A Heart’s Love For New Orleans

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In further fairness to unimpressed tourists, the charms of New Orleans have gotten more difficult to communicate to outsiders than they used to be. In the 1940s a lot of the men who had invented jazz were still playing, and well; New Orleans was one of the few provincial cities with good restaurants and bars, a racetrack, and other mildly indecorous forms of recreation available; and there was less of an overlay of interchangeable American culture. The deficiencies of the city that natives barely notice —Caribbean-style black poverty, potholed streets—have gotten worse, and are off-putting to visitors from outside the South.

It is very difficult truly to get the feel of New Orleans if you don’t have a sense of the peculiar intermittent connection between the past and the present. Everything is encrusted in local legend. The enormous columned mansion in the Garden District (in Cable’s day the neighborhood of the American arrivistes, today the starchiest part of town) has only a single third-floor light on in the evening. Who’s living there alone? The aging unmarried grandchild of a turn-of-the-century tycoon? Is such and such restaurant still run by the Mafia? What about the high-priced hooker who used to pass the afternoons languidly drinking café au lait on Burgundy Street. Did she ever find a sugar daddy? Has the young guy drinking in the Audubon Tavern gotten over his broken engagement yet?

New Orleans can’t, and doesn’t want to, make this side of itself accessible, but it has made an earnest and admirable effort over the last twenty years to celebrate something closer to its true self than the old Bourbon Street-Dixieland-Mardi Gras nexus. The city had one of the earliest and most heroic local architectural preservation movements in the country, whose greatest victory was preventing the construction of an interstate highway through the riverfront area in the French Quarter. By the time the battle finally ended, during the Nixon administration, New Orleans had gotten a good fix on its local culture. The Jazz and Heritage Festival got under way. There was a revival of the fifties rock and roll of musicians like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair. Chefs became national celebrities for the first time in the city’s long history as a mecca for eaters. More distinguished old neighborhoods were rehabilitated—not just the French Quarter but also places like the old warehouse district near downtown, the Faubourg Marigny, below the French Quarter, and Julia Street, in the middle of Skid Row. Even the colorfulness of the local politicians, which gave A. J. Liebling such wonderful material in The Earl of Louisiana, began to be thought of as a kind of civic asset. Movies set in New Orleans now routinely evoke its funkiness, and you can get Cajun food all over the country.

This has been fortunate for New Orleans, which is ever more economically dependent on its own charm, but it’s a tricky game to play. My friend Tom Bethell had a theory that the day traditional jazz died was the first time it was played before a seated audience, as opposed to the clientele of a whorehouse or a dance hall who didn’t know that what they were hearing was a serious art form; as soon as the music was removed from the context of unself-conscious everyday life, it stopped evolving.

 
 
 
 

It’s frightening to imagine that New Orleans might have distilled and refined its basic attitude so well that it becomes self-conscious as a place, to the point where people there will begin to wonder whether they’re being colorfully happy-go-lucky enough. But New Orleans is in no danger of becoming another Dallas, many years of hype from the local business boosters to the contrary; in fact, it could profit from having a little more bland economic and civic efficiency. The danger is that it will become another Miami Beach or Las Vegas or Atlantic City. All of those places were founded as resorts, so they were always made-up versions of themselves. New Orleans was a colonial outpost that became an important port, and its culture is an authentic one; but now, cut off from its roots and relentlessly celebrated, it seems fragile.

The city most like New Orleans in its shifting of roles is Venice. Since Venice has been a tourist city for more than two centuries, it stands as a heartening model for New Orleans, showing how a city can be supported by travelers’ money without cannibalizing itself in the process. It’s true that Venice is no longer important economically, politically, or artistically, but it does have an indigenous way of life—including such New Orleans-like institutions as society balls and a plate-lunch cuisine—that still seems vibrant. As in Venice, the best thing to do in New Orleans is simply drift through the city soaking up the feeling of the place, though in New Orleans you need a car to do it properly.