Civic Innovator: New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village

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On May 11, the National Building Museum will honor three organizations for their civic innovations: design firm Perkins+Will, the founders of New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village, and the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon during the 2010 Honor Award.

Completed homes in New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.
Courtesy New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.

These honorees share a commitment to innovation, community and cultural development, and education. National Building Museum Online spoke with Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) and one of the founders of Honor Award recipient New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village about the vision behind the Musicians’ Village, how it has become a cornerstone of NOAHH’s post-Katrina rebuilding effort, and how it is preserving and promoting the city’s musical heritage.

National Building Museum (NBM) Online:  How did the idea for the Musicians’ Village come about?

Jim Pate: In the days immediately following the catastrophic flooding due to the failure of the levees and floodwalls in New Orleans, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr, and Ann Marie Wilkins reached out to their many musician friends who had been forced to evacuate from the city. While traveling to the Astrodome to visit and support the evacuees then housed there, Branford and Harry discussed the very real threat to the rich musical heritage of New Orleans if the musicians could not get back home. Harry had been a long-time supporter of New Orleans Habitat and it seemed like a logical place to start— build Habitat homes in New Orleans especially for musicians. With Ann Marie handling much of the communication and planning, they contacted me with their vision. This soon grew to include the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a community center with teaching and performance facilities, and the addition of ten elder-friendly duplex units for older Masters of Music.

Houses at the New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village under construction in the Upper 9th Ward.
Courtesy New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Villag

NBM Online: What hurdles did you have to overcome in order to turn the vision into reality?

Pate: The most immediate challenge was to secure adequate land in a single appropriate neighborhood. The property had to be within reasonable proximity to the French Quarter and the Frenchmen Street clubs and other music venues. It had to have adequate public transportation so that musicians playing gigs in other parts of the City could get to those places as well. Obviously, it needed to be in an area where the infrastructure and utilities could be restored fairly quickly. Fortunately, just before Katrina, New Orleans Habitat had identified a tract of land, the site of a long-demolished junior high school, in the Upper 9th Ward. We were able to obtain this land and begin actual design for the Musicians’ Village.

Another, unique hurdle arose early on: Musicians tend to be paid in cash or by the gig with no “normal” record of income—no W-2s, no 1099s (or very few of them). We learned to be flexible in determining income for the musicians by using gig books, tour schedules, letters from club owners and managers—even gig posters. Ann Marie, Harry and Branford were tremendously helpful in helping us source and qualify musicians.

However, these were only the beginning of the many hurdles we faced. It is difficult to realize the enormity and scope of the disaster. Everyone has seen media coverage of the flooded homes and buildings; but, the disaster had a far greater depth—the human infrastructure was also devastated.

Branford Marsalis, one of the founders of Musicans’ Village, helps construct some of the homes at the Musicians’ Village.
Courtesy New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.

For months, every government and institutional office and every business was seriously understaffed as people struggled to return and rebuild their own homes. Virtually every office was working out of crowded, inadequate and temporary quarters. Many records had been destroyed. Everything necessary to build a house, everything that had taken only a few days before the disaster, now took weeks and months—permitting, zoning, utility connections. In the early days, even material was hard to get. For New Orleans Habitat, we went from 11 pre-Katrina employees to four who were able (and willing) to return. We lost every single tool and vehicle we had. We had thousands of volunteers anxious to come and help; but there was no place for them to stay and no facilities to provide food and water. By January of 2006, we had secured 250 cots at a FEMA Contractors Camp and, by the time it closed in June of 2006, we had rehabilitated an elementary school in St. Bernard Parish to house up to 450 volunteers—”3 hots & a cot”. We later expanded our “Camp Hope” in another rehabbed school to accommodate over 850 volunteers at a time and staffed and managed this facility until we “decommissioned” it June of 2009.

Harry Connick, Jr., one of the founders of Musicians’ Village, paints the side of one of the homes in the Village.
Courtesy New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.

