Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tuesday Travels: A New Orleanian's Rebuttal

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.


Strange Fiction said...

Good for you Laura. Your passionate feelings and love of New Orleans shine through in your writing. We too often let slurs of this nature pass by un-refuted. Bravo for raising your voice!

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, D.L.! I'm glad that my passion for the Big Easy comes across... and I'm happy that my hubby alerted me to this article in the first place. I have him to thank for sparking an urge to refute Codrescu's negative bias.

Bane of Anubis said...

Okay, I'm conflicted on this... As someone who met his wife during Mardi Gras (we were on the Rice crew team and had an event the day before at Tulane), I have a special sentiment for New Orleans -- it's got lots of culture and style that I don't think you can find anywhere else...

However, on a quasi-tangential note, given New Orleans location (i.e., in a hurricane alley & below sea level), I never liked the idea of rebuilding N.O... Perhaps it's my fatalistic nature, but I think the infrastructure costs to maintain & repair the city will become (if they're not already there) exorbitant...

I think it'd be nice if we could up and move the city to somewhere a bit more stable... but that's easier for me to say b/c I'm not from there and I'm the sort of person that doesn't grow roots in a place.

That quote about Houston was funny -- a nice giant swamp w/o any of N.O.'s charm... one thing it shares w/ N.O. -- good, good food.

Stephanie Faris said...

I live in Nashville, where I grew up dealing with the stereotyping Hee Haw brought upon us. There were seriously people who thought we ran around in overalls, barefoot. But before Katrina, I definitely had a different perception of New Orleans...history, beauty, arts and culture... During Katrina, there was a ton of negative press about the city and I changed my perception. This helps reaffirm what I'd originally thought of the city. I work with someone who's from New Orleans and he's always said the same things you just did. I just need to visit there and see for myself!

hope101 said...

What a beautiful blog, Laura! I love the background and the many pictures.

I don't feel qualified to jump in to this discussion in the sense I've never been to NO, nor am I likely to get that far south. But like Bane, with the advent of global warming, I fear the issue may not be how underappreciated it is, but whether there'll be anything left to appreciate in another hundred years.

Sorry for the doom and gloom. It really looks like a beautiful city.

Laura Martone said...

Howdy, Bane! Thanks for weighing in. I can understand the conflict - while I'm forever tied to this one-of-a-kind region and, therefore, passionate about rebuilding it, I usually question such urges in other areas prone to disaster (Tornado Alley and fire-ravaged southern California come to mind).

What bothers me is that it's easy for those who live outside the city to question why we should save something that sits in a bowl, annually threatened by the forces of Mother Nature. It's easy to forget that, when the city was founded in the 1700s, it was protected from hurricanes because of the multitude of wetlands that sat between it and the Gulf of Mexico. Wetlands that are virtually non-existent today - I mean, even in my lifetime, the landscape has changed dramatically. When Dad and I used to go fishing 25 years ago, there were all sorts of marshes and islands that are now gone - you should see the vast openness that the fishing waters have become.

And the problem is that it's not an accident that they're gone. Dam-building along the Mississippi, oil and gas production in the Gulf - in other words, things happening beyond New Orleans' borders have contributed to the depletion. So, I find it hard to give up on a town that's been adversely affected by others' decisions. But, maybe, it's just my roots talkin'. :-)

P.S. I thought the Houston comment was funny, too. There were a lot of great comments - but my already-long article would've been even longer if I'd included them all. I tend to overwrite when I'm passionate - just ask those who have read my novel! :-)

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Steph! If it helps - I love Nashville... and don't think of HEE HAW at all... anymore. I did used to enjoy that silly show when I was a kid, but I never really thought city folks ran around in overalls and no shoes! LOL!

As for your impression of New Orleans, I can totally understand how it changed with the post-Katrina coverage. In some ways, I'm glad that people "woke up" and saw the negative aspects of the city... on the other hand, the coverage made it seem as though it were ALL bad... which it so isn't. So, I'm glad I've done my part to help temper your impression. That makes me exceedingly happy. Come visit soon!

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Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Jan, for visiting my blog. Thanks, too, for the compliments. I love sharing my stories and photos with others...

As I told Bane (above), I can understand the dilemma that New Orleans presents, believe me. When I visited Venice a decade ago, it alarmed me to see the waters lapping above stairs that were once above water... I fear the same will happen to the New Orleans French Quarter someday... it already did happen to my childhood homes... and when the waters receded, it was far too late to save them.

Ink said...

That was wonderful, Laura. Beautifully written.

Also, I figure you might be the person to ask... I've been thinking about reading Brinkley's The Great Deluge... have you read it? Heard about it? Is it worthwhile?


Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Bryan. That means a lot to me, coming from a wonderful writer like yourself.

As for the Brinkley book, no, I haven't read it, but my stepmother has. I just called her to see what she thought, and she said that she liked a few other books better. She's on vacation right now, though, so she'll let me know which titles when she returns to New Orleans.

You have to understand, she lived through Katrina, so she found Brinkley's exhaustive details about the problems and the lack of response a little tiresome. Of course, she said you might want to check it out anyway - Brinkley's a good writer, after all, and you might appreciate his take on the tragedy, from an objective point of view. Hope that helps!

Ink said...

Thanks, Laura!

That's a good answer. I was thinking it would be a good overview to show just what happened. How things broke down, etc. I'm guessing you folk down there have had to go over all those details ad nauseam, but since up by your summer home we haven't had the same exposure. If your stepmother has other recommendations, though, I'd be happy to hear them. A good memoir sort of take on it might be the sort of thing to balance it out.

Thanks again!

Laura Martone said...

Oh, goody, I'm glad that I could help. I didn't actually live through the storm - but since I lost a lot of memorabilia in it, had to face the aftermath with my family, and had to watch my hometown be torn to shreds on the national news scene... I admit that I was a little burnt-out after a while, but I'm now ready to read some of the books spawned by the tragedy - I've been curious about Brinkley's for a while.

Another good one, which I HAVE read, is actually 1 DEAD IN ATTIC, a collection of columns by Chris Rose, a Times-Picayune columnist who did live through the storm.