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NEW ORLEANS: BACKWARDS TO THE FUTURE

 

By Alan Behr

NEW ORLEANS, 15 January 2007— It was two hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve when a young man, wiry, mustached and already drunk, stopped me on Chartres Street and asked if I knew the way to Jackson Brewery.  Softly, I replied, "I’m sorry, but the brewery closed years ago."   The young tourist tried to ask more, but his girlfriend took hold of him and I was already gone. I wondered why I did not give a straight answer: the defunct brewery, now a riverside shopping center, lay just ahead and to the right.  Perhaps it was because I just had a disconcerting stroll down Bourbon Street, which had been taken over—made barely passable—by a mass of out-of-towners too young to have learned that one of the delights in celebrating in a reasonably sober condition is that you retain the chance of being interesting to others.

The French Quarter has long accommodated uncouth intruders, filling their gullets with alcohol like geese being fattened for foie gras, whether with the classic hurricane (a storm of rum) or the newer, melon-flavored hand grenade.  For those on solid foods, the choice is Cajun, Creole, French and plenty of raw oysters.  For sweeter appetites, there are women available either to view or for interactive appreciation, and for the ear, the bars offer Dixieland, blues and Zydeco.


New Orleans
Photo: Alan Behr

When I was growing up in New Orleans, the city got its first chain convention hotel worthy of the name (a Marriott) but invested little in drawing visitors.  The local attitude was, "Tourists: isn’t there any way we could do without them?"

Like New York, where I have lived my adult life, New Orleans, although aware that it is part of the United States, would only admit it under duress.  Americans will change cities for new jobs or social opportunities as rapidly as Europeans change shirts, but New Orleanians tended to stay, as the bones of generations held within each of the famous above-ground family tombs easily proved.  There was a powerful local pride and a strange draw that kept the New Orleanian home and that would bring him back should he wander.  At my thirtieth high school reunion, one woman had just returned after sixteen years in New York City.  I’ve twice had local women dramatically explain that they’ve finally "moved away": to Slidell—just around the eastern curve of Lake Pontchartrain.

New Orleans had something else that the rest of America does not have or claims to want: a sense of history.  The Vieux Carré (French Quarter) really is what the word means in French: it’s an old square.  The Vieux Carré Commission preserves the wrought-iron charm of a district that dates from the eighteenth century; by American standards, that is practically like having the temples of Pericles still up and running in Athens.  In contrast to the American ethos of never shrinking from a fight, from the Civil War through the first gulf war, Louisiana units were either unready or arguably more dangerous to their own side than the enemy.  The Old South fought the North to the death; the moment a Union naval squadron appeared off New Orleans, in 1862, the city surrendered without a casualty and spent the war selling liquor and women to the enemy.


New Orleans
Photo: Alan Behr

Several friends who split time between apartments in New York and Paris tell me that one of the many joys of Paris is that you can have a two-hour dinner without once mentioning your work.  When I first moved to New York, people asked me why I never talked about what I did; coming from New Orleans, where work is a necessity and not a commitment, I never imagined that one’s job was dinner conversation.  Unlike Paris or New York, if you want to get invited back by your New Orleans hostess, do not venture opinions on fine art, literature, theater, classical music or even classical jazz.  If it is American football you want to discuss, however, you will stimulate debate worthy of the Oxford Union; playing golf is not all that popular, probably because it involves too much exercise.

Riding through New Orleans sixteen months after Hurricane Katrina wrecked all but the historic districts, I could find not a single bookstore, but that didn’t surprise me: outside the universities, I don’t recall ever seeing a bookstore.  When I was sixteen, a group tried bringing in repertory theater; it failed.  Along with other high school students, I was treated to a performance of Hamlet put on by a traveling company; the bored audience grew so loud, the actor playing Claudius stepped out of character and yelled that, if no one was going to listen, the cast would pack it in.  Later, the ballet, long a club for reasonably talented girls from good local families, merged into the Cincinnati Ballet, giving the professional Midwestern dancers a second home where they could finally blow off some steam.  The symphony simply disappeared.  Theater, ballet and classical music have returned, but generating interest remains a challenge.

There are many reasons for the city’s party-centric attitude and the many expressions that have been popularized about it: "Let the good times roll," "The city that care forgot," and the one you never hear used by locals: New Orleans is the "Big Easy."  With its denial of the American belief in boastful hard work and its refusal, even during the Culinary Dark Ages of frozen food and cellophane, to offer bad cuisine, New Orleans always went its own way.

