The Spirit of New Orleans

I don’t know that many people from New Orleans, but the few that I have met love their hometown with a zeal that many of us will never understand.

After Hurricane Katrina, many people – myself included – wondered why anyone would bother rebuilding a city in such a climatically inhospitable location. We questioned the judgement of the tens of thousands of folks who simply drove right back to New Orleans after their forced time away from their flood-damaged homes. There must be something in the water, some said. But it might actually be something in the air – call it hospitality, friendliness, or just good ole’ southern warmth – it exists. It exudes from the colonial French buildings, from the lush semi-tropical vegetation, and most importantly, from the diverse and lively people.

Last week, I headed to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, a.k.a. the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (much is made of the “heritage” part of this title, as it provides the explanation for all the non-jazz music being played there). This seven-day event, which runs annually at the New Orleans Fairgrounds over the course of two spring weekends, began in 1970. The first festival had only 350 attendees; however, for the last ten years, attendance has hovered around 450,000 for the seven days. While the festival staff no longer release single-day attendance figures, counts of 150,000 on popular Saturdays are said to have been recorded in the last decade. The festival is estimated to bring $300 million into the city each year, and proceeds from ticket fees go towards the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s (a non-profit organization) community efforts.

I’ve been a regular music festival-goer in the Rocky Mountain west for years; I love outdoor shows and the mix of performers multi-day festivals attract. I like being able to enjoy tunes while sitting on a lawn chair near a friend or dancing in the grass up front. I like shopping and eating or reading a book between acts, and I revel in the opportunity to generally “check out” of my everyday life. So, while it seemed natural that I would eventually go to Jazz Fest, the king of all music festivals, I was somewhat scared of it for a long time. I wasn’t sure if I could handle the crowds, the heat, and the expense of the travel and accommodations – which are notoriously jacked up for the festival dates.

Bucket lists can only stay in the closet for so long, however, and I decided that this would be the year to go. I called my generally-up-for-anything mother and recruited her company (and very generous support!), and we decided that in addition to attending the festival, we ought to spend a couple of non-festival days in New Orleans wandering around town. Neither of us had been there for about thirty years, and we were curious to see the city again decades later, especially in light of all the destruction and rebirth wrought by Katrina.

In some ways, you’d never know the deadliest and most expensive disaster to hit the United States had romped through this city. The airport is shiny, bright, and remarkably hip-looking. As you approach the city from it, you are greeted by a sleek-looking stadium and a modern skyscraper-dominated skyline. The historic French Quarter (which was one of the neighborhoods least affected by the hurricane) is as charming, touristy, and bustling as ever, and the stately hotels and mansions that this city is known for appear deceptively untouched.

I knew we were only seeing the surface of the city, so we decided to take a “Hurricane Katrina tour” – a popular bus excursion that shows visitors the complex network of levees and floodwalls that keep this below-sea-level (in many places) city habitable and whose failure was responsible for the Hurricane Katrina flooding. In the northern neighborhoods of the city – the ones up by Lake Pontchartrain, the source of the flood’s water – effects of the disaster were more obvious. It was clear where houses had been rebuilt and where others had been abandoned. There were new levees in some areas, structures on four foot (or higher) stilts in others, and numerous spots where the “buy your neighbor’s abandoned lot” initiative had clearly been implemented.

Our guide, an older gentleman who had grown up in the city, was quick to point out which neighborhoods had changed significantly over the last decade and which hadn’t, and he wasn’t shy about correlating the degree of “bounce back” in each area to its demographics. The city, state, and federal agencies as well as insurance companies have treated and continue to treat neighborhoods differently during this rebuilding process.

Ironically, the guide also directly answered that question that had been on my mind – “why rebuild here?” His explanation had nothing to do with tourism, although he acknowledged the critical role it plays in the area’s economy. He cited the importance of the Port of New Orleans as one of the world’s busiest ports, due to its geographical connection to over 14,500 miles of American and Canadian waterways, six railroads, and the US Interstate Highway system. Louisiana is the US’s second-largest seafood supplier, and one out of every seventy jobs in the state is related to the fishing industry. These are strong arguments.

But perhaps the stronger argument, and the one more easily embraced by a cultural explorer like myself, is the one that cannot be easily contradicted: that this city has a spirit all its own.

I’m not sure I have ever been so cheerfully greeted by so many strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever been called “honey” or “darlin’” by so many warm-faced African-American men in the span of one day. And I definitely have not experienced a lack of hurriedness and general ease of being like the one that seems to predominate in New Orleans. Yes, there were people talking on their cell phones on the sidewalks, but there were far more standing around enjoying the ubiquitous street music or chatting with passers-by while taking a cigarette break. Almost everyone was eager to have a conversation – from the grocery store clerks to the hotel doormen – and I can’t say I heard a lot of complaining.

Meanwhile, as we explored some of the areas outside of the French Quarter, we saw brightly painted old Victorian houses (including many long and thin ones called “shotgun” houses – you can shoot a bullet in the front and it will go straight out the back without hitting any walls), public sculptures and wall murals, brightly decorated bicycles, and more eating and drinking establishments than it seemed could ever be necessary to nourish a city of 300,000. We saw some areas, such as the Bywater and the Warehouse District, where gentrification is in full swing, and others, such as the now-famous Ninth Ward, where rebuilding efforts are still floundering. But in every one of these neighborhoods, there were people out and about, interacting, eating, singing, dancing and living.

And I think this is what people talk about when they talk about the “esprit” of this place – a quality that is not found elsewhere, that is in and of itself worth rebuilding for.

Needless to say, Jazz Fest itself exhibited this quality in spades, given that it is a a venue estabished with the purpose of encouraging interacting, eating, singing, dancing, and living. With twelve stages, over seventy (!) food vendors, and almost as many craft vendors, this event knows its vibe and it not shy about flaunting it. The attendees aren’t shy about indulging in it, either.

Even we northern gals had bowls of the patented “Crawfish Monica” and some sweet tea after hanging out under the spritzers in the gospel tent and before catching some Mardi Gras Indian parades, a couple local brass bands, and hometown hero Harry Connick, Jr.

I’m not sure I could live the spirit of New Orleans permanently, but it’s definitely a treat to get caught up in it for a few days. And, most importantly, I’m glad it is still there to be had.

(The above video is just a quick collection of clips I took while at Jazz Fest.  Thanks, credits, and shout-outs to the performers featured herein!!)



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