Love letter to New Orleans
Writer and activist Lynn Brown explains her complicated love affair with the historic Louisiana city
For me, New Orleans often feels like an ex I can’t seem to keep myself from going back to. It’s hard to tell now if she treated me badly or if I was the one who messed up by leaving, but either way every time I so much as read about her I still get a sense of both nostalgia and longing. No matter how much I travel, after spending nearly ten years in New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina, I still haven’t found anywhere that feels as much like home.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for New Orleans, even if you haven’t spent most of your adult life there. The city lends itself to dreaming about the past, from its ancient architecture to its deep reverence for culture and history, particularly its own, which is varied and fascinating. New Orleans has also cemented itself in the collective imagination through every possible form of media, from classic old movies like The Big Easy, to modern shows such as American Horror Story.
And, of course, there’s the music. The city is synonymous with the birth of jazz, which is largely credited with having started right here, and then continued on with unique sounds that could only have come about in the city, such as bounce musician Big Freedia or the brass pop of Trombone Shorty.
Everyone knows that what makes the city so special is its culture. Every book, movie or tourism campaign you read will mention the unique blend of people that came together here to make it what it is. What they don’t often mention is that this cultural gumbo is a living tradition, not just one put on for tourists. Sure, you can go down to the Quarter on occasion and take pictures of someone dressed in Mardi Gras regalia, but it’s a totally different experience to stumbling across a tribe as it passes through your neighbourhood on St Joseph’s Day. It’s not for tourists or for show – but just because that’s what they’ve done for generations.
Because keeping that tradition – and really all the city’s traditions – alive is as important as it is difficult.
The thing is, while New Orleans is always a great city to visit, she’s not always very easy to live with. Despite the nonstop party that’s often portrayed on screen, the reality is that it can be hard to make a life here. Rising costs and rising sea levels often fall particularly hard on the people whose families have lived here for generations – the ‘culture bearers’ who carry on the traditions that make New Orleans a place where everyone wants to be.
That’s the thing about love. Whether it’s a person or a place, real love looks below the surface to the heart of things, and the heart of New Orleans is its people.
It’s the people here who cook the delicious étouffée, crawfish pies and other delicacies you can’t find anywhere else, who make the music that changed history and continue to carry on the traditions that make this city so special. More than anything, the thing I miss the most, the thing I love most about New Orleans is the people. New Orleanians have a way of making the mundane fun and turning tragedy into a low-key party. The joy that permeates this city, the feeling that draws visitors from around the world, is often a defiant joy, a commitment to living life to the fullest even in the face of hardship… especially in the face of hardship.
When it comes to love, reciprocity is key. For those of us who love this city, whether born and raised here or just passing through, we need to do better at sharing some responsibility for her care. We need to think more carefully about where we stay and eat, so that we can be sure we’re benefitting the local economy as much as possible, rather than contributing to the conditions that make it hard to live here. We need to better support the people and policies that preserve the city’s culture, not just for tourists, but for the culture bearers who work so hard to hold on to these traditions in the first place.
So, the next time you go to New Orleans, by all means follow her lead, dance in the streets, listen to her stories and maybe drink a little more than you ought to. We could all use a dose of the city’s defiant joy in our lives. Just be sure to take a moment to leave her better than you found her when you depart.
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