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Bienvenue au Bayou: Jazz Fest neighbors have mixed feelings

To hear Laine Kaplan-Levenson's WWNO radio broadcast with Bayou St. John residents who live near Jazz Fest, click here.

In some Caribbean cultures, the term used to describe a discrete residential area is not neighborhood — it’s “town.” In New Orleans, where the daily pace mimics that of the islands and each neighborhood behaves as its own independent economy, it seems like we can relate to that vocabulary. While the Bywater boasts an up-and-coming art scene and childless, urban pioneers, Uptown crawls with college kids and the elite alike. Bayou St. John rests quietly in the shade of the Esplanade oaks: a friendly enclave on the way to the lake.

Here, neighbors really do know one another. The same crew assembles each morning at the local coffee house to read the paper and debate its assertions; another crowd, with some overlap in membership, convenes at the various watering holes each evening.

“It’s one of the great things about this neighborhood,” says Fortin Street resident Jonas Bishop. “I mean the fact that I know everyone on my block and the majority of people on the next block. It’s definitely a community centric area that you don’t find a lot of places.”

Delanie Manuel, server at Liuzza’s by the Track and Jonas’ neighbor, agrees. “I thought I’d be a Quarter Rat forever,” she admits, “but no, I love it here.” 

Bayou St. John residents frequent their local businesses and, with maybe the exception of a handful of folks traveling from other parts of town to camp out with their MacBooks at the Fairgrinds coffee shop, most people you see hanging in the neighborhood live there, too.  Recently, when I stopped in at Liuzza’s By the Track for a drink, Manuel told me heartwarming tales of neighborly good will.

“You could be sitting here for 10 minutes and by the time you leave you’ll have been invited to a crawfish boil, a barbecue and you’ll have 10 new friends.” Manuel laughs.

She told me that the night before, an adventurous mother and son visiting New Orleans for the weekend had made the trip out of the French Quarter to try the esteemed shrimp pistolette by the race track they had heard so much about. They paid their cab driver, bid him adieu, and promptly found out that this quaint little neighborhood restaurant goes to bed early. What do you do with hungry tourists up against a closed kitchen? Find a way to feed them. So the line cook who had just gotten off the clock at Liuzza’s offered to give the pair a lift back down Esplanade Avenue to Port of Call. A couple of burgers later, so gracious were the two that they came back up to Liuzza’s the next day for lunch.

For 50 weeks out of the year, this neighborhood bordering the Fair Grounds goes about life as usual: pushing strollers to the corner market, basking on the banks of the bayou, extending hospitality. But at the end of March, as the last jockey packs up and the racing season comes to a close, the neighborhood knows that Festival Season is upon them.

“It becomes a zoo,” says Bob McGuire, homeowner at the corner of Mystery and Esplanade, bordering Fortier Park. “It’s more like water flowing through here than people.”

Indeed, the crowds are large enough to require infrastructural changes. With an estimated 400,000 people festing it over the course of the seven-day celebration, the neighborhood paves its roads, changes its street signs and capitalizes on seasonal attention.

“Each one of these porches is going to have a band in the yard, they’re going to be selling Bloody Mary’s or Jell-O shots, or they’re going to be having a ‘garage sale,’ selling all sorts of art they made,” Manuel says of what happens to the homes around Liuzza’s by the Track.  “It’s just a big street party. There will be spontaneous electric slides.”

Not everyone revels in the fleeting limelight. For some, even the temporary crowds are too much to handle. The perennial plague of securing their street parking sends residents into a frenzy of barricading, scrounging city street barrels, trash bins and broken pieces of furniture into makeshift blockades for the spaces in front of their homes. My next-door neighbors August and Joan have lived on Rendon Street for 35 years. They told me they sacrificed a modest front lawn to make way for a paved driveway – just so they wouldn’t have to look for parking during Jazz Fest season.

While parking is the leading concern for some, others take issue with access to the neighborhood. I assumed that most local businesses would greet the increase in foot traffic that the festival brings with excitement – this is their moment to shine before thousands of visitors. But I spoke with one barber at Durio’s House of Style, directly across from the Gentilly Boulevard entrance to the racetrack, who told me that not everyone rakes it in during Jazz Fest. For Corey, the increase in traffic prevents his customer base – regulars from all over town – from even making it into the neighborhood.

“We’re basically off for two weeks,” Corey explains. When I asked him if the vibe in the neighborhood and the celebration made up for the loss at all, he shook his head. “They should compensate us,” he argues. “I’ve still got to pay the bills at the end of the month.”

There is certainly no shortage of complaints about Jazz Fest from its neighbors. Parking, traffic congestion, an interruption in business. At first glance, it would seem that after 44 years of this mess, these guys might just be over it. But I can’t help but think that’s just a front. It’s no coincidence that the people who live around the Fair Grounds are also the people who self-identify as the most neighborly and community oriented.  At the end of the day, even the Jazz Fest scrooges get a kick out of watching the crowds stream by.

August and Joan, the ones who will gripe day and night about the parking battles, are happy to sit on their front porch as the delirious, mud-covered, sunburnt festers stream by, scanning the unfamiliar blocks for their cars. August and Joan watch as the crowds appreciate the music, one another, and this humble Town by the bayou, whose residents delight in it every day.

 Nina Feldman writes, makes radio and hosts ladies' arm wrestling in New Orleans. She is Program Director at the Bard Early College.