NBM Online: In the first few months after Hurricane Katrina, how did you envision the city’s recovery and your role in it?

Pate: In the first few weeks, the devastation was so vast and despair was so widespread, that it was difficult to even imagine recovery. But, the outpouring of generous support and the many volunteers willing to help stirred our hope. When Harry, Branford, and Ann Marie brought their Musicians’ Village vision to me that was a defining moment of personal hope and a wondrous task upon which to focus. I believed that New Orleans would recover and that Musicians’ Village would be an important part of that recovery—not simply the recovery of homes, but the recovery, preservation, and transmittal of that critical part of New Orleans represented by its musical heritage.

I did NOT envision the bureaucratic morass engendered by the often idiotic provisions of the Stafford Act. I did NOT envision that almost five years later many of our public buildings—fire and police stations, government offices, and other public places would remain incomplete or only partially rebuilt. And, I did NOT—in my wildest dreams— envision that for the past three years New Orleans Habitat for Humanity would be the largest single family homebuilder in the metropolitan area—for profit or non-profit.

One of the many families that call Musicians’ Village home.
Courtesy New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.

NBM Online: Now that you have completed the initial group of 72 houses in the Musicians’ Village, what’s next for the community?

Pate: In addition to the 72 single family homes, we have also completed ten elder-friendly duplex units. The Marsalis Center is under construction with a target completion date in less than 11 months. A toddler park will be complete by the end of April.Just as exciting is the music being preserved, renewed, and developed among the residents of the Musicians’ Village. More than 80% of the residents are musicians [representing] virtually every genre from Trad Jazz to brass band, from funk to rock ‘n roll, from Mardi Gras Indians to klezmer with a little salsa, reggae and R&B thrown in—two members of the Louisiana Philharmonic also live there. The residents continue the New Orleans tradition of musicians playing in multiple bands of different styles and the fusion of all of these genres is occurring every day on front porches and living rooms in the Village.

New Orleans Habitat has built an additional 60+ houses in the surrounding blocks of the Upper 9th Ward around the Village, many of them occupied by musicians. We will continue to build in our five neighborhoods across the City and in the surrounding parishes.

NBM Online: Based on your experience with New Orleans Habitat for Humanity and with the Musicians’ Village in particular, what are your thoughts on the interrelationship between architecture and culture?

Pate: In a manner virtually unmatched in any other city, New Orleans presents a place where culture and architecture are intrinsically intertwined. It is from the wealth of our diverse neighborhoods that our culture arises—such as the venues of the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of the 7th, 8th and 9th wards, and the great jazz clubs once found in Treme. Much of the nation is rediscovering “walkable neighborhoods.” New Orleans never lost it. Each neighborhood had and has homes, restaurants, bars, schools, places of worship, and public spaces all within walking distance. New Orleanians know that a hole-in-the-wall deli or corner store has fabulous po-boys, crawfish boils, red beans ‘n rice, or some other community delicacy. Our “front porch” house traditions give rise to spontaneous parades and second lines. And music wafts around every corner. The Musicians’ Village simply takes this tradition to a higher level. We have been approached to explore “Writers” and “Painters” villages. Many cities have an “accidental bohemian” neighborhood. The Musicians Village provides an intentional model that could preserve, grow, and transmit virtually any cultural tradition of any place.

NBM Online: What does receiving the National Building Museum’s 2010 Honor Award mean for you and your organization?

Pate: We are deeply honored to be a co-recipient of the National Building Museum 2010 Honor Award. The National Building Museum is the premier organization exploring and teaching the best practices of architecture in preserving quality of life and the importance of design and construction of communities, public buildings, and public spaces.

Recognition of the Musicians’ Village project by the National Building Museum emphasizes that the heritage of a place is found in its people and traditions and that thoughtful architecture is vital to preserving and transmitting that heritage and the attendant quality of life in the larger community. Finally, this great honor represents another measure of the continuing recovery of our most beautiful and unique home.


This post was created due to the 2010 Honor Award