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Q&A: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

SS: Delfeayo Marsalis said, “There is a great sense of emptiness in New Orleans now.” How do the arts and the city’s culture help fill that void?

: Right after Katrina, our arts and culture — and our musicians — were dispersed along with everything else, and there was definitely a sense of loss in that regard. The entire rhythm of the city changed when we had helicopters, Humvees and rescue people everywhere. Months later, the music scene and artists are returning, along with a lot of our cultural norms such as the St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, and the Mardi Gras Indians. Mardi Gras was very successful this year. The Saints are back. The city is settling back into its normal rhythms.

SS: The city is made up of people with many different backgrounds who together embody one distinct New Orleans culture.

RN: That was one of my biggest concerns post-Katrina. There was a lot of noise and rhetoric about how this may be an opportunity to change things in New Orleans, and how certain people would not be welcomed back. I had to make it a point to say that everyone from New Orleans deserves a right to return to their city. We need every element of this community back because the blending of all the different elements is what makes us unique. We can’t lose that. Sometimes I like to describe us as a European city inside of America — a Euro-Caribbean city, really — because we have all these different influences and people come from all over the world to experience them, and they’re still doing it today. People are still visiting New Orleans in spite of any perceived negativity.

SS: How much of a priority is it for your administration to keep the creative culture of New Orleans alive?

RN: It’s very important. When I first came into office, we worked to set up workshops from the standpoint of showing how important it is to understand the business of creativity, because a lot of our musicians and artists have been ripped off in the past. We continue to do that through the Arts Council of New Orleans, and we’re going to stay on point. If we lose that in New Orleans, then we lose the soul of not only our city, but probably the country.

SS: How do you bring children into the fold, considering how the lineage was in danger when the community itself was destroyed?

RN: That’s something we’ve been focused on, making sure all the elements in the gumbo of New Orleans come back strong. Right after Katrina, we put together a commission to figure out exactly how we keep our culture progressing. One of the things we have been pushing is arts and music education, and making sure our kids have an appreciation for that going forward. We take local musicians and plug them into these training and awareness programs for the kids, and so far, it’s been going very well.

SS: I was at the Stop Jockin’ barbershop yesterday, and one of the barbers mentioned that you come in for the occasional sno-ball. As the mayor of a major American city, you’re still a regular person, which has been both to your credit and to your detriment. Why is that?

: I don’t know. I am constantly amazed at how people are so averse to the truth. They tell me I need to color things a certain way, and I do the best I can, but I want to keep it real, because I think people appreciate that. It’s a minority of people that really get offended, because things are twisted one way or the other. I can’t change, man. I grew up a certain way, my mom raised me a certain way, and I’m going to try and speak the truth as best I can. The thing that gets me is they talk about how I say things and not what I say. So as long as they’re talking about style versus substance, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m determined not to let politics taint me too much, because I’m close to it, and I’ve seen some of these other cats operate. I’m going to hold true to myself.

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