Opening in 1941, the Lafitte public housing development was one of the city’s largest, stretching from North Claiborne Avenue to North Rocheblave Street, between Lafitte and Orleans Avenues. Before then, this area of Treme was fairly diverse, with African-Americans and creoles of color living alongside working-class white families (one of the houses bulldozed to clear the site was the birthplace of famed Sicilian-American bandleader Louis Prima). The Lafitte, though, was strictly for “colored” people, and the nearby Iberville project, on Storyville’s old footprint, was set aside for white residents only.
Donald Harrison, Sr. was among the first generation of children to move into the Lafitte, where he sold fruit to neighbors from a mule-drawn wagon. The corner of Orleans and Claiborne was the center of black Carnival then as it is today, and Harrison loved watching Mardi Gras Indians gather there in full regalia. He was masking by 1949, and would go on to be Big Chief of the Creole Wild West, the White Eagles, and the Guardians of the Flame. He’s credited with popularizing the song “Shallow Water,” now a Mardi Gras Indian standard.
The Lafitte’s location helped make it a haven for brass band musicians. Its low-rise brick buildings fronted eight blocks of Orleans Avenue, a longstanding second line parade route. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, one of the most influential brass bands of the modern era, first came together for informal neighborhood parades that visited the oak-shaded courtyards here in the mid-1970s.
The Dirty Dozen caught the attention of Lumar LeBlanc, a kid in the Lafitte who became a snare drummer in the Young Olympia Brass Band. With bass drummer Derrick Moss, he formed the Soul Rebels Brass Band in the early 1990s, a group that focused more on club gigs and recording than second lines. They would eventually drop “Brass Band” from their name and branch out into a range of genres, most notably hip-hop. Today, they tour internationally and collaborate with rappers including Nas and Talib Kweli.
Dorothy Hill, whose husband was Jessie Hill of “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” fame, lived next door to the great vocalist Johnny Adams in the Lafitte. Hill’s grandson James Andrews stayed with her regularly while cutting his teeth as a young trumpeter and singer. He played in the Treme Brass Band, fronted the New Birth Brass Band, and now leads his own Crescent City Allstars.
Andrews was also a mentor to his younger brother Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who vaulted from Treme’s brass band community to national success leading a band called Orleans Avenue. Tragically, their brother Darnell “D-Boy” Andrews, who played trombone, was shot and killed in the housing development when he was 17.
The Lafitte emerged from Hurricane Katrina with minimal structural damage (Katy Reckdahl reported that its brick walls were so thick that musicians could practice at home without disturbing their neighbors). Still, evacuated residents, even those like Preservation Hall tuba player Jeffrey Hills whose apartment was unaffected, were never allowed back in. The department of Housing and Urban Development, with local political backing, demolished the development in 2008.
One of the nearly 2,000 people displaced as a result was brass band icon “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who’d moved to the project when his house in Treme was torn down to make way for Armstrong Park forty years earlier. Today, his portrait is on a pillar of the Claiborne overpass in front of the mixed-income housing development that eventually replaced the Lafitte.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
From 2012, the Treme Brass Band plays in a horse-drawn carriage. "Uncle" Lionel Batiste plays bass drum and sings. Benny Jones, co-founder of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, plays snare drum.
From 2016, the Soul Rebels perform with Talib Kweli, Joey Bada$$, and Big Freedia. Bandleader Lumar LeBlanc is on the snare drum and cymbals.
Johnny Adams, with Jon Cleary on piano and George Porter, Jr. on bass, performs the country soul ballad "Reconsider Me."