Yeah You Right: A New Orleans Manifesto

Speaker's Corner: After spending two months in NOLA writing a guidebook, Adam Karlin reflects on what makes the city as indispensable to the U.S. as Yellowstone and Manhattan

Photo by Infrogmation, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

This creates desperate beauty, a sort of loveliness of the ephemeral. Because of desperate beauty the characters of this drama don’t spend their lives day to day, but rather in the final act of some Russian romance, living so strongly they burn like fireflies making love over Bayou St. John. And that love of life comes from an acknowledgment—even embrace—of death. The Carnival season, for all the “Show your tits” silliness, has its roots in fundamentally Christian concepts of denial and resurrection, and in black New Orleans, Mardi Gras begins with the cold march of the Skeletons, men dressed as corpses carrying a sobering slogan: You Next. When medieval Christian theology mixes on the streets with processions that emerged straight from West African secret societies, I can tell you, with more fire than the angriest Republican, I am proud to be an American. 

The city is also shaped, more than most, literally and figuratively, by her geography. From the marsh comes gumbo’s ingredients, but amongst the sassafras were the Yellow Fever and floods that long made life here so short. The surrounding bayous are a moon-lapped orgy of tides, slipstreams, shorelines and storms, where time unfolds slowly and death snaps quickly, like geckos under ceiling fans. No wonder so many South Vietnamese settled here in the 1970s. For a fisherman from Vung Tao, the mouths of the Mississippi and the Mekong mix hardship, flatness, bounty and mudscent into one wind-bent green pancake of geographic equivalence.

All of these qualities—epicurean excess, Creole acceptance, entropic decay and natural topography—make New Orleans effortlessly what many American cities are straining to recapture: a place with a distinctive sense of place, as indispensable to our nation as Yellowstone and Manhattan. And that place almost died four years ago, when its neglected levee system failed and a moderately strong hurricane dumped the city under several feet of water.

Then something amazing happened. Many call New Orleanians laid-back at best, and I know more than a few natives who’d happily cop to being labeled lazy. But people who held on after the storm did so with a work ethic I’d be blessed to possess. They dredged rubble and corpses from their basements and rebuilt their homes and restaurants and bars with the debris of former lives (literally; visit the Mid-City Yacht Club, where the ceiling is built from the old floorboards of washed away neighbors). Thousands of “New New Orleanians” moved here, motivated to rebuild, a generation of 20- and 30-somethings whose only experience of Louisiana hurricanes may have been the Bourbon Street cocktail. Something about this place touched them, a feeling that there was more to the city than parties or corpses on CNN.

In New Orleans, phoenixes chased away the carrion crows.

Many came, in a sense, as travelers, seeking what the traveler most desires: a location that burns itself into the heart. But New Orleans burned too well. Sometimes, when a place is so special, it stops being a destination and evolves into a home. And home—a “where” that both feeds and urges you to feed back, a distinctness denied to so many Americans who’ve grown up in an amorphous nebula of strip malls, fast food, big boxes, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, a world of social interaction and anywhere businesses that can be transplanted everywhere, and thus exists nowhere—is something many Americans of my generation have missed. Home is what so many New Orleans transplants came to rebuild, but before they knew it they were on the cutting edge of green architecture, education policy and the local food movement. They were keeping what makes this city special, and waterproofing its soul all at once. Home wasn’t rebuilt. It was reinvented.

When I left New Orleans—which took me two weeks of false starts and stops, I loved it so hard—and the orange lights of the city blurred into the graveyards and the humid air rushed into my mouth through open car windows, a billboard from a realtor loomed over the highway: “Home matters most.”

Yeah. You right.

Adam Karlin is a freelance travel writer and journalist. These days he mainly gets by as a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet, although he is also working on a book about his wandering. He blogs at Adam's Ambles and wants to add that he's feeling a lot better.

13 Comments for Yeah You Right: A New Orleans Manifesto 08.28.09 | 11:19 AM ET

New Orleans is a great city.  It’s too bad about Hurricane Katrina and the U.S’s lack of response.  It’s an area that’s rich with history and ought to be preserved for generations to come.

