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Products Reflected In "The Community We Keep"

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When you live in New Orleans, everything you do, from the food you eat to the way you speak, is an expression of the place you inhabit. “Everybody here has a visceral relationship with the city,” says Phillipe LaMancusa, proprietor of Kitchen Witch, a vintage cookbook shop on Toulouse Street. “It comes from the gut.” There are certain things that only New Orleanians understand: the way the steam rises off the streets after a midsummer downpour, the way a fried soft shell crab po-boy crunches between your teeth, the way Mardi Gras Indians’ colorful feathers wave as they dance, the way a mournful trombone melody echoes through the streets during a funeral dirge. There’s a collective cultural appreciation here that’s palpable. It’s precious. And nobody wants to let it slip away.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were stark reminders of how fragile American culture is. When New Orleanians returned to their storm-ravaged city, they saw collapsed structures and piles of wreckage. They also saw opportunity. Loads of so-called trash found salvage and purpose in shoring up the city’s holes, healing its wounds. Residents wanted to restore their hometown as authentically as possible—not just the architecture and infrastructure, but the culture, the community, the sound, taste and feeling. The modern concept of disposable culture had never really taken hold in New Orleans. And so, when the government’s neglect jeopardized the city’s future, America rallied around its residents. Katrina raised questions about what really mattered in politics, economics, and life. We all answered that yes, we should preserve the city that so perfectly epitomizes our history of resilience and resourcefulness.

 

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  Today, New Orleans houses an entire cottage industry based on creating useful products with scrap materials. Local small business Restrung, for instance, produces beautiful jewelry, handmade out of the broken strings of musicians’ instruments. “Because they’re well played, there's this energy stuck in the strings,” says proprietor Naomi Celestin. The company donates a portion of its profits to a charity group that provides medical care for those same musicians, contributing to a uniquely New Orleans circle of sustainability. Mostly, New Orleanians uphold their culture by participating in it. “Nobody thinks twice about people dancing in the street,” says LaMancusa. “It happens all the time.” A parade is a moving party, a see-and-be-seen, a cathartic free-for-all. It can also be an act of civil defiance. Recently, when proposed noise ordinances threatened their freedom of expression, hundreds of local musicians marched on City Hall, instruments in hand, playing a giant version of Smokey Johnson’s 1964 hit “It Ain’t My Fault.” Streaming into the council chambers, they quite literally demanded to be heard. The council withdrew the proposal, but not before enjoying several saxophone solos. Nothing changes hearts like beautiful blaring brass.

 

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Photography by Bryan Rowland and Rhett Lewis

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