Saving the City's Soul
The phrase "theme park" is making the rounds of New Orleans a lot these days, vying with the words Katrina and FEMA in its ability to inspire dread and loathing. It sums up the vision of a city stripped of its low-lying, mostly poor, mostly black neighborhoods and reduced to a few tourist-enticing quarters like the Garden District or an even further Disneyfied Vieux Carre.
Truth is, fears of New Orleans becoming a theme-park version of its older, authentic self are nothing new. More than 20 years ago, the writer Walker Percy described the city as "being curiously dispirited in those very places where it advertises itself as being most alive." Bourbon Street had become, in his view, "little more now than standard U.S. sleaze, the same tired old strippers grinding away, T-shirt shops, New Orleans jazz gone bad, art gone bad," and all of official Mardi Gras was just as empty. Yet Percy leavened his verdict by noting that pockets of authentic life persisted: "The real live festival of Mardi Gras takes place elsewhere," he wrote, "in the byways, in the neighborhood truck parades."
Keep that "elsewhere" in mind. It is crucial to answering the question of whether the soul of the city is now truly endangered. But first, what exactly is the soul of this most unlikely and extravagant of American cities?
Put simply, it is a conjunction of place and people: the implausibility of place conjoined with a rich yet well-blended stew of people. What makes this quasi-Caribbean city so improbable is not just the below-sea-level craziness of being located next to a mighty river periodically prone to spilling its levee-elevated banks. It's also the impossible tropical heaviness of the climate, which, among other nuisances, serves as an ideal host to visiting hurricanes. New Orleans could not be elsewhere.
Yet the city's soul derives even more decisively from the eclectic mass of humanity gathered there over the centuries, a spicy blend of French, Spanish, African, and Anglo-Saxon elements, with plenty of Jewish, Irish, and German seasoning thrown in. If other American cities have also had their motley assortment of immigrants, what makes New Orleans special, according to historian and former New Orleanian Frederick Starr, "is that those who choose to move there are precisely the ones most likely to adapt easily once there." Even the city's Chinese, he explains, tend to come from the freewheeling parts of China like Hong Kong and Canton. Uniting such newcomers is a certain attitude toward life that is at once pleasure-seeking and forgiving, stoic and daring, ironic and teasing--an outlook perhaps best summed up by the expression "Do you wanna live, or do you wanna live forever?"
Sardonic. It is hard to pass through New Orleans and not have at least one encounter with the defiantly idiosyncratic character of its citizenry. You are at an oyster bar, for example, and you ask the man behind the counter who is shucking those slithery little bivalves where they come from. Sizing you up instantly as a nervous Nellie who wants to be sure that his oysters come from 100 percent pollution-free beds, he gives you all the answer he thinks you deserve, complete with heavy accent: "From duh watah."
There's a whole sermon in that response: Pleasure costs. Living high has its risks. You want to gamble, you have to face losing it all. You don't, then stay at home--or at least away from New Orleans.
That attitude abides. You could see it one recent evening at the Maple Leaf club in the city's Uptown neighborhood. Responding to the calls of the funk-inflected Rebirth Brass Band, a racially mixed crowd came to a kind of catharsis with loud and profane denunciations of the hurricane and the federal government.
But there is no denying that this attitude is running on low these days. What's always powered it is that diverse collection of people forever mixing it up, whether making jazz, or an eclectic cuisine, or a truly creole culture. Get rid of the neighborhoods that are home to a crucial part of that human gumbo, neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, and you end up with ... what, exactly?
Well, probably not even a very good theme park. As New Orleans writer Jason Berry says, "You'll be able to gauge the cultural health of the city by the degree to which the musicians return." And for now, it looks as though too many are still staying away.
This story appears in the February 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.