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New Orleans’ past, future collide at Oktoberfest

Becky Bohrer

NEW ORLEANS — The beer and oompah music are flowing as ever, but there is a mournful tone to this year’s Oktoberfest at the Deutsches Haus, a remnant of the city’s once-vibrant German culture that faces demolition for post-Katrina development.

First opened in 1928 and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina’s ravages, the cultural center is one of many buildings in a historic neighborhood likely to be torn down for a $2 billion medical complex billed as a centerpiece of city’s recovery.

There’s a different point of view inside the center that has been a gathering place for generations of families with German roots.

“My personal opinion is, this is a land grab, it isn’t necessary, it doesn’t benefit anybody but the politicians in Baton Rouge,” said Frieda Arwe, in German-accented English.

The proposal to clear about 70 acres of a Mid-City neighborhood isn’t without hurdles — or critics.

Delivery of a site for a Veterans Affairs medical center hasn’t happened, and the state has yet to fully secure funding for a teaching hospital. Completion of both is now projected for 2013-2014, though demolition to clear the site could begin in 2010.

Preservationists argue scores of century-old houses would be lost. Two lawsuits say the planning process was flawed and should be revisited.

State and local officials counter the hospitals would jumpstart the economy, creating thousands of high-paying jobs, attracting new residents and sparking demand for shopping and restaurants near downtown.

“I think using the word ‘transformative’ is in no way overselling this,” said Kurt Weigle, president of the Downtown Development District.

Many of the Deutsche Haus’ 650 members figure it’s just a matter of time. Like other property owners, they expect to be offered a buyout. The state office coordinating land acquisition said owners can negotiate on price but the state has expropriation authority if an agreement cannot be reached.

Whether the Haus can be re-established elsewhere in what was once a German working-class neighborhood or will move to the suburbs isn’t clear.

Similar uncertainty has angered other residents and business owners in Mid-City, some of whom returned to rebuild after Katrina hit in August 2005.

“They talk about this being the largest economic development project in the city” since Katrina, said Mary Howell, a lawyer whose office is nearby. “Great. We want to have that. But not at the expense of tearing down a neighborhood to do that.”

While the city is best known for its French roots, losing the Deutsches Haus would end a “whole heritage” said Arwe, a German immigrant who sings in its choir.

The first Germans came to Louisiana in the 1720s, settling upriver from New Orleans. Others arrived in the 1800s, said Sevilla Finley, co-founder of the German-American Cultural Center in Gretna.

The 20th century’s world wars made “being German unpopular,” she said. But a rebirth of interest in the 1980s gave life to cultural awareness and the Deutsches Haus.

While politicians and lawyers duke it out, this year’s Oktoberfest rolls on.

The monthlong celebration began Sept. 25 as men in lederhosen and women in dirndl dresses and flower headbands mingled with college guys in shorts. Parents cut sausage and other German dishes into small pieces for children. Couples bopped to the music as the smell of sauerkraut and tang of beer spiked the evening air.

Hubert Vahrenhorst, a 49-year-old woodworker who says he grew up around the Deutsches Haus, was minding a grill. He said he couldn’t let worries about the future spoil the fun.

“It’s sad, to a point, but we’re still going to have a good time,” he said.

(Associated Press)