Jennifer Renee Johnson desperately misses New Orleans during Mardi Gras. But the New Orleans she misses, she says, no longer exists.
Johnson is one of thousands of native New Orleanians who, in this 10th Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina, have yet to move back after fleeing the 2005 disaster.
For many former New Orleans residents, Mardi Gras cannot be replaced where they now live. “I don’t find other ways to celebrate,” said Johnson. “It makes me too sad.”
Johnson’s post-Katrina story is a mix of missed connections, mishaps, fateful decisions and luck.
A nationally recognized artist, better known as JRenée, her art and clothing store in the French Quarter was a gathering point for local creatives. Musicians who played at the nearby House of Blues often dropped by. She painted the first album cover for popular trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis.
Johnson’s efforts to protect her staff and friends slowed her evacuation.
“I wanted to take care of vendors and employees who were also trying to get out and needed their money,” Johnson said. “A lot of store owners who rented, like myself, got into conflicts with landlords who also wanted to leave. ‘Who is going to board up what?’ People underestimated the amount of preparation, whether you decided to stay or leave.”
The storm came too soon for her family to escape. Johnson had a car, but the keys were with a friend who already had sped off to Atlanta. This minor mistake proved a major problem.
“There were other people who were leaving but only had space for one or two. We had five,” Johnson said. “We had to make the decision to split up in the middle of a disaster or stay together. We decided to ride it out.”
The Johnsons sheltered with a friend on higher ground. They eventually re-entered a city that had changed forever.
Near the Superdome, a chaotic refuge of last resort for some 30,000, cops re-directed the Johnsons to a stranger with a truck. “We knew something had to be really wrong at the Superdome.”
The stranger drove them to Houston, where they stayed at a church. There, the Johnsons shared stories, and tears, with other displaced families.
Using church-sponsored Amtrak tickets, they wound up in Washington, D.C., where they were assigned to the D.C. Armory with hundreds more evacuees. Johnson had artistic roots in D.C., as muralist in up-and-coming restaurants and nightclubs. “It seemed like a good place to try a new start.”
After three months in shelters, Johnson returned to New Orleans. Though the French Quarter was less damaged than she feared, her shop had been flooded and looted. “But oddly, they didn’t touch the art, the most valuable thing.”
Johnson retrieved what she could and relocated to Columbia, South Carolina. It offers Johnson a much lower living costs, but one in which the culture, she finds, shares at least some similarity with New Orleans.
Her reasons for not returning are emotional and financial.
“A lot of people have gone back, but they are on the outskirts. They can’t afford to live in the city proper,” Johnson said. “People are charging $1,200 for a one bedroom. Pre-Katrina, the same thing would have been around $450. A house that would have cost $150,000 is now $450,000. What kind of jobs sustain the mortgage on a $450,000 house in a place like New Orleans?”
Some returnees still feel displaced because, they say, New Orleans is losing its culture.
Johnson has returned for Mardi Gras only once, when her commissioned painting, “For the Love of Zulu,” became the official poster of 2012’s Zulu Parade.
“When I had the chance to go back, the first thing I noticed is that lack of people who know the culture,” Johnson said. “When there was a second-line march, local people used to join in…Now you have more people taking pictures than participating. It makes you feel self-conscious and less free to express yourself. It’s a bit of a Walt Disney atmosphere.”
“The real New Orleans, the one I send people to, is the black New Orleans. But truthfully, New Orleans is just not as black anymore,” said Johnson.
Though she has no plans to return permanently, New Orleans never has left her. She envisions a major new mural there, for which she is raising funds.
But until then, she’ll be sitting Mardi Gras out. “Everybody wants to be from New Orleans,” said Johnson, “but while they might appreciate the culture, it’s only true New Orleanians who can perpetuate it.”