Fat Tuesday Interlude — New Orleans and Mardi Gras

If New York is the cultural capital of the United States, and San Francisco its heart, then New Orleans must be its soul. For many visitors, the city of New Orleans is represented by the bars and bohemian nightlife of Bourbon Street and, if they venture out just a bit further, it is the French Quarter.

But New Orleans is a place unique in American culture. It is the city that gave birth to jazz–America’s classical music. It has been the incubator of artists, musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs that have introduced a unique multicultural perspective and flavor to American society. It’s Mississippi River has served to introduce new immigrants to American society and to introduce America’s heartland to a melding of cultures and ethnicity.

The city has its roots in the French culture and legal system that founded it, yet it has been transformed through the years by each new flag and influence under which it has existed: Cajuns, the Spaniards, African slaves, American settlers, indigenous people, Caribbean immigrants, Creoles, Italians, Mexican, Central and South American immigrants, and today, people from all lands. Each group celebrated and celebrates their heritage and, in the process are thrown together in a gumbo of ethnic, cultural, and economic admixture that is uniquely American.

For me, New Orleans is like the beautiful woman who has been abused by those who would dominate her, but who picks herself up and overcomes the challenges thrown in her way. The city’s positioning was problematic from the start, sitting between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, with the Gulf of Mexico looming close by. As the city grew and became the financial and trading capital of the southern states, more and more swampland was drained and built on. Hurricanes and tornadoes have leveled many of her buildings and broken her levies, flooding her streets, costing lives and livelihoods.

But New Orleans has also faced human challenges, especially from those who have resented or devalued her multicultural and other contributions. After the overthrow of Reconstruction, the imposition of Jim Crow imposed itself on its people. It was met by continuous resistance and eventually overthrown, but not before it had its effects on underfunded public schools, great urban wastelands from urban renewal and highway construction, and crumbling neighborhoods.

The Storyville neighborhood–lest the troops and sailors be corrupted by miscegenation–was closed by order of the War Department in 1917 and later leveled–its rich history living on in our music and in our culture, though its physical embodiment long gone.

Its strong roots in Catholicism and its variations, the melding of Native American and African slave culture, and the introduction of other religious traditions from far flung places across the world often made it suspect to the more staid and closed sections of American society.

The reduction of the financial sector, automation and containerization of the its port that reduced high paying jobs, highway construction and resulting suburbanization, redlining, white flight, and Federal neglect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have all represented existential threats to the city.

And yet it goes on. The people of New Orleans–new arrivals and those who returned home after exile in places like Houston–celebrate their heritage and their culture in the New World in New Orleans.

I am not a resident or native of New Orleans, but I have had a lifetime romance with it. I have spent a good deal of time there and I have seen and lived with its changes over the years. When I walk down the sidewalks in the neighborhoods of New Orleans it is almost as if I am greeted from every corner. People smile and wave, though I am a stranger. People share their unique perspectives on things, and trustingly expose their vulnerabilities, wearing fewer masks than I encounter anywhere else–and when they do wear masks it is to celebrate life and living, and even our shared mortality.

As an old Navy hand I am not so deluded as to believe that the city does not have its downsides or its dangers, as most urban–and rural–areas do. I have walked through cities across the world, through many rough seaport and other neighborhoods. Still, we must keep in mind that we live, especially in our own country, during a relatively safe period. Poverty is a disease, not a moral failing.

New Orleans today remains genuine. It has not experienced the billionaire sanitizing that New York underwent during the Bloomberg years. It is not being gentrified and its character smoothed out by high tech as we are seeing in San Francisco. At least, not yet. It’s neighborhoods are rebuilding and it’s people are proud and optimistic.

So to those who read this blog: Happy Mardi Gras!

 

 

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