Bringin’ it home: How Musicians’ Village restored New Orleans’ groove
Imagine New Orleans without its soul. That seemed likely when Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city on Aug. 29, 2005, wrecking countless musicians’ homes and driving them from the city, forcing them to wonder whether they would ever be able to return to the place where they had developed their craft. Then, on Dec. 6, 2005, Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, two of New Orleans’ most celebrated music makers, answered that question when they announced ambitious plans for Musicians’ Village, a complex in the Upper 9th Ward that would feature affordable housing for these men and women and their families.
Musicians’ Village, which occupies what had been the 8.2-acre site of Kohn Junior High School, features 72 brightly painted houses, five elder-friendly duplexes and a toddler-friendly park. At its center is the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a venue for cultural events and seminars that is named for the local music patriarch who also is Branford Marsalis’ father.
- Habitat for Humanity became involved in the project because Connick had been working with the organization for years before the storm.
- In addition to a credit check and income verification, each prospective homeowner had to put in 350 hours of work alongside Habitat volunteers.
- There was no shortage of celebrity volunteers when the houses were being built. They included three men who had been or would be elected president: Jimmy Carter, a longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer; George W. Bush, the president when Katrina hit; and Barack Obama, who would succeed him. When Bush and Mayor Ray Nagin showed up, they hammered nails that Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson handed up to them.
- Karekin II, leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church is also among the notable people to work on a house in the village.
- When Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon toured the village, he sat on the front porch of a new house to hear music by Larry “Steamboat Willie” Stoops.
- Musicians’ Village covers two city blocks bounded by North Roman, Alvar and North Johnson streets, as well as parts of three blocks along what had been Bartholomew Street.
- The first keys to Musicians’ Village homes, handed out in 2006, went to Freddy Omar, of Freddy Omar con su Banda, and Jerome Deleno “J.D.” Hill, a harmonica player, singer and drummer.
- Corporate sponsors eagerly stepped up to bat for the cause. They included 84 Lumber, Entergy, LP Building Products, American Electric Power, Chevron, Freddie Mac, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil Co. and Symantec. This group ponied up a combined $1.5 million to match a challenge posed by the Dave Matthews Band.
- Also involved making Musicians’ Village a reality was Baptist Crossroads, a longtime Habitat partner in building homes in New Orleans. Its leader is the Rev. David Crosby, senior pastor at New Orleans’ First Baptist Church.
- The village’s toddler park includes a walkway called Hurwitz Way, which is named for Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records, the label on which the benefit album “Our New Orleans” was issued. That disc raised about $1.1 million for the park. The walkway is designed to look like a treble clef. Part of the path resembles a keyboard; the rest features the opening bar of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Musicians’ Village has become a vital, vibrant part of the city’s recovery from Katrina by providing a haven for musicians who had been scattered across the country. More important, Crosby said, is the fact that, for many residents, Musicians’ Village represents their first chance to be homeowners. “The music that I love helped me own my own home,” said Terrell Batiste, a trumpeter who grew up in public housing. “I would never have thought that was possible.”