Jill 08.28.09 | 11:51 AM ET

And this is exactly why I return to New Orleans three to four times a year. It sticks with you and never lets go.

Rachel 08.28.09 | 12:02 PM ET

Thank you Adam. You’re a true Phoenix yourself.

Adele Tiblier 08.28.09 | 5:27 PM ET

So glad a fellow New Orleanian turned me on to this post. I am truly moved by your words, and its refreshing to see what so few can eloquently express about the affect that City has on those who eventually come to live here be it for a few days or a lifetime. It truly is HOME to eveyone that has the opportunity to experience it. Like any other city, it is plagued with its trial and tribulations, but there is so much culture, love and authenticity, that its easy to loose focus on those and to fall victim of the city’s charm.

Joey 08.28.09 | 6:54 PM ET

Plagued is right. New Orleans is a disgusting cesspool of filth that I hope I never return to. The US should sell the whole place back to the French.

Lindsay Glatz 08.28.09 | 8:42 PM ET

Adam, it was a joy to read such touching words today. 

It can be challenging for outsiders to understand the unique and often contradicting elements that combine to create our wonderful community, but you have captured New Orleans perfectly here. Your description of the city, after only a few short weeks here, is a testament to the gifts that those who seek to experience New Orleans with an open mind will discover.

I have am happy that we had the chance to meet and spend a few short hours together discussing New Orleans culture. I hope youíll be pleased to know that in true New Orleans fashion, we at the Arts Council are preparing for the anniversary of Katrina through celebrations of the arts and culture of the city.  We celebrate this somber moment with joy, because when you live in a community knowing that one storm could take it all away, you donít take life for granted. 

Itís obvious that here, you too, made every moment in this city count. Your article is a wonderful gift and provides the affirmation that while rebuilding New Orleans we have been able to retain the characteristics of the city that made it such a special place before the storm. Itís been a hard road of recovery, but reading these words proves our efforts have been worthwhile.  Youíve demonstrated that the spirit and the soul of this city will never leave those who leave themselves open to her charms. I hope you can visit us again soon, but in the meantime I am honored to have you as ambassador for New Orleans, sharing the story of her magic with the world. 

Many thanks are in order for sharing such a beautiful description of my home, but in this case I think what sums it up best isÖ. Hey Adam, Yeah.You right.

Vera Marie Badertscher 08.28.09 | 9:49 PM ET

I love to read something where the writer gets it right. I nodded my head throughout, and particularly bobbed up and down at this beautiful line:
“Think gas lamps flickering on sweat and sunlight slanting through a Tulane coedís summer dress.” Yeah, you right. right. right, man.

wandermom 08.29.09 | 2:02 AM ET

Oh for heavens sakes.
Yes, I agree that the Travel Writer has a right to wax lyrical about places s/he visits which touch his or her heart. But this is a lot of petty dribble. New Orleans has great history. New Orleans will be re-built - whether a sensible person would choose to do so in that location or not is an entirely different matter.
Dropping verbs in a given phrase is too loose an allegory for the meaning and intent of that effort for me.
And I totally fail to see how “medieval Christian theology” can make you more American. Seriously.

Eva Holland 08.30.09 | 12:51 PM ET

Thanks very much for this, Adam. “A location that burns itself into the heart” - nicely put. As a foreigner I haven’t got the legal option to become a NOLA transplant myself, but the city certainly has its hooks in me.

Lindsay 08.31.09 | 10:05 AM ET

Jill-you are right- NOLA never leaves you ever! I love New Orleans. Its a tough city but it has a heart and never gives up.

This is an awesome article/story/whatever…thank you! :)

Ellalee 09.01.09 | 12:53 PM ET

If you don’t “get” New Orleans, and it doesn’t “get” you, either you did it wrong or you were born without a soul.

Fritz Paul 10.06.09 | 11:04 PM ET

I would like to visit New Orleans

Theresa McIntyre 10.07.09 | 1:30 PM ET

I would love to visit New Orleans I have a son that lives there. Would love to see him how he is doing now!

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