Any city will have corruption, but in New Orleans it was virtually institutionalized.  When my father bought our lakefront house, the tax assessor apparently assumed, from its location and my father’s family connections, that he wouldn’t expect to pay his fair share; he assessed the property at $50 per annum—without even asking for a bribe.  As Calvin Trillin reported hearing from a local back in 1960, "…this is not the southern United States.  This is northern Costa Rica."

The live-for-today attitude proved colossally right and colossally wrong when Hurricane Katrina swamped eighty percent of the city: good that you got the fun while you could, but a pity that you hadn’t made the time to prepare for and, with the application of American muscle, possibly prevent, calamity from happening.  It was painful for me to watch from afar, yet painfully familiar: the police who broke and ran; the earnest but ineffectual mayor, visibly grateful when the military finally sent a general to restore order for him; the governor, appearing as if she got lost returning from a Tupperware party, offering uninformed guesses about what aid she needed from Washington; and, for a novel touch, a federal government that didn’t know that the city that care forgot simply could not care for itself in an emergency.

Television, with its skill at the particular, is a poor medium for vastness.  Unless you go there, it is hard to understand from TV images that, outside of the historic districts, which are intact, New Orleans has largely ceased to exist.  Whole tracts of even the best neighborhoods are abandoned or sporadically inhabited by people living in trailers on their own property and by those stubborn enough to rebuild instead of using insurance money to start fresh on high ground.  The remaining inhabited streets are sad enclaves set long distances from each other, reachable only by driving past the pillaged and burned-out stores, the restaurants with their roofs ripped up, and the parkland heading back to its marshy origins.


New Orleans
Photo: Alan Behr

Unlike New York, where the display of incompetence or even inertia leads to the public execution of a political or business career, the people in New Orleans re-elected their mayor, who can’t bring himself to admit that there was no longer an economic need for one-half million people to live on the bend on the Mississippi River.  Office construction had virtually ceased decades earlier.  Homegrown entrepreneurship was wanting; international businesses, on surveying the local politics and work ethic, opted for Houston, Atlanta or Miami for their regional offices.  The port still ranks as the largest in the Western Hemisphere, but because it stretches up river for fifty-four miles, New Orleans gets only a piece of the action.  Like Venice, another commercial city that outlived its commercial purpose, even without Katrina, New Orleans had to convert into a tourist attraction or disappear.  That Venice is also a carnival town and appears to be no more concerned about sinking into the Adriatic than New Orleans was about the dangers of filling like a cup of latté from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain is perhaps a matter for further consideration.

I have not lived in New Orleans for over three decades, but it gave me a lifelong sympathy for the tawdry and slightly disreputable: St. Pauli in Hamburg, the red-light district in Amsterdam, the squatter-ridden parts of the unified Berlin.  I cannot walk by subway buskers playing blues or Dixieland without stopping to listen.  As time progressed, I developed an overpowering need to go home, and the realization that, despite having been away for most of my life, New Orleans really was my home.  New Orleans just has that way about it.


New Orleans
Photo: Alan Behr

So there I was, back in town for New Year’s Eve, watching the midnight fireworks over the Mississippi River from a black-tie party of locals and then crashing a jeans-and-tee-shirts party of more locals.  In the morning, the line was long at the all-day breakfast place on Chartres Street where I got my daily eggs and grits; two of the staff had never made it in, and the owner urged on his ambulatory cooks and servers like the coach of a team trailing at halftime.  As delivery trucks unloaded at the Quarter’s shuttered restaurants and bars, a gray-haired man in a sport jacket and sunglasses stood alone in a gallery doorway, playing jazz clarinet for nobody.  I had come to New Orleans for all that, for coffee and chicory at Café Du Monde, for brunch at Brennan’s, and for a whiff of honky-tonk.  And I finally understood why I’d slipped away from the drunken young man who had asked me directions some hours before: it was that vintage New Orleans attitude that goes, "Tourists: isn’t there any way we could do without them?"

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Hurricane Katrina: Charities for New Orleans Jazz Musicians

Katrina's Environmental Damage

Pianist Hilton Ruiz Dies at 54

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at Alston & Bird LLP.  He has written extensively on travel and cultural affairs and is the author of the travel memoir Once Around the Fountain. Alan Behr last wrote on Germany by the Book for Culturekiosque.com



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