Crescent City culture lures natives back home

Chris and Karen Dufour know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Both natives of the metro area, they lived in London for several years before making their return into the area when they bought a Victorian shotgun on North Hagan Avenue and began renovation. More than anything, they liked the feel of the area. They are professionals, but also artists, who enjoy the eclectic vibe of the neighborhood.

And there’s also the beauty Faubourg St. John offers with City Park, the tree-lined canopy of Esplanade Avenue and, of course, Bayou St. John among the attractions only a stone’s throw from their home.

Then came Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the neighborhood and chased the Dufours to Austin, Texas, where they would live for seven-plus years. They began a family there and generally, were quite prosperous.

But it wasn’t home.

“The culture, the people, the food, the festivals, the architecture, the history,” Karen Dufour said, ticking off a litany of reasons why so many are so fond of the Crescent City. “We missed all of it. Being back makes us so happy.”

And events like Fortier Fest, which was held only eight blocks from their home on Saturday afternoon is another of those “Only in New Orleans” happenings that the Dufours longed for so much.

After all, where else can you walk to a small pocket park in a quiet corner of town and hear music legend Allen Toussaint tickle the ivories, not to mention have neighborhood resident Walter “Wolfman” Washington jam with him on the ticket? Each is a Jazz Fest staple, another enigmatic Faubourg St. John festival, albeit one that attracts hundreds of thousands from around the world each year.

Fortier Fest is smaller, considerably so, but it is of no less import to officials with the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association which has helped stage the event since Katrina.

Fortier Fest takes place in Alcee Fortier Park — a small, triangular green space that is nestled between Esplanade Avenue and Grand Route St. John at Mystery Street. The FSJNA uses proceeds from each year’s festival to help with the upkeep of the park, which overflows with colorful flora throughout the year and keeps the heads of passers-by turning as they walk or pedal past. It’s a way of maintaining an area that is one of the quiet reasons those in the neighborhood enjoy Faubourg St. John as much as they do.

“After Katrina, the plants we had in the park were ruined,” said Bobby Wozniak, FSJNA and Friends of Fortier Park member. “We decided to have a festival that would help us rebuild. Once people saw what we were doing, they came out of the woodwork to support us.”

That began with grant money from Keep Louisiana Beautiful which allowed the group to purchase benches. Sculptures were donated and sprinkler and electrical systems installed. There was enough input to purchases chess tables and chairs, too. All of the maintenance is spearheaded by the Friends of Fortier Park, which consists of Wozniak, David Armond and Bob McGuire.

“It’s the center of our little neighborhood,” said Wozniak, who referred to himself as “the chief volunteer gardener at Fortier Park.” “I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and saw the gardens there and thought ‘We can do that here.’ People have taken care of it.”

And so have the volunteers. Today, there are azaleas and camellias, caladiums and gingers. The idea is to always have something blooming, Wozniak said, or at least to have plants that produce colorful foliage in nongrowing seasons. An acquaintance of his refers to the park as “the quintessential Southern shade garden.”

Wozniak estimated that for past festivals, about 500 people showed up to enjoy the afternoon. On Saturday, however, the intersection of perfect weather, great musicians, good food and drink from neighborhood restaurants and bars came close to doubling attendance.

That’s a sizable number of people to fit into a slightly less than two-acre pocket park. But the crowd was pleasant as most sipped on cold drinks, swayed to the Wolfman/Touissant jam, or bid on auction items. Popular watercolorist Robert Guthrie also painted a picture of Saturday’s scene from the back of a flatbed truck. The piece was to be auctioned later in the evening.

Wozniak said all money cleared at Fortier Fest will go back into the park’s upkeep. He said new chairs are needed, as is some maintenance to the sprinkler system. And, as always, there’s a need for new plants, mulch and such.

“It’s a quirky event in a little park, but people just love it,” he said “It kind of reflects the hipster image of the neighborhood. It’s not a cookie-cutter. It’s different.”

Jazz Fest and Fortier Fest are not the only regular, lively happenings in Faubourg St. John. There’s also Voodoo on the Bayou at the Pitot House each Halloween and the Santa on the Bayou event at Cabrini each Christmas. And as the Dufours pointed out, it’s also not uncommon to see Mardi Gras Indians staging in front of their house, or for a second line to break out in the middle of Orleans Avenue.

“Neighborhood gatherings like Fortier Fest and Halloween on Grand Route St. John remind us of how family-oriented our neighborhood is,” Karen Dufour said. “We look forward to meeting more families at events like this as our daughter grows.”