Photographing Black New Orleans Before It's Gone
All photographs by Patrick Melon
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A parade with two brass bands, elaborate floats, cop cars, rolling coolers of beer, kids in suits, and a huge mob of people dressed to the nines has been coursing through the Seventh Ward in New Orleans for three hours now. It is the Ole & Nu Style Fellas second line, celebrating the black social aid and pleasure club’s 20th anniversary.
Photographer Patrick Melon strafed back and forth on the shingles of a bar called Kermit’s Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge, where Melon was following a guy named Scubble dancing for the crowd below. Scubble was decked out in a camo jumpsuit with the words “Treme Sidewalk Stepper” written on the back. Melon alternated between his film camera, his digital, and his phone to take a video for Instagram.
Melon’s work isn’t just unique for his daredevil climbing or his intense intimacy with his subjects. He’s become a documentarian of black culture in a city where that culture is simultaneously being celebrated and destroyed. “I’m just trying to record the last remaining vestiges of old New Orleans,” Melon said.
Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ black population has dropped by 30 percent. In 2014, there were 10,000 fewer white residents than before Katrina, compared to 100,000 fewer black New Orleans residents. The city’s black population has grown since, but the black community isn’t returning home to historically black neighborhoods—white transplants are moving there in disproportionate numbers.
I met with Melon at his shotgun home right around the corner from where he grew up. His house is next to a busy seafood spot and one block from one of the most central locations for second lines. The highway overpass there at Claiborne and St. Bernard avenues acts as a concrete echo chamber and is where brass bands make sure to play their best songs.
I told Melon he lived in a prime location for his work. “Yeah, but I won’t be here for too long,” he replied. “This isn’t a neighborhood anymore,” Melon lamented about the Seventh Ward. “This is a goddamn hotel district.”
Melon said his landlord is kicking him out to turn his apartment into an Airbnb. His neighborhood is one of the black neighborhoods most threatened by short term rentals. Listings in the Seventh Ward have increased by 91 percent just since 2015. With over half of the city’s rentals controlled by 20 percent of operators, most of that money goes to speculators instead of entrepreneurial home owners.
Melon credits his fresh perspective on the parades to the fact that he’s only been going to second lines for a few years. When he was a kid, Melon’s mom wouldn’t let him go to second lines because they were too dangerous.
Second lines date back to a period just after the Civil War. During funeral processions, brass bands would lead the casket and loved ones on a march toward the burial site while playing mournful dirges. This was known as the “main” or “first” line. Then, after burial, the band would play more joyous songs in celebration, and would be joined by everyone there to celebrate the life of the deceased. This dance-filled part of the procession became known as the “second line.”
Though Ole and Nu Fellas only started in 1998, social groups like those were set up after the war to raise money for recently freed slaves who were systematically denied coverage by insurance companies. These parades are often described as a “jazz funeral without a body,” and some historians even point to West African dances as the origin of second lines. Nowadays, they’re carried out by a wide variety of groups nearly every Sunday.
“It’s a moving block party,” Melon said. The stark irony, then, is that they’re block parties in neighborhoods where many attendees no longer live.
Melon says his love of power poses was inspired by Jamel Shabazz, one of the premier New York street photographers documenting black culture in the 70s and 80s. “His stuff felt like a family photo album, but with a whole city,” Melon said as he showed me the Brooklyn native’s iconic photos of b-boys in Adidas track suits and Kangol hats. Patrick was flattered when Shabazz started following him on Instagram one day and started liking his pictures.
“The main factor in Melon’s work is recognition,” Shabazz said. “It gives identity to a people that a lot of individuals don’t really know. I think what happened after Hurricane Katrina, is that it put a black eye on the community. But what Patrick has done is put another face on New Orleans other than Mardi Gras. He gives value to a people that are often misunderstood or misrepresented.”
“It’s one thing when you’re an outsider shooting it, but it’s different when you’re from the community. Your DNA is in these people here, and it shows,” Shabazz said. Patrick has an Instagram following just shy of 100,000, and said an analytic tool told him that the majority of his followers are New Orleans-based.
The parade passed down a street where most of the black-owned bars have been converted into white owned ones. Sometimes the bars keep the same name, but the parade didn’t stop to honor them like it used to. It just pulsed on until it came back to the exact place it started
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