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
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.