7th Ward residents try to hold on to culture as neighborhood changes
NEW ORLEANS – As his clippers hummed, barber Jaron “JRoc” Williams explained how his block of Touro Street has changed since he started cutting hair here 27 years ago, at age 13.
Today, Williams, at 40 is one of the block’s steadfast figures, known for wielding his scissors and comb behind the vintage red barber chair on his front porch.
In neighborhoods that were predominantly Black before Hurricane Katrina, gentrification has put its grip most quickly on blocks like these, which stand on high ground and are lined with historic houses. Neighbors are left to wonder whether there is a way to withstand the changes enough to maintain the historic culture of this area, which is known for its Creole cuisine, musicians, social aid and pleasure clubs and Black-masking Indians?
The city’s Black culture cannot continue without Black residents. And in this section of the 7th Ward – bounded by Elysian Fields and St. Bernard Avenue and by North Claiborne Avenue and North Rampart Street – Black residents now make up about 52% of the population according to 2020 census data — a sharp drop from 2010, when Black residents were 83% of the population.
Over the past 20 years, the area’s vibe has changed, said Williams, remembering a time when the sidewalks were alive with activity. Every afternoon, kids fresh out of school would run back and forth, playing, while the older people sat on the porches. In many homes, three generations of family — children, parents and grandparents — lived together. And nearly every block had its own corner store, where kids would pick up groceries with a note from their parents.
“Now, it’s like a ghost town,” Williams said recently, as he leaned in close and moved his razor along the hairline of client Kevin Van Pran, 26. A few feet away, Van Pran’s 6-year-old son, Abyanie, hung off the house’s iron front railing while his 7-year-old daughter, Kaelynn, sat on the porch and drew pictures in a rainbow-colored notebook.
From behind the barber chair, the front door opened, carrying a waft of something delicious from the stove tended by Williams’ mother, Patricia Woodard, 61, who sat on the porch’s bench for a moment to catch some cool air. For Woodard, the block has most changed because of death. “Just about all of the old people have left,” she said.
The most recent loss hit especially hard, Woodard said, pointing across the street, where a particularly beloved elder, Delores “Pupie” Scott Young, died last month at age 85. Young, part of the sprawling Dolliole family, grew up a block away on Pauger Street and moved to Touro Street as an adult, spending nearly her entire life within a two-block span of the neighborhood.
Neighbors on Touro had long relied upon Young, who made frozen cups, ran a popular weekly football pool, and was breathtakingly beautiful. “Pupie was an icon of this neighborhood for years, but she never did look her age,” said Lena Freeman, 77, who has lived next door for 40 years with her husband, Herman. “We used to say, ‘Why do you never change?’ She was the same Pupie from the day we met her until the day she passed.”
Young acted as community glue, feeding people, encouraging them, and cussing them out when necessary. “Pupie was there as a central force in a neighborhood of people,” said Lynette Johnson, 61, a cousin of Young who considers herself a niece. “So what happens when we lose that pillar? Who passes along those cultural hallmarks?”
In this part of the 7th Ward, as the population shifts, the question about passing along culture also must focus on the younger generation: Who is there to carry it forward?
On this block of Touro, only Van Pran’s children and a handful of other kids remain, neighbors say. But most of the children stay inside. Even if they come out, they don’t know each other because, unlike past days, they aren’t pushed together by parents and grandparents, sitting together on the porch at night.
“There’s no community feel,” Van Pran said.
Staying together or leaving
The changes on Touro didn’t happen overnight, said Roland Brown, 70, as he walked past Young’s house with his 3-year-old granddaughter, Tyre. A quarter-century ago, Brown moved into a house down the street with his wife, Necole, who descends from the Pipkins family, a longtime Touro Street name.
During those days, when gunfire and drug-slinging were common across this part of the 7th Ward, leaving was the objective for many Touro Street children, said Vernon “Vedo” Rogers, 42, who grew up here. “This was the real trenches,” Rogers said. “You didn’t want to get stuck on this street. You wanted to get away.”
Still, even during the 1980s and 1990s, drama typically missed this block, Rogers said. “Guys didn’t sell drugs here because of Pupie and all of the other old people, who would, one, call the police and, two, get your ass whipped. That’s why this block was special, until many of the old people passed and were replaced by Airbnbs.”
More than any other change, that’s what Williams experiences the most on a daily basis. “It feels like a hotel lobby here sometimes,” he said.
On a few nearby blocks, neighbors say, one or two-family homes remain within a sea of temporary rentals. Neighbors believe that this block has five short-term rentals, which is high, but more intact than others, providing one of the last places to get a glimpse of the old 7th Ward and its longtime families.
“My family made the 7th Ward and the 7th Ward made my family,” Johnson said. Her grandparents’ house at 2010 Pauger Street, known as The Big House, was a hub for much of the Dolliole family, including Aunt Pupie, who was raised there, along with her siblings, known mostly by their nicknames: ‘Nita, Medea, Babear also known as Basam, PeeWee, and Dole. Whenever a family member died, the casket was set up in The Big House’s front room for two-day wakes.
The term Big House did not refer to its architectural size, said Evie Dolliole-DuVernay, 72, who was married to one of Young’s brothers. “It was not a particularly oversized house, just an old-time shotgun with four bedrooms, a kitchen and one bathroom. But it was big because of how it welcomed people into its doors. It had been in the family dating back to the 1800s. No one person owned it; the house just passed from generation to generation. So if you were a Dolliole, you could stay there. And just about everybody from past generations stayed there at some point.”
