Henry Lipkis

The planned 150-foot painting of the city’s Second Line festivities keeps the culture alive in a changing neighborhood.

On a given day, the intersection of St. Claude and Franklin Avenues in New Orleans appears unremarkable: wide streets bisected with patches of grass and trees; a Shell station on one corner, a McDonald’s on another.

But three times a year, the area overflows with the sound of brass band music as people take to the streets in their best clothes to dance their way through the neighborhood.

These second line parades—so called because they follow the parade’s “first line,” made up of route leaders and bands—have been a part of the cultural fabric of the city’s African-Amercian community since the years immediately after the Civil War. Originally, they followed funeral services; it’s difficult to imagine a more vibrant celebration of life.

Now, these parades occur nearly every Sunday in some corner of the city, each week hosted by one of 35 different social aid and pleasure clubs. Three of the clubs—Big Nine, the CTC Steppers, and Nine Times—incorporate that span of St. Claude Avenue into their parade route.

As exuberant and important as the parades are, they last only a few hours out of the year.

“The second line is a mobile entitiy,” WWOZ New Orleans host Action Jackson tells CityLab. “You catch a glimpse, then it’s gone.” By the end of each Sunday, the streets are empty again; no evidence of the festivities remains.

But artist Henry Lipkis wants to give the second line parades a more permanent place in the city.

The Venice Beach, Calfornia native is in the midst of executing a 150-foot parade scene mural called “Third Line” on the side of Frankie and Johnnie’s Furniture at 2600 St. Claude Avenue. (The owner granted him permission to use the surface.) When complete, the work will stretch across an L-shaped wall rising about 35 feet above a vacant lot.

Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Lipkis, along with with local artists Ceaux Young and Jessica Strahan, started work on the mural on January 11. But the process began months ago, he tells CityLab, “with talking to as many community leaders as possible.”

He spoke with Jackson and the three Ninth Ward social aid and pleasure club presidents—Laurence Dunbar of Nine Times, Andrew Johnson of CTC, and Ronald Lewis of Big Nine—to gauge their interest in the project. With their encouragement, Lipkis developed an idea of who to include in the mural: past club presidents, current members, and prominent community presences like the Caramel Curves, an all-female motorcycle gang that features prominently in the second line celebrations.

The Nine Times social aid and pleasure club dances through the Ninth Ward in 2010. (Kim Welsh for Offbeat Magazine/Flickr)

“The subject matter is so important here,” Lipkis says. “The parades show the purest culture of the city, in all its resilience.”

But it’s a culture, he says, that “people are very defensive of, and rightfully so.”

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the Ninth Ward has played host to what The Times-Picayune calls “seismic socioeconomic shifts.”

Among the neighborhoods slowest to recover from the disaster, the Ninth Ward has seen only 37 percent of its pre-2005 residents return; that number for the whole city approaches 90 percent, NPR reports. According to Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella, the neighborhood’s African-American population declined 64 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the white population grew by 22 percent.

Alongside these shifts have come new developments—many of which the original inhabitants are reluctant to claim as their own—that hint at the neighborhood’s movement into a higher socioeconomic field.

St. Roch Market re-opened for the first time since Katrina as an upscale food hall and grocery last April, just blocks away from the site of the mural on St. Claude; months later, local private investor Sidney Torres IV purchased a furniture store on the same street with a plan of renovating the upstairs apartments into four spacious units, and eventually transforming the downstairs into a wine bar, a cafe, or a grocery store, Curbed reports.

And by September of this year, construction on the controversial $41.2 million streetcar connecting North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue is expected to be completed.

In the shifting neighborhood, Lipkis says, “there’s a lot of animosity toward newcomers in general.”

Progress on the mural. (Henry Lipkis)

A newcomer himself, Lipkis has had to negotiate that atmosphere, but his work, he says, “will be an example that not all newcomers are disrespectful, or trying to wipe out the culture.”

Jackson has been an advocate of the project from the beginning. “When [Lipkis] brought it to me, I thought it was a great idea,” he says. “Still do. It’s a very popular corner, very popular area.” And it’s crucial, he says, that those community leaders who represent the Ninth Ward and the Second Line will be featured so prominently.

“It’s important to say, ‘This is what made this neighborhood; don’t ignore it and don’t forget it,’” Lipkis says.

With the neighborhood caught up in a wave of development, Lipkis acknowledges that his attempt at permanence may turn out to be temporary.

“The nature of this work is that it’s going to have a limited life span,” he says. “Once a mural’s done, there’s no predicting what’s going to happen.”

His hope, though, is that the same community he’s painting onto the wall will also serve to protect it.

“In general, money and developers will win out,” Lipkis says, “but the voices of the people are loud here. If the community really ends up valuing the mural, there’s going to be a big stream of support.”

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