New Orleans is a city that will embed itself in your soul, if you’re willing. A famous city, yet the things that make her well known are not really the root of her charm. Bourbon Street and beads are but a short line in the siren song that draws tourists to the Big Easy. New Orleans is so much more splendid; a Caribbean city, perched at the mouth of the Mississippi, tempting the rest of the United States, while she lingers on in the aging, jarringly beautiful mix of joy and sorrow that paint her unique portrait.
Your life may change, but New Orleans won’t. She’s always waiting to welcome you with a warm, sultry embrace.
New Orleans is old. A city with its own beating heart long before the United States enveloped her. She was never part of the British empire and lacks the Anglo-Saxon/Germanic immigrant influence seen in much of America. First France, then Spain, then France again held sway in the Crescent City before a pragmatic Napoleon sold her to focus on his conflict with Perfidious Albion.
Before Louisiana was a state, General Andrew Jackson assembled a motley collection of U.S. soldiers, militia, Creoles, Cajuns, and other volunteers (including pirates) to defend the gateway to trade on the Mississippi from the British in the War of 1812. That unlikely band of defenders symbolizes the glorious melting pot of New Orleans.
New Orleans hasn’t stopped fighting for her history since, even when it would have been better if she had. Veer away from the neon lights and decadence of Bourbon Street and you’ll find the glorious and sad aging memories of New Orleans both slapping you in the face and welcoming you with a smile. Around every corner, as you peek into courtyards, look down alleys, peer into aging homes, behold monuments to the splendor of ages gone by…New Orleans welcomes you. With a drink in hand, and one for you, of course.
Those aging homes and haunts pair with the splendor of old live oak trees to give New Orleans her most distinct feel. Stroll with that drink in hand – the only rule: no glass containers – through the French Quarter where Creoles were birthed, through Treme where jazz was born, through the Marigny where the music still dominates Frenchman Street, through the Bywater where hipsters and hippies meet salty old New Orleanians, through the Garden District where the regal splendor almost overcomes the deep taint of its slave city wealth…then you understand. One of the oldest cities in America has more character than most of the rest of the nation ever dreamed…or understands.
New Orleans is not just old because of its age, but because of its temperament too. The city swelters. Conduct yourself outside in the spring or the fall. Once summer drapes her hot, humid blanket over the city its best not to be outside until the sun sets to reveal an enthralling sultry evening.
New Orleans is indeed a place that begs you to slow down. The increasingly frantic pace of mankind in other American cities simply melts away against the inertia of heat and a culture of “all in good time.” Once you’ve spent time in that devil-may-care atmosphere you’ll understand. Everything is better after a cocktail.
To see the New Orleans at her best is to understand all this. Beads and Bourbon Street, and boobs, are a thing during Mardi Gras, in a small part of the city, and mostly to tourists. The rest of the Mardi Gras season is weeks of largely family-friendly parades, parties, and unparalleled community merriment. The week leading up to Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras Day, has to be experienced to be understood. And on that last day before Lent comes, you understand why locals proclaim: “everywhere else it’s only Tuesday.”
So too with JazzFest. Two weekends of the greatness of the cuisine and music of New Orleans and greater Louisiana taking over the Fair Grounds. Dozens of booths of food and drink paired with over a dozen stages and tents, swirling from jazz to gospel to alternative to rock, and more. Performing at JazzFest is a badge of honor for musicians, especially those from afar. So much so you’ll find leading acts performing at small bars in town for an after show. Because they can, and it’s New Orleans. A general admission pass for a day will run about $70. I saw Aerosmith with a very dear friend for that price. After a full day of all the rest of it. It’s an atmosphere of pure communal joy.
Yet, New Orleans is not just a place to party and make merry. It’s a place to release your worries. Those you perhaps have should have let go long before, or never let linger in your soul and mind to begin with. New Orleans will reveal that to you. The stresses that can so often dominate our monkey minds in the modern world become startlingly less important in the warm, enveloping embrace of a city made to be slow and merry, not hurried and fleeting.
New Orleans will indeed welcome you, if you let her. And in doing so, you should dance with her for a while. New Orleans is where you can learn to dance as if everyone is watching…and have not a care in the world about it.
It is liberating, deep in one’s soul.
Ironic, because New Orleans is a place whose original success and prosperity was founded not on liberty, but slavery. The trade of slaves, and their use, including in the brutal sugar plantations that made white men rich and black men broken. New Orleans is a place where that long history takes more than several decades of technical legal equality under the law to remake society into one of actual equal opportunity.
That’s no doubt why in midst of the joy of New Orleans, it is also a place of deep, abiding sadness. Centuries of servitude, discrimination, and poverty are not washed away by a Supreme Court ruling or an act of Congress. Generational poverty, to say nothing of epigenetics, are something whose solution sometimes often comes at a pace slower than New Orleans on an unbearable August afternoon.
One of the most revealing things about New Orleans is that moment when you understand and embrace how running parallel with that sadness is a nearly indescribable, permeating, irrepressible joy. Like the plant who continues to rise and break ground no matter how many times the gardener attacks its roots, the joy of New Orleans, even at its most oppressed and beleaguered, cannot be overcome.
New Orleans is about living life, not the fear of it. The sweet sounds of the city’s unique music scene are like the city itself: utterly special. Those notes exude an embrace of life, in all its imperfections, rooted in the days of horrible race relations, yet still infused with hope for a life worth living, no matter both how both flawed and beautiful it might be. New Orleans Jazz is a magical thing.
New Orleans invites you to do something different. To soak in her sights. To listen to her music on the side of a curb, caught off guard during a late afternoon stroll. To dine on her festival of food. To drink what she lazily and coyly offers. To roll with what you find and where your experiences take you. Detailed plans are a damnable thing in New Orleans.
Indeed, New Orleans herself was not planned. She happened. Lurking in the influences that shaped the city is the French influence that swooped in after colonies in the Caribbean as well as the Napoleonic era itself collapsed. Streets named for Napoleonic victories and French generals are common: Austerlitz, Jena, Murat, Foy, Cambronne…among many more. Napoleon Avenue is a major thoroughfare in the city.
Yet for all her cosmopolitan nature, New Orleans is a small town masquerading as a big city. Coupled with a Caribbean ethos, complete with corruption and indifference to competent work on the public dime, there is an unavoidable Third World twist to New Orleans slow-beating charm. The city’s infrastructure is for shit and her local institutions are regularly incapable of correcting that before the next crisis, either made by nature or man, is upon her.
New Orleans can be a hard place to live, yet once you understand her and you fall in love with her, that love will never die. And her warm, imperfect, and undyingly charming embrace will always be there to welcome you back.
I love her, indeed. In all her delightful imperfection. And I’m going back for Mardi Gras now. To ride in a parade: Krewe of Druids. To see dear friends. To experience the joy and charms of that City and her community. To feel her sweet embrace.
I can’t wait.