The renaissance of New Orleans

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Five years after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, the Big Easy is enjoying a cultural boom thanks to an influx of creative young talent from across the US

On the calendar of anniversary events in New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina, one stands out: a party tonight at the Eiffel Society, a new restaurant and lounge on St Charles Avenue, where guests will be asked to celebrate something good the storm left behind: a burgeoning and highly boisterous arts scene.

It's an eruption that has provoked – and is sustained by – an influx of mostly young and creative people from across the US, all with the common hope of finding inspiration and purpose in the battered urban landscape of the city, including painters, film-makers, dancers, designers, musicians and architects.

Some will be at the party on St Charles, like the American painter Elliott Coon. This spring, she and friends with the Life is Art Foundation here in New Orleans, spent 30 days barricaded inside the octagon structure of glass and steel (it was once part of the tower in Paris), sleeping, eating, working and playing without leaving it once, though they were occasionally joined in their experiment by other artists.

The result will be on view for all the party's guests, set to include the city's new mayor and enthusiast for the arts, Mitch Landrieu, and the economist Jeffrey Sachs. Never mind what's for dinner; look at the art they have installed, whether it's the pagan-like labyrinth painted in grey and gold leaf across most of its floor by Coon or the mesmerisingly delicate embroideries of naked figures suspended like cobwebs in the central skylight by the British artist, Louise Riley. (Riley was there for much of the live-in too.)

Other pieces – there are 20 – include a book table from wood salvaged from Katrina-stricken homes by Robert Tennan, a legendary figure among New Orleans art-goers, and, hanging over the kitchen door, a slate-grey photograph of a tug surrounded by oil from the BP spill taken by Edward Burtynsky.

What may not still be there this evening is a very large igloo sculpture by Daphane Park that diners are invited to step into. Wild and woolly and made of stockings and other soft materials on a wire frame, it is called the Semi-Conductor, and has a vaginal quality that is making the restaurant's owners queasy.

Giving a reporter a sneak tour, Coon speaks of her own experience visiting New Orleans two-and-a-half years ago from Virginia where she was living at that time. She expected to be here for a month.

"It was like there this rebirth going on in the city. I just stayed," she explains with a broad smile, aware that in staying she was becoming part of a club of people in New Orleans that is hardly exclusive.

Michael Martin, 24, who is doing a masters degree on the role of cultural activity in recovering economies, did the same, arriving here from New York at the beginning of last year. Today, he has no plans to leave. "Most my friends are either artists or designers or architects," he says. "We are all here doing creative things, because New Orleans is just this amazing palate that gives you space to do what you like."

Kristian Hansen, 31, arrived a few months before Katrina from his native California and bought a house. The storm destroyed it and today he rents in the grandly eccentric (and art-stuffed) home of Tennan and his wife, Jeanne Nathan, on Esplanade Avenue. Renting is fine, he says, but best of all is the growth of a film production company he co-founded here with a friend. Called Tungsten Monkey, its newest project is a nearly completed documentary feature about a young New Orleanian from a well-to-do-family who travels to the jungles of Peru in search of salvation from drug addiction.

Hansen explains his own infatuation with the city while celebrating his business partner's 30th birthday at Bacchanal, a free-wheeling wine bar and restaurant in the Ninth Ward, as a jazz quintet competes with thunder. The restaurant is frequently used a set for David Simon's new HBO drama series set in New Orleans, Treme, which is itself is another testament to the city's awakening. The same goes for Spike Lee's new documentary film about Katrina and its aftermath, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise which premiered this week on HBO.

Those projects are a reminder that the soil for creative activity has, of course, always been fertile in New Orleans. The visual arts scene may never have been as rich as it is today in the wake of the storm, but in other ways the city has always claimed its place on this country's cultural stage, with a traditon for fiesta and carnival driven in the first instance by Catholic holidays, like lent, Easter and Christmas. It is, above all, of course, a city of jazz and of cuisine. And Mardi Gras.

"I didn't expect to stay, but New Orleans turned out to be like a crazy girlfriend and it's hard to leave," Hansen says. "It is a city that has a character that is tangible. On a more pragmatic level, there are just so many options for me here much more than there would be if I stayed out west. There is work and a constant stream of film people coming in right now."

As closely identified as anyone with what is happening here is Kirsha Kaechele, who also arrived before the hurricane with the idea that she would open what she calls a "white-box" museum for contemporary art. It was to be, she explains, a sort of Tate Modern on the Mississippi. But then came Katrina, inundating her loft-style home in an old bakery in the Eighth Ward as well as several other very humble houses, mostly in the shotgun style that is common in the city. She invited artists to her block and together they used six of the abandoned homes and the bakery to stage a series of art installations and to display new works. From there she moved on to setting the Eiffel Society project in train.

"The hurricane was so good for us because it made us readjust all our ideas about how things should be in the art world and led us to create something really refreshing. It forced us to become more interesting and to become stronger," she reflects. She adds that had it not been not been for the storm we, "would have opened a traditional space in the central district and these projects, which are so much more stimulating, would never have happened".

Delighted but not surprised by the cultural re-blossoming are Tennan and his wife in their rambling Esplanade mansion. "One step up from a storage facility," is Bob's wry description of the house which doubles as a chaotic gallery dedicated to his art and the art of friends. They recall coming to New Orleans from New York in the mid-70s and finding that it had only two contemporary art galleries. Before long they had founded the Contemporary Arts Centre of New Orleans to help fill the void. In the wake of Katrina, Jeanne took over an abandoned school and turned it into an ad hoc crucible for new works with at one point as many as 160 artists contributing. The city has taken the school back now, however.

"If you look at a history of all major disasters they always give rise to new waves of creativity and we have certainly seen it here," notes Tennan, sharing a pecan-nut beer from Mississippi called Lazy Magnolia. "The status quo was challenged." Nathan credits the restaurants for sparking the revival. They re-awoke first after the storm, in part because the French Quarter was spared the flooding. In turn they re-hired musicians, giving them a reason to return home. After that the process gathered speed. Tide stains on elevated motorway columns were gradually replaced by art and "found art" – mostly sculptures assembled from items taken from abandoned homes – began rising on the central reservations of avenues.

Outside foundations played their part offering grants and funding. Last year, New Orleans native Michale Manjarris organised a city-wide show of public art with sculptures from the likes of the late Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and James Surls. (The Bourgeois piece was recently withdrawn after being vandalised for copper, a crime, Nathan says, that stands as a metaphor for the city and its struggles.) But as foundation money winds down, the expectation is that the scene will continue to flourish all on its own.

Already, the corridor along St Claude Avenue just downriver from the Quarter is suddenly bursting with new galleries with openings and artists' receptions nearly every Saturday of the year. "It's becoming our new Williamsburg," Nathan says, referring to the Brooklyn neighbourhood that became an artists' hub a decade ago.

All this, Nathan wants us to know, is by no means peripheral to everything else that New Orleans is living through. Nor is it in any sense gratuitous. With so much else in New Orleans withering, from shipbuilding to other forms of manufacturing, the arts industry may turn out to be its salvation. "The cultural resurrection of this city, both people and products, is absolutely its best hope for its economic future," Nathan argues. "We can and should become one of the world's leading cultural markets. After the storm it was obvious that the creative people were the ones who still really believed in the city."

If Nathan is right, there need be no tut-tutting if, five years on from the tempest, the atmosphere at the Eiffel Society tonight is more festive than mournful. They will be toasting not just themselves, but, with luck, a brighter, if different, future for the Crescent City.

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