As a child, Johnson’s mother, Pupie’s cousin, Jeanette Dolliole Sylvester, 84, was drawn to The Big House, where three Dolliole families lived together. “I loved to be there with them, with four of us in a bed,” Sylvester said. “We’d have cake and sandwiches made of potted meat, where my family added seasoning and mayonnaise to make it stretch so that everyone had enough. Or they’d add a little more water to the pot of gumbo so that everybody could get some. We’d also make ice cream by hand, and when it was done, everyone wanted to be the one to lick the paddles.”
With that sort of proximity to each other, that extended period of time together, there was little need to consciously pass along the culture. It just happened.
In the 1990s, after The Big House fell into disrepair and was demolished, the family hub shifted to Touro Street. “I think Aunt Pupie’s house became the new Big House,” said Johnson, who remembered parties with endless tables of food and R&B records as the soundtrack.
“Pupie had 24-7 open doors,” Dolliole-DuVernay said. “That was in her blood because she was raised in the Big House.”
Next to Ms. Pupie’s house stood the John Gendusa Bakery, which gave many neighborhood kids their first jobs and generally kept the Dolliole family supplied with bread until the bakery moved to Gentilly in 1996. Darnell Young, 47, Ms. Pupie’s youngest son, remembered that as the ovens fired up, they would bring frozen cups to over-heated bakers and receive bread and doughnuts in exchange.
In recent years, Johnson enrolled in Tulane University, to get a master’s degree in historic and cultural preservation. “I wanted to understand more about my family history and this culture that was so impactful to the city — and what happens when the culture starts to disappear,” she said.
Sabrina Mays, 67, who grew up across North Claiborne in the backatown section of the 7th Ward, has been thinking about some of the same questions in the 6th Ward as she heads up an oral history project called “Where the People At: Collective memories of life in Treme,” in collaboration with the New Orleans African American Museum.
“I believe that a village will die and become totally unrecognizable if the elders of the village are no longer there, acting as the keepers of the stories and the institutional knowledge,” said Mays, who was devastated to see Treme lose two revered elders earlier this year, Marion Colbert, the longtime powder-room attendant at Brennan’s, who died in January at age 93, and Mamie Hill, widow of Jessie “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” Hill, at age 92, who passed in March.
To ensure that the remaining history is preserved, Mays has been interviewing the last original families left in old Treme. But since Treme already has been “totally annihilated” by gentrification, those families number fewer than 50, she said.
What makes a community?
At age 11, Tyrone “Pie” Stevenson, now big chief of the Monogram Hunters Indian tribe, began masking under Tootie Montana, the vaunted big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, who lived nearby on North Villere Street.
At that time, so many people made Indian suits in that section of the 7th Ward that it became known as “Injunland.” Stevenson, 63, has helped assemble suits in nearly every house on Touro and Pauger streets, including the home of his Aunt Pupie Young, his godmother, whom he calls “the love of my life.” Those who met her knew her magic instantly, he said. “She just had this glow about her.”
Young demanded that her godson show the younger generation how to sew and mask Indian. “You’ve got to give them the culture,” she’d tell him. “These youngsters need to get into something meaningful.”
There was another requirement. Every year, on Mardi Gras Day and on St. Joseph’s Night, Stevenson had to make a stop by the house on Touro Street to show Pupie his finished suit. “We used to call her French Quarter lady,” he said, because, like the women of the Quarter, she would fling open the doors and emerge from her home in her housecoat to see us.
Last year, after the death of Young’s grandson, Big Chief Keelian “Dump” Boyd of the Young Maasai Hunters, the family demanded that the funeral procession stop in front of the house on Touro Street so that they could open the casket and give Ms. Pupie a last look at her grandson — she had been too sickly to attend the funeral, because it was during COVID restrictions.
On St. Joseph’s Night this year, Big Chief Pie’s 42-year-old son, Jeremy Stevenson, led the tribe to the house on Touro Street to pay respects to his Aunt Pupie and to his cousin Dump.
Ansel Augustine, director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, sees those deep ties within cultural families and wonders if the city’s artists will be able to continue to perpetuate their culture, now that they are priced out of the communities that shaped them. Increasingly, Augustine, a Treme native who acts as medicine man for the Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians, sees tribes moving through the same neighborhoods.
But instead of going to see people who share in their community tradition, they’re walking by new people who are acting as an audience, watching Indians as entertainment, he said.
Back on the porch on Touro Street, Williams sews beads onto his Indian suit, knowing that he is one of the few Indians left in Injunland, on blocks where dozens of Indians used to spend time.
Years ago, the artist Willie Birch made a portrait of Williams that he titled “The Barber on the Porch.” To him, that image is about survival in New Orleans.“We will do whatever we have to do, to pay our bills and practice our art,” he said.
He believes that, despite the obstacles, the culture of his native 7th Ward will continue in ways we cannot yet imagine. “That’s why New Orleans culture is so beautiful,” he said. “You keep the root. But the next generation will re-invent it.”
But these days, Johnson finds herself asking if there will be another Aunt Pupie to help guide that next generation. “You can’t cultivate that,” she said. “It just happens — or not.”