Nine years ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina flayed New Orleans raw. The city declined, however, to die.
We spent most of last week in New Orleans, our first visit there. From the moment we hit the streets, I could think of no other name for her but the City of Life. Over the next few days as we rambled downtown to Bywater and uptown to Uptown/Carrolton, this did not change.
There is an indomitable undercurrent here: a feeling that life will survive, no matter what. It’s in the weather, the hot, steamy tropical fertility that makes hedges grow inches in a day and live oak trees, maybe planted 150 years ago, burst their roots through sidewalk pavement slabs and bricks. The life force in this climate is unstoppable.
One feels it too in the trees in Audubon Park — enormous live oaks, 200 – 300 years old some of them, with or without Spanish moss. Through war, weather, and human intervention on the land, they survived.
Another characteristic of New Orleans is that she has chosen beauty for its own sake wherever it can slip into view, and it is at least equal to utility. It is not the gimcrack “beauty” of the speculative builder. Fretwork, for example, takes time to create, but the enchanting Creole houses in the French Quarter are rich with it and whoever built them considered it time well spent — whether fretwork brackets upholding the porch roof, or the iron latticework providing ventilation to the foundations, or even the delicate beauty of the buildings themselves.
Sometimes beauty didn’t seem to have an obvious reason for its existence, it just did. How liberating not to have to justify one’s existence, even if one is “only” a set of cement tiles on a verge!
When we got out into the French Quarter the first night, I walked around open-mouthed and saucer-eyed like a child. Genuine, unpretentious, a little grungy, people just being themselves — what a place! What people! Thank goodness the grime and authenticity have not been botoxed out of New Orleans, as they have been in other, more staid places. The people we met were people one could connect with even in the space of a three-minute encounter, or whose exuberance we could sense even if we’d never met them at all.
Exuberance flung strands and strands of silvery Carnival beads into the branches of the live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue, and hung more strands from wrought iron fences in the Garden District. There were beads flying on Bourbon Street, bar doormen tossing free strands to bystanders; a high school brass band playing damn good Dixieland and passing a cardboard box for tips; and an elderly lady riding a three-wheeled bicycle with a canopy and a battery, wound around with blinking Christmas lights and decorated with Bible verses.
There were the waiters and waitresses, without exception chatty, interesting, and answering questions honestly about the city and their lives within it. What they all expressed was an enthusiasm and directness that marked them as happy people. A young man in an elegant coffee shop had to explain what Shark Week was when we spotted this sign on the wall — and as he explained it, it sounded good. Live every week to the fullest. Live like you’re on the edge and you don’t know what’s next. Live like it’s Shark Week.
And don’t make a fuss and palaver about life, just live it, fast or slow as you choose, but live it.
There were the beautiful, beautiful tiled street signs embedded into building walls, recalling two cultures that have shaped the city, Spanish and French. Calle de San Luis became Rue St. Louis, and is now St. Louis Street.
In a lively city full of surprises, some signs were exceptional.
These photos show both sides of the same sign. Do they mean that the buyer actually has a choice?!
But her tragedies over time cannot be sugar-coated; New Orleans has been a cauldron of bone-deep horror and sorrow. Her history holds plagues and weather and war and slavery, and fiends masquerading as ordinary citizens — never again will I use the flippant phrase “chained to the stove,” out of respect for the slave woman whose agonizing fate that actually was: chained to the kitchen stove, prisoner of the unspeakable Delphine LaLaurie in her French Quarter mansion in the 1830s.
All these stories, mine and others’, wonderful and terrible, create the most fascinating and genuine place I have ever been.
There are commentators who feel it to be a city of decay and decadence, or a place looking death in the eye and celebrating before it strikes. Fair enough: these are people who know the city so much better than I, a first-time visitor, and I fully see their points; but until I know the city as well as they do, I can’t fully agree. What is apparently the unofficial city motto, “let the good times roll”, is too superficial, I think. I think the real motto of New Orleans is scribbled on a stop sign on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres, an altogether deeper imperative that the city has followed, perhaps without realizing it, for the 296 years of her existence: “never stop living.” City of Life, indeed.
♦ ♦ ♦
And city of food! I believe that a blog devoted solely to recipes can be dangerously close to boring; I want to describe places and people too, and posts about our travels will start appearing from time to time. But New Orleans is also the city of food, so in the next post look out for gumbo adventures — or maybe étouffée adventures, not yet sure which. Until then!