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New Orleans: America's City


I just spent some time in New Orleans. I want to talk about it.

By no means have I seen all of America’s great cities. I’ve seen but a handful. One thing I have noticed about them, though, is that they all have some iconic section for which they are famous–where the action is. New York City has Times Square. Baltimore has the Inner Harbor. New Orleans is famous for its French Quarter.

It is the oldest neighborhood in the city, founded almost 300 years ago. Of the many places I have visited in the US, it left much more of an impression than most. Along dimensions of culture, of style, of architecture, I’ve never seen anything else like it. There may well be other places in the US that are similar, but I haven’t visited them. From what I’ve been told and read, though, even among Southern cities, New Orleans is special. It is majority black, which is not unusual among American cities, but that its destiny has been so strongly shaped by that heritage makes it somewhat unique among American cities.

One of the most noticeable aspects is music. The French Quarter is alive with music, night and day, whether it’s a man working magic with nothing more than the clapping of his hands, children banging out elaborate rhythms with plastic buckets, or a five-piece band playing out of the back of a moving pickup truck, music is unavoidable. I found it deeply charming. Street busking is a common sight in other cities, of course, but I’ve never seen it so dense or so diverse. Even funerals are musical affairs–I was fortunate enough to witness a jazz funeral procession moving down the street, late at night, full of music and dance in celebration of the departed’s life.

Another element of New Orleans it would be difficult to overlook is the cuisine. People who don’t like seafood are likely to miss out on many of the star culinary attractions, but there’s plenty to eat otherwise. As for myself, I had alligator, oysters, boudin, whole shrimp, and crawfish. I’d had the latter before, but the others were entirely new experiences for me, and even familiar dishes had a new spin I’d never encountered before. I consider myself something of a finicky eater, but everything was delicious.

New Orleans is also a religiously distinct from the rest of the South. Where the rest of the South is mostly Protestant (usually Baptist), New Orleans (and, indeed, southern Louisiana in general) is Catholic. This shines through mainly in the architecture–cathedrals are ubiquitous and stand above their surroundings, often in ostentatious glory. Louisiana itself is unique in that, instead of being divided into counties as most US states, is broken up into Catholic parishes. Mardi Gras–the event for which New Orleans is perhaps most famous–is itself a Catholic holiday, a time full of revelry just before the somber season of Lent kicks off.

By virtue of New Orleans beginning as a French Catholic colony, transitioning to Spanish rule, and then to American ownership–all while its black population grew–the city is a unique fusion of cultures. It boasts Xavier University, which is the only university in the US which is historically both black and Catholic. Black and African influences are everywhere, from the music to the food to the art. It would be fair to say that New Orleans is art: the architecture is also unique among American cities–it’s not as if we have a lot of French or Spanish colonial construction here–and everything about the city is, in some way, expressive.

This is in ample evidence walking down streets like Conti or the famous Bourbon Street. People come here to eat, drink (and get drunk), make art, make music, talk, joke, sing, dance, and have a great time in general. Having spent time in some of New York City’s hard-partying areas, the Big Apple doesn’t hold a candle. One of the qualities I like in northeastern cities is the orderly, no-nonsense character of it. Even the partying is relatively subdued: it’s confined, not too loud, not too chaotic.

Such boundaries don’t appear to exist in the French Quarter, where people carry around huge cups, even fishbowls full of liquor. The party isn’t kept indoors, it’s spilling out all over the streets. Even the calmer, less-trafficked bars are noisy and raucous. Don’t expect to do anything in a hurry here, either: everybody takes their time, makes small talk, and wants to be your friend. Showing up on time is received with some amount of bemusement–everybody here is running at least a little bit late. And nobody is taking anything too seriously, because we’re all here to have a good time.

It’s fair to say that this sensibility is nothing like what I’m used to, living in the northeast. As a place to unwind, to enjoy life without any time pressures or demands, it’s wonderful. I’m not sure I could deal with it as my daily routine, though!

Alongside the ubiquitous bars are endless restaurants and gift shops, peppered with pipe shops (“for tobacco use only,” they swear), art galleries, mask vendors, voodoo and occult shops (and voodoo is a very serious thing here–be respectful and don’t take photos of anything), strip clubs, and likely many other offbeat establishments that escaped my attention. I admit that I was alcohol-impaired for some of my wanderings and, my senses overwhelmed, I may have (nay, certainly) omitted some gems.

I would be remiss to leave out the negative, though. The French Quarter is not all fun and games–violent crime remains a problem here, though I can’t say I personally witnessed or even heard about any. The city also still bears deep scars from Hurricane Katrina, which permanently displaced about 100,000 black residents. This is not terribly obvious in the French Quarter, which was spared Katrina’s devastating floods, but if you branch out into residential areas, it is difficult to miss. There remain many abandoned, boarded-up houses, and the downtown areas also still have a number of blighted buildings in need of rehabilitation or demolition.

The city is also gentrifying, a process that is often a mixed bag for the cities which experience it. As a historically black city, New Orleans has seen the influence of the black community wane in the wake of Katrina, and that trend has continued as black residents have become poorer and have not reaped the benefits of the investment coming into the city. This is the double-edged sword of gentrification: newcomers can make a killing, boosting the city as a whole, but long-time residents are crowded out of that wealth, and even their homes. The composition of the city shifts, and the individual impact of such changes tends to be underappreciated.

I am left wondering how my New Orleans experience might have been different if I’d visited pre-Katrina. Has the culture diluted, diminished since then? Has the city become more commercial and less authentic (an admittedly impossible dichotomy to document)? The economic devastation felt by many residents is palpable once you emerge from the tourist trap of the Quarter–I doubt that was present, at least to such a degree, before the storm.

For better or worse, though, New Orleans is an American city in the truest sense. It is culturally unique, almost indescribable–an unintentional social experiment whose results couldn’t be replicated no matter how hard anyone tried. The love for life, the food, the music, the in-your-face religion, the individualism on display, and yes, even the commercialism–it presents a distinct yet perfect capsule of the American experience. It is a city whose people have, in many ways, been failed, and whose future remains in doubt. All I know is that there will never be another like it, and I’ll be very surprised if I ever visit another city that feels quite the same, that leaves such an impression.

Thank you, New Orleans!