I once saw a list of 10 cities in the U.S. that have successfully resisted homogenization. Though every big city has its unique areas, these were ones you would never confuse with any other urban area in America. The list included San Francisco, Boston, New York, Miami, Las Vegas, San Antonio and New Orleans.

I recall being surprised that New Orleans wasnt given top ranking. To me, it is the urban equivalent of the Galapagos Islands -- its architecture, cuisine, music, politics, traditions and attitudes seem to have evolved in isolation from the rest of the country.

Im not sure if I fit the typical visitor profile, but Ive gotten to know the town slowly, starting with a Mardi Gras visit in college and returning more than a dozen times on business.

About a year and a half ago, I went purely for fun -- a friend was about to become a father and he wanted to have the middle-age equivalent of a bachelor party. (In the middle-age equivalent, the focus is on food and music.)

I go to the citys new attractions as they open -- I was very impressed with the Aquarium of the Americas at its debut -- but only once.

I find myself returning to the more traditional spots repeatedly: Cafe du Monde, Uglesichs, Central Grocery, Saint Louis Cemetery Number One and certain bookstores. Among the newly opened, only restaurants are likely to be added to my repeat-visit list.

New Orleans has always been, to paraphrase Don Van Vliet, a good place to get lost and found. Though Van Vliet was speaking figuratively, I discovered it was true literally, as well. I once led a group of travel agents and suppliers attending an ASTA conference to the fringes of the French Quarter, confident that I could find my way to a terrific hole-in-the-wall restaurant I had chanced upon during an earlier visit.

Just as the group began to suspect the truth -- that I was no longer at all sure where I was going -- I spied an unfamiliar hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and led them in. It turned out to be better than the original target.

Though the devastation that has overcome New Orleans inspires these reminiscences, this is not an obituary. I am not writing in the past tense.

After watching too many scenes of sadness and devastation on television, I feel compelled to express my belief that New Orleans will return -- undoubtedly changed, though not in the most fundamental ways.

I write this knowing that its architecture, from the wrought-iron balconies to the grand mansions of the Garden District and the open-air magic of Cafe du Monde, may forever show the aftereffects of Katrina.

The loss of life is irreplaceable, the damage to commerce discouraging.

But I also keep recalling that the attitudes and traditions that make New Orleans special and different have long been forged in adversity, and even disaster.

The need to make squirrel and possum edible led to Cajun cooking.

The response to a malarial atmosphere was architectural innovation.

Racial and ethnic divisions and poverty gave birth to Dixieland and zydeco, to Louis Armstrong and Boozoo Chavis.

An impractically high water table led to cemeteries that became cultural icons and tourist attractions.

In each instance, adversity was not merely overcome, but made joyous. It has provided the spin that inspires -- perhaps demands -- that the good times must roll. The alternative is depression.

One of Louis Armstrongs best-known songs is What a Wonderful World. If one only reads the lyrics, about babies and blue skies and roses and rainbows, its an incredibly sappy song.

But it is Armstrong -- the blend of grit, experience and optimism in his voice -- that makes it possible, in the depths of darkness, to feel that the title is not mocking, but prophetic.

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