New Orleans on the edge: past rich, future in doubt

The Big Easy's style is uniquely American

A Special Place

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

What is it about New Orleans? Why does it loom so large on the American psyche, take up such a huge chunk of our collective imagination?

It's not that big. Its population of 484,000 puts it at 31st among American cities. Its metropolitan area of 1.3 million is dwarfed by many others whose destruction at the hands of a natural disaster would certainly be mourned but not with the intensity of feeling that the nation is feeling now.

The breaches in the levees of New Orleans seemed to have landed a blow to our national solar plexus. There is the definite prospect that something uniquely American is gone forever.

"New Orleans certainly gets a hold on the imagination," says Noel Polk, an English professor at the University of Mississippi who grew up in the small town of Picayune, La. As a teenager, Polk sipped 7-UPs in French Quarter clubs, watching strippers dance to the music that the city invented.

"The New Orleans I knew has probably gone the way of Atlantis," Polk says. "And if it's gone, it will be hard to strike that magic again."

Polk is a student of William Faulkner, one of the many writers drawn to this city. "Faulkner was always fascinated with and enamored of Paris," he says. "New Orleans was as close as he could get to Paris without going there."

This was the city where Tennessee Williams rode an actual streetcar named Desire; where Walker Percy's moviegoer watched his films; where Anne Rice's vampires found their victims.

"Writers have fallen in love with the city as soon as they came here, since Mark Twain," says Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian expatriate writer and poet who once called Baltimore home but has lived in the New Orleans area for two decades. He teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"It has such a mixture of elements - danger, sensuality, freedom, the sense that the night is more important than the day," he says. "It's an edge that's been walked here for a very long time."

In some ways, New Orleans was the first American city, the first city on the continent that wasn't a re-creation of one from England. From the time Thomas Jefferson purchased it - along with a swath of North America that extended to the Pacific Ocean - in 1803, New Orleans showed that a mixture of cultures could produce something new and different, something American.

And the city continues to demonstrate that the melting pot need not produce a bland pablum, but instead a spicy jambalaya.

New Orleans does that by being at once a part of the United States and apart from it.

`A Caribbean city'

"I think it's really a Caribbean city that by accident is part of the United States," says James Nolan, a writer and New Orleans native among a dozen refugees at Codrescu's house in Baton Rouge. "It's the last somewhere else left in the United States. As more and more of the country gets homogenized, the few unique places left are mythologized."

Lena Ampadu of the English department at Towson University says her hometown has many attributes that lead people to see it as foreign. "Critics who see it as atypically American can't quite comprehend its exoticism, its peoples' laissez-faire attitudes, alien culture - one emphasizing foreign words - and weather that is more like that of a developing Third World country," she says.

Says Polk: "It's about what we in English departments call `otherness.' Differences among people are dealt with, within limits, in sort of a relaxed atmosphere, because of the music and the food. Even the heat is part of that mystique."

A century after Jefferson bought it, this foreign place produced Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and a form of music - jazz - that many consider the only indigenous American art form.

"There was just a lot of rich cultural interchange among communities living side by side," Eric Charry, a historian of music at Wesleyan University, says of the city's musical legacy. "You had African traditions going on there well into the late 1800s alongside modern European societies. You wouldn't find that in Philadelphia or New York."

New Orleans was not content with merely inventing jazz. The Cajun sound moved in from the surrounding country and mixed with the jazz of the city and the blues from nearby Mississippi to inform pioneers of rock music like Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Professor Longhair, influences that continued through Allen Toussaint and Dr. John and remain vibrant in the funk beats of the Neville Brothers and Galactic.

What is crucial is that New Orleans takes these things seriously. Culture wasn't tacked onto the side of the capitalist enterprise - a worthy philanthropic endeavor - it was the essence of the city.

"I'll tell you what it is about New Orleans, people there have a real joie de vivre," says Alex Brennan-Martin, part of the famed New Orleans restaurant family, and thus part of yet another of the city's contributions to American life - its cuisine, again a mixture of influences that resulted in something uniquely American.

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