A Heart’s Love For New Orleans

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This was fine with me, partly because it was a romantic way to conceive of myself and partly because I was rebellious anyway. New Orleans is more cocoonlike than Manhattan, with less justification. Nobody wants to leave. The outside world and its concerns seem vague and distant. Even travel, outside the much-loved surrounding countryside, isn’t especially alluring. I grew up in one of the most insular parts of this insular city—Uptown, which is near Tulane University and the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. It has big old wooden houses on small lots (land has always been expensive in New Orleans because it so often has had to be reclaimed from the swamps). Audubon Park sits in the middle of Uptown, for recreation, and downtown is only three miles away. Everybody seems to be everybody else’s cousin. The constellation of social events, bars and restaurants, and employers that limn people’s lives is an absolutely fixed one. Fathers take their sons duck hunting; girls make their debuts. With the important difference that there is no longer any social distinction between people of Creole and people of American descent, things have changed remarkably little over the years, leaving Uptown unusual in the national context for nineteenth-century traits like the importance of family businesses and the formality of society.

I knew everything that was wrong with Uptown, but at that point I couldn’t imagine ever leaving either. My heart’s love for New Orleans was much more powerful than my mind’s disapproval. I can see now that what was behind all my reading, my work, and my ceaseless wandering around the city was a desire to construct a different New Orleans for myself—a bigger, richer, funkier one, one that would have my complete loyalty. I wanted to find all of life there.

 
Traditional jazz is said to have died the first time it was played before a seated audience rather than in a whorehouse or dance hall.

A basic fact about the city is that it is more than half black. As in other cities, there is an increasingly sharp split between the black middle class and the more numerous black underclass, but in other respects black New Orleans is somewhat unusual. For one thing the Catholic Church is a substantial influence, especially in the black middle class, and for another the black neighborhoods are checkerboarded around the city, rather than concentrated in one place. This is a relic of the days when most blacks worked as servants and had to be near their employers; it means that today there are at least half a dozen noncontiguous black neighborhoods in New Orleans with distinct personalities. When I was growing up, there was a great deal of contact between the races, but all of it was ritualized. The general feeling was that blacks knew more about whites than whites knew about blacks. The typical white’s contact with black culture was through attending the occasional wedding or funeral or listening to the black radio stations, and these experiences had the aspect of a tiny peek into a vast unfamiliar and unknowable world.

The other baseline culture of New Orleans was the white working and lower-middle class: Catholic, Democratic, educated in parochial schools, employed in the port or by the city, and living in the long, narrow, closely packed detached wooden houses that are locally called “shotgun houses” in neighborhoods like (at the lower end of typicality) the Irish Channel and the Ninth Ward and (at the higher end) Mid-City or Gentilly. This is the part of New Orleans that’s now slowly disappearing—the New Orleans of neighborhood corner restaurants with a “ladies’ entrance” (directly into the dining room, rather than through the bar) on the side. Blue-collar employment in New Orleans is way down; there has been substantial movement to the suburbs. Much of the working-class area near the Mississippi River was gentrified early, by floor-stripping young couples. Today the formerly typical white New Orleanian—a middle-class family man living within the city limits—is atypical, and he probably lives in the fifties suburbs along Lake Pontchartrain and votes for the Republican presidential candidate.

 

There is also a substantial sub-New Orleans for tourists, which New Orleanians see every day but rarely experience directly. It would be possible, I guess, for a visitor to a convention to spend a week in New Orleans and come away with the feeling that one layer down it’s just another Sun Belt town. The drive in from the airport is uninspiring. In the tourist heart of the city, which runs from the upper French Quarter down Canal Street to the river, the charms of New Orleans have been so codified and routinized that it feels as if they were simply invented one day by hoteliers. You can hear watered-down “Dixieland” jazz played by men in Gay Nineties costumes, eat red beans and rice or boiled shrimp at a Rouse Company food court, or go to Bourbon Street and get a feel for what was risqué a generation ago. I’m displaying some of the native’s hostility to tourism here; actually, some of the tourist demimonde of New Orleans is worth seeing, and there are certain beloved institutions—Mardi Gras, Galatoire’s restaurant, the Fairmont Hotel (which New Orleanians still call the Roosevelt)—that the locals are willing graciously to share with the tourists.