Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Otherness of New Orleans

During our first few days in New Orleans, we walked around the French Quarter, renewing "acquaintances" with some of our favorite sights, shops, and eateries.

Jackson Square was one of our favorite places to visit. A simple walk around the block provides a reading on the pulse of the city.

In our minds, if the Square is busy, it would mean that people are again traveling to New Orleans, shops that had been closed are now open longer hours, restaurants have enough staff to be open for lunch and dinner at least six days a week, and that artists of many media have enough of a market to enable them to devote time to the production and marketing of their works.

But to determine if there were new attractions in the Quarter, we began a search of internet sources. We came across an article at by Ian McNulty entitled "Different Rules Apply: The Otherness of New Orleans." We thought this artcle addressed the impressions we developed during our walk around this small area a few days ago.

Postcard photographers have