It was early evening, last Friday. A light rain was falling through the trees outside the window of our shared home office, and I was laboring away at something – probably a blog – when I suddenly sensed that Dan was fuming only a few feet away. If he had been a cartoon character like Yosemite Sam, I would surely have seen little bursts of flame spewing from his ears.
Now, this isn’t an unusual occurrence. Dan gets upset about lots of things – incompetent drivers, crooked politicians, selfish people, temperamental computers, and so forth – but he seemed particularly annoyed at that particular moment. Apparently, he had been reading a rather scathing article about New Orleans – a place that he’s grown to love over the past decade – and his feathers had gotten seriously ruffled. Published by Andrei Codrescu on MSN.com, this four-page tongue-lashing disguised as gospel, entitled “The French Quarter, Before and After,” had enflamed Dan so much that he not only left a comment, he also asked me to post a rebuttal of said article.
Being a bit of an overworked procrastinator, I didn’t actually read the article until today, three days after the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of my hometown. And now I feel pretty rotten that I didn’t jump on Dan’s request right away. In my defense, I thought that a pro-New Orleans post was a perfect entry for “Tuesday Travels,” but had I realized just how perturbed I’d be, I might have read it sooner.
For in this article, Codrescu makes a number of misleading assumptions about the “real” New Orleans – or, to be precise, the “real” French Quarter. Apparently, Dan and I weren’t the only people provoked by his remarks. Plenty of commenters had something to say last Friday, and while some of them defended his words with claims of “freedom of speech” and “painful truths,” many more sided with us. And here’s why: because, although Codrescu, who lives in the French Quarter, has voiced some spot-on observations about the city’s impoverished neighborhoods, poor public education system, and high crime rate (before and after Katrina did her dirty work), he also seems to equate New Orleans with the French Quarter, and the French Quarter with Bourbon Street – which, in my humble view, is a very narrow prism indeed.
Codrescu claims that, prior to Hurricane Katrina, he was proud to say that he lived in the French Quarter – an exotic locale that, “in both the geographical and the chronological sense,” is unlike any other place in the world, much less New Orleans. This assertion rings false, however, when you read the next paragraph, in which Codrescu claims that city officials nearly tore down the French Quarter in the 1980s to make room for a freeway and that the only things that saved this historic district were “our blessed sloth, combined with subtropical lassitude and corruption, with a soupçon of stupidity... and something else: sex.” Now, I’m not quibbling with Codrescu’s facts here. By the end of the 1980s, I was just barely a teenager, so I don’t remember these events. What I do take issue with, however, is this undercurrent of derision for a place that he claims to have loved.
Beyond bashing the city’s sex-obsessed history – from the “madams of Storyville” to the pre-Katrina “Girls Gone Wild” era on Bourbon Street – he has a decidedly negative opinion for the other “clichés” of the French Quarter: the Anne Rice-influenced vampire lovers who helped to revive Mardi Gras and the “young dreamers” who came to walk the same “ill-lit streets” that once inspired the likes of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Then, Codrescu goes on to describe how “the two steady charms of New Orleans, music and food, grew positively mythical by the end of the gilded ‘90s” – the multi-layered music scene was exploding “with renewed energy” while “hip new restaurants” were turning Creole cooking on its head. “A gorgeous version of our ‘American Venice’ was in the making,” Codrescu says, “when the huge engineering failure known as Katrina let in the waters of Lake Ponchartrain and drowned the myth, bringing to the surface instead the rank poverty and misery of a huge city that tourists never knew, a city ten times the size of the mythical burg being carefully crafted by realtors.”
While he’s absolutely right that much of New Orleans “was a vast area of poor housing, badly run schools located in shabby buildings without air-conditioning in sweltering heat, rampant crime, a big-time drug trade... and, for the most part, a black city” (finally revealed, following Katrina, to the rest of America via the selective national media), he’s absolutely wrong that this is the “real” New Orleans. Although, as a child, I was well aware of my city’s poor education system, high crime rate, and socio-economic imbalance, I also believe that New Orleans is more than such negativity, more than even the French Quarter.
As one of Codrescu’s commenters, Fleur-de-Lis-70124 (my old zip code!), wrote last Friday, “New Orleans is not just about the French Quarter. It is about roots! My aunt lived in Lakeview, my father lived Uptown. My best friend grew up in the Irish Channel, wife’s family is from Bucktown... and all families immigrated from Sicily, Ireland... Poland and Germany. All these areas are working class. He is one of the pompous idiots who move to New Orleans with rose-colored glasses. These folks usually come here from some bland part of the country... and live in the fantasyland of Bohemia; while the rest of us go to work... New Orleans isn't just about Disneyland” or “Bohemia either.”
While Codrescu is correct when he claims that “Katrina was a nightmare that revealed reality,” I would argue that it was only a revelation for those who know nothing about New Orleans’ infamous history and culture. And I also take umbrage with his statement that the post-Katrina news coverage exposed “the gilded city” as “mostly froth and glitter over a sweating body of ancient rotting poverty.” For one thing, it wasn’t just the poor black population that was displaced by Katrina. Although the Ninth Ward received the lion’s share of news coverage and national scrutiny, white-dominated areas like Lakeview were underwater, too, and, as with other parts of the city, have yet to fully recover.
In the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – which killed hundreds of people (including my mother’s neighbor) and destroyed thousands upon thousands of houses (including my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my father’s) – many natives (like my mother and grandmother) left the city, never to return, while the fiercely loyal die-hards remained to rebuild. As Codrescu says, “the hole opened by Katrina let in bands of enthusiastic do-gooders who came to ‘reconstruct’ the devastated city.” He praises these selfless volunteers – as indeed he should – as well as the “illegal immigrants” who came “to help and to find work,” some of whom were subsequently “ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.” Of course, he purposefully omits the fact that many of these outsiders also stole salvaged belongings from the very homeowners they were supposedly helping. Now, I’m not making rash accusations here – after all, native New Orleanians were caught red-handed on television, looting stores and such. I’m simply saying that it’s always easy to swing the facts one way or another.
According to Codrescu, “the powers-that-be in New Orleans are back full time at the business of projecting the city once more as a bohemian pleasure haven, a cross between Cabo San Lucas and Las Vegas Southern-style.” He claims that the Quarter, formerly filled with year-round or part-time residents, is now predominated by tourists, hotels, corporate condos, “gentleman club” chains, and “outlandishly prized real-estate.” He says that “as the Quarter started slouching toward Disneyland,” his “artist friends moved into the adjoining Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods” and that he now hesitates before saying he lives in the French Quarter. While “artsy types” were once envious of his address and “regular folk” sneered, today’s reactions include “blank stares,” “downright hostility,” or fascination by those who still believe the rumors of his “hood's pre-Katrina fading glory.”
I don’t know who Codrescu is talking to, but when I tell people (both native New Orleanians and faraway out-of-towners) that Dan and I live in the French Quarter five months out of the year – something that wouldn’t be possible without the presence of vacation-style apartments – pretty much everybody thinks it sounds like an interesting experience... which it is. Although we do frequent Bourbon Street when we’re in town, we just as often head to the Marigny for live jazz or The Kerry for live folk music. We love exploring various parts of the city – from Lakeview to the Garden District to Lake Pontchartrain – but the French Quarter dwells in a special place in our hearts.
Beyond Bourbon Street, it looks like the same place that I grew up loving. The pigeons still harass tourists in Jackson Square. The sweet olive trees behind the St. Louis Cathedral still smell as lovely as ever. The pastries are still tempting at the Croissant D'or Patisserie. The voodoo shops still intrigue me, even on the most crowded afternoon. Locals still flock to the 24-hour Quartermaster for late-night munchies. The corner musicians and artists still fascinate me with their incredible talents. And, no matter what Codrescu says, when Dan and I are strolling along the narrow streets at night – which are eerily silent the farther you get from Bourbon – I can almost sense traces of Tennessee Williams, Marie Laveau, and all those who came before.
In fact, while I wish that Hurricane Katrina had never happened, there is, as with most tragedies, a silver lining. For one thing, it brought me back home. After high school, I left for college in Chicago and, following graduation, began a series of adventures around the world, until Hurricane Katrina drowned my old neighborhoods, drove my relatives north to Baton Rouge, and gave me a renewed sense of admiration for my hometown. Because, although Codrescu is right about the city’s negative aspects, he seems to dismiss some of its joy, too. While he certainly has his defenders in the comments section of his article, I find it hard to ignore the contemptuous tone evident throughout his piece. As one commenter said, “Perhaps he should move to another more hospitable location, say Atlanta or Houston. I honestly do not know why he holds such hostility toward a city whose charm, history, and ambience is legendary.”
Amen to that. But, of course, everyone is entitled to his opinion, no matter how biased and/or negative. Although I worry about things like crime whenever I’m in New Orleans, I still love it fiercely and will continue to do so for years to come.
6 hours ago