closes its doors for the last time. A bit of what makes this region unique is lost with every inch of vanished wetlands or shotgun cottage razed by neglect. Every CLOSED sign and every Going Out of Business notice reads as an obituary for our local economy.
Recently, our restaurant culture took a gut punch when Li'l Dizzy's announced its closure. We grieved and cursed the COVID and the owner's need to call it a day. Then we rejoiced to hear that the apron would be refitted and worn by family. But what happens when there is no family waiting to carry on the culinary traditions? On January 24, 2021, Jimmy Lemarie, a major Keeper of the Funk, passed, and while friends, family, neighbors, and customers grieved for the man, there was also a very visceral fear that Jimmy's beloved Liuzza's by the Track, which he owned and operated for the past 20 years, might also "pass." As of this printing, there has been a collective sigh of relief with the news that Jimmy's legacy will remain open. These two landmarks are just the tip of the endangered culinary iceberg that is under constant threat of extinction due to the frailty of life, economics, and unexpected disasters. For every restaurant, there is a local bar, theater, or music venue also at risk. And I can tell you from experience that most every independent shops or galleries survive day by day with fingers crossed.
This pandemic is much like Katrina in that everything from brick and mortar businesses to our living, breathing, walking and talking, singing and dancing culture has either taken a bullet or narrowly dodged one. And this time, New Orleans doesn't have the kindness of strangers (out of state volunteers and tourists) to nurse us back to fiscal health. The world has taken a hit and, with it, our expectation of those healing tourists' dollars has diminished for the moment. And I say "moment" with cautious optimism.
We are blessed with the still lingering presence of those who came after the levees broke. Many of our guardian angels who helped us rebuild were young people who fell in love with the magic and returned (or never left) to make this town their new home. I am ashamed to say as a person of a certain age (old fart) that there have been too many times when I have felt inundated by the "newbies," most of which are so young I feel self-consciously old and irrelevant, plus fearful that too much change might threaten our traditions and old school ways. I felt dismissive of this surge of youth from the outside. Well, shame on me. And I am so grateful that I kept my snotty feelings to myself (until I could have a come-to-Jesus talk with myself) because these new and often young transplants have generously befriended me. More importantly, they have proven themselves to be not only enamored with New Orleans but also dedicated to her. They've reminded me that New Orleans is made up of folks from everywhere. I was a "newbie" once and I can tell you that this place became my home the moment my U-Haul and I pulled in.
People and places of note have passed from our midst for centuries, and yet, with due respect to those lost, somehow that hole in our community's heart is tended to. Some traditions do fade without someone to take up the mantle. And as an elder leaves, often there is no family member waiting in the wings to carry on the traditions that he or she was devoted to, such as the intricate bead-work of our famed Mardi Gras Indians. There are precious pleasures that were once so common and are now relegated mostly to mere memories. Huck-a-bucks were a regular treat easily found and purchased at the front door of many an entrepreneur's home. A simple frozen cup of sweetness, homemade, and only a buck. And what about those fried fish plates sold at corner bars or a neighbor's house to help with the rent or support a social aid and pleasure club (another tradition that needs to be nurtured)?
This is why our constant influx of new New Orleanians is so vital to our community. Most folks who come here fall in love with this crazy culture of fabulous funk, magic, and creative verve. As I mourn the passing of our musicians, too numerous to list; grieve for the Jimmys and Leahs who so enriched our food culture; or see another neighborhood joint about to give up the ghost—I take some comfort in the hundreds of newly recruited torch-bearers. Just look at the new Mardi Gras krewes and the volunteerism they offer, reminiscent of our social aid clubs. I applaud the students dedicated to keeping jazz alive and the energy of our transplanted chefs, bakers, and artisans. Whether you're a native New Orleanian or a newly minted citizen of our funky nation, we must all pay honor to those people and places we have lost and vow to carry on and protect this treasure we call home. Now turn up the music and get on the good foot—we got work to do!