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Fire on the Bayou

The mark in the grass by the side of Bayou St. John is so faint now it’s hard to notice even as you walk over it. But if you know it’s there, it can still be powerfully evocative.

It’s a gouge, mostly grown over now, caused by the rotor blades of a helicopter that crashed beside the bayou in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina (see then-and-now pictures here). With so much around it flooded, the dry ridge of natural high ground beside the bayou had served as a rally point for people being evacuated by helicopter, but this flight didn’t make it out. I remember hearing at the time that everyone walked away from the crash, but the wrecked machine lay there for months. And to me, during those emotionally open early days after Katrina when everything seemed symbolic, it looked like a totem of failure and abandonment even as life slowly inched back into Mid-City around it.

Fittingly enough, the wine shop Cork & Bottle directly across the street from the crash site was among the first businesses to reopen in the ZIP code, while the nearby Parkway Bakery & Tavern soon began service, starting with its roast beef poor boys only and building the menu back from there. All the while, this destroyed helicopter lay prone by the bayou. Eventually, someone even clipped a “for rent” sign to its windscreen, which I read as a comment on the scarcity of housing in New Orleans during that unbelievable era. 

One day the helicopter was finally carted off, leaving behind the scar the crash had dug into the earth, and to see this mark passing from the road or the adjacent bike path was to conjure the image of the wreckage again. But during that first post-Katrina spring, on Memorial Day weekend, something else claimed the bayou, overriding this dark shadow. While most of Mid-City still lay in ruins, a group of neighbors somehow coordinated the inaugural Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a free music festival along the same stretch of Bayou St. John.

That first edition was an annunciation that Mid-City would be back, and it proved a very fun time. It turns out the narrow green stretch beside the bayou makes a great festival grounds, with very scenic vistas of the bayou, the beautiful homes around it and the landmark dome of Holy Rosary church rising in the distance. People launch all manner of craft into the water during the festival, floating around while the bands perform and waving to others sitting along the water’s edge.

The Boogaloo has grown and changed every year since, and this 2010 edition is a three-day event, from Friday through Sunday, featuring more than 30 music acts on three stages. The lineup is highly varied. For instance, Bill Summers will work his magic on the drums, blending Afro-Caribbean and jazz, on Friday. Benny Turner will do a tribute the late great New Orleans blues lady Marva Wright on Saturday. And Sunday gets an early start with the Brian Coogan Band, the tight funk outfit that so rocked Chaz Fest last month. There will be Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands, bluegrass, gospel, zydeco and jazz. Headliners are the Cajun music standard-bearers Beausoliel performing with bayou blues rocker and outspoken wetlands advocate Tab Benoit, and they’ll close the festival together on Sunday.

There’s food from local restaurants for sale, and plenty else going on besides the music, including health and wellness demonstrations and kids’ crafts.  There will even be a Rubber Duck Derby, or a race of rubber ducky toys, in the bayou on Sunday to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank. 

It’s shaping up to be a busy weekend on the bayou and another demonstration of how far our city has come from the days when destroyed helicopters were local landmarks. Just be sure to avert your eyes from the wretched vandalized hulk of the former Lindy Boggs Medical Center (née Mercy Hospital) off the bayou. That disaster landmark will evidently take more time to remedy.

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