A city built on mud and optimism: New Orleans made its mark on history long ago
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 September 2005)

Those who have always kept a special place in their hearts for New Orleans are grieving today, struck silent with horror at the breaching of the levees and sickened by the flooding of a great and graceful city that has given far more to the world than the world can ever return.

Famous as a town dedicated to pleasure, New Orleans is enduring the misery of the worst disaster to befall an American city since the earthquake that levelled San Francisco in 1906. Thousands of its people may well be dead.

Long ago, New Orleans made its mark in history as the place where country bluesmen, gospel singers and many others created jazz, the first important new music of the 20th century. Most of the great players left long ago, but the music lives there still and so does the spirit that produced it.

The most Mediterranean of American cities, New Orleans has uniquely insisted that public joy is a crucial element in civic life. The great event of the year is the Mardi Gras parade, but on Bourbon Street, any old Saturday night, people spend the evening moving from bar to bar, carrying their drinks in plastic glasses, sampling the music in a dozen different saloons and creating their own parade.

The pleasures of New Orleans have created a legend of easygoing life that fits perfectly with the historic truth that the first great jazzmen all worked in the whorehouse district.

The legend explains why so many of us can feel, not just enjoy, a song like Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? It stirs the same emotions that rise up when we hear a famous song about a lonely railroad journey (I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans ...) The bad news coming out of New Orleans seems especially bad to the millions for whom the words Canal Street and Rampart Street evoke memories and connections to a lifetime of music.

Some of us have walked the streets of New Orleans in wonder, discovering with excitement that if we are lucky, we can even watch a New Orleans funeral parade, with the band that solemnly plays A Closer Walk With Thee on the way to the cemetery, then joyfully performs Didn't He Ramble on the way back. By maintaining that tradition, New Orleans reasserts a compelling and unique ritual, accepting death and celebrating life in almost the same breath.

The people of New Orleans also understand that life is full of risks. The city has won no prizes for municipal honesty, its police are no better than they have to be, and its citizens shoot each other more often than those of almost any other place on the continent. The very physical structure of New Orleans requires that its residents practise optimism, trusting in luck like Californians living on the San Andreas fault.

Who else but an optimist would live in a seaport below sea level? Who else would quietly accept the fact that there's literally no ground beneath their feet? Dig down a metre in New Orleans and everything is loose mud.

New Orleans people traditionally aren't buried in the ground. In places like the famous St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery (well known to the 1960s generation as the site of an orgy in the film Easy Rider, remembered by tourists as the place where Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess, has her tomb), the bones of the dead rest in a wall that looks like a filing cabinet.

While living with that topographic risk, New Orleans flourished as a seaport and became a town dominated by dealmakers and hustlers, far more interesting than safer cities. It has never lost the quality that made it the first multicultural city of the New World. The French who established it in 1718 and the Spaniards who briefly ruled it both contributed to the city's design sense and its rich ethnic stew. Acadians, dumped there by the British and soon converted into Cajuns, brought their culture with them. Choctaw and Natchez Indians became part of the city. In the 19th century, ocean-going vessels brought immigrants from Greece, the Balkans, Ireland, Germany and Italy. By 1860, four of 10 New Orleans residents were foreign born.

The most important racial component, the shame of New Orleans and then its triumph, consisted of black slaves.

The port of New Orleans was deeply involved in the slave trade; but only a few decades after the Civil War the freed slaves made New Orleans famous. The greatest American virtuoso, Louis Armstrong, learned music in a New Orleans reform school before going on to inspire every jazz trumpet player in the world -- and many other musicians as well. He became the city's greatest son, recognized today by Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and Louis Armstrong Park. The park is on a historic site, Congo Square, where even in the days of slavery blacks were allowed to assemble, dance and play the earliest versions of the music that would conquer the world.

Rebuilding New Orleans will be a vast project, but essential. What would we do without the liveliest city of the continent?

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