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Artists, Cultural Specialists Seek to Restore New Orleans' Historic Buildings


New Orleans is a city renowned for its culture, from the street theater of Mardi Gras to the jazz of the French Quarter. As clean-up and damage assessment continue in New Orleans, artists and cultural specialists, like Nick Spitzer, a professor of folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans, are talking about what it will take to restore New Orleans' historic and artistic soul.

"I say this is just as much a cultural disaster as a natural disaster, because it's a city of art and culture that is beloved by the world," Mr. Spitzer says. "It's a tragic thing to go to a city of nightlife and see it dark and not hear music. And obviously you hate to see the beauty of the buildings surrounded by mucky water. Putting the city back is going to require a lot of people from within the city, and I think that's going to be a big job."

A job that will require the talents of craftsmen like Earl Barthe, a fifth-generation master plasterer from New Orleans who specializes in the ornamental molding found in the city's historic homes, churches and other buildings.

"I'm very concerned when I hear the news talking about bulldozing things," Mr. Barthe says. There is so much architectural [history] in New Orleans that you need an expert to tell what to bulldoze. You can't bulldoze all of that history."

To restore all of that architectural history is going to require more artisans than there are in New Orleans, Mr. Barthe says. While there used to be several family businesses like his in the city, he says that is no longer the case. "We don't have the families now, so we're going to have to bring people in," he says, adding, "The government is going to have to play a part. It's too much for an individual to do."

Earl Barthe says there are artisans in other cities who can help. But he says, there is also a need to train young people to do the work. While in Washington recently to receive a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, he visited with his senators and representatives on Capitol Hill. "I stressed to them that we have to preserve what we have. And we have to train young people," Mr. Barthe says, "because this is going to go on for years."

While he notes that it takes four years to become a master plasterer, he says after six months apprentices could do some of the restoration work.

Since Hurricane struck a month ago, Mr. Barthe has been living in Texas with a nephew. He says he is eager to get back to New Orleans, once it has been cleaned up and the floodwaters have receded. "I have buildings I worked on, beautiful, historic buildings, and I'm going to go back and do what I can."

But first, he will need to assess the damage to his shop. "When they said to evacuate, we left everything, so I'm sure all that is ruined," he says. "We don't have anything left - all my molds and tools, and everything."

He says it will take a while before he can get to work, but Earl Barthe is optimistic that with government support, the city of New Orleans will be back.

Folklorist Nick Spitzer agrees, and he says artists like Earl Barthe, and cultural preservationists of many stripes will play a leading role in the restoration of the city:

"Because culture has risen in the last decade as the thing people come to New Orleans for," Mr. Spitzer says. "We have many artists - professional and everyday folk - that are part of the celebrations and music and food and rituals of the city. We all need to be back in a place where we can keep creating the traditions and making some new ones."

Earl Barthe says it will take a while to restore New Orleans to what it was. But Nick Spitzer predicts that even as restoration continues, next spring, when Mardi Gras rolls around, the residents of the city will be ready to celebrate in the streets once again.

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