The New York Times Editorial Board says that New Orleans is dying. On Sunday, the paper published an editorial that began:
“We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.”
But in the past three weeks here, the following events have taken place in defiance of those words:
At least a thousand people turned up to an exhibition and signing of a photography book to benefit the city at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art downtown. Thanks to private philanthropy, the region’s best botanical garden, at City Park, in mostly empty Lakeview, was replanted with camellias and strung with lights for a smaller version of the annual Celebration in the Oaks, where mobs of Catholic schoolchildren sang carols and drank cocoa as a loudspeaker blared “The Cajun Night Before Christmas.” It was absolute gridlock at the reopening of the uptown Audubon Zoo, where children lined up to buy Roman candy from the donkey cart and quieted down to hear the orangutan whistle on cue. Firemen and policemen and church groups and the “hippies from Mississippi” and forestry activists from Oregon cooked and gave away hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners from the Ninth Ward to Jefferson Parish.
Magazine Street boutiques had a level of business nearly equaling last year’s on the day after Thanksgiving, as girls in sweatpants browsed for $50 jasmine and sandalwood lotion and $300 jeans while drinking $3.75 iced mochas from local coffeehouses PJs and the Rue de la Course (Starbucks, thankfully, has not returned). Local farmers sold organic satsumas and chicory and boiled peanuts at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market. Real live tourists munched on beignets at the Café du Monde. Chef Paul Prudhomme himself was there to greet guests from his motorized chair at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Novelist Tom Piazza read from his new book Why New Orleans Matters at a literary salon attended also by Roy Blount Jr. and Andrei Codrescu, on the occasion of the birthday of the proprietor of the historic Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley, by St. Louis Cathedral, and the shop’s reopening. I was there, and I also attended packed performances by the Iguanas and the Radiators and the Rebirth Brass Band and the Hot 8 Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins and Ricki Comeaux and Coco Robicheaux and The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars and the New Orleans Jazz Vipers and the Fens—”music for the 9th Ward lifestyle” as interpreted by college-educated white boys—they all mostly played for tips, who the hell knows how they pay the rent, but they’re here. I missed another couple dozen shows probably even better than that. Next week Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson are giving a concert at Tipitina’s, headquarters of the Musicians’ Relief Fund, after riding the train they call the City of New Orleans all the way down from Chicago, raising money for this dead city of ours.
Do I think the Times is wrong? Not exactly. It’s absolutely true, as the Editorial Board wrote, that if this city doesn’t get the federal help it needs, and soon, the recovery will be crippled. It’s true, as they say, that stalling out on this aid, needed for the levees and the rebuilding, in Washington is a great wrong and a great shame and shows our nation’s weakness-“a feeble giant indeed.” It is a weakness most of all, as they say, that we appear, as a nation, to accept our leader’s violation of promises made a mere three months ago. It’s true, as they do not say, that the city’s black diaspora is having the most trouble returning, and that what is really at stake is the death of a major black American city.
But they are wrong to suggest that it is within the realm of possibility to abandon this city. They don’t understand how much of its spirit has already revived, that this absolutely devastated place already has 10 times the charm of your Houston, your Detroit, your Scottsdale, and even more so because it feels like a small town for the moment. They haven’t driven the miles of abandoned streets in Mid-City only to come upon a FEMA travel trailer wrapped in white Christmas lights. They haven’t heard the indignant tone of a woman with 13 grandchildren evacuated to Texas when she says, “Of course we want to come home. This is home.”
New Orleans has a reason for being. Its culture of death-suffused enjoyment and ardent nostalgia is just waiting to enshrine Katrina as yet another dire episode in its 300-year history. If you let it.