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
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
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
devastation that has overcome New Orleans inspires these
reminiscences, this is not an obituary. I am not writing in the
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
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
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.
high water table led to cemeteries that became cultural icons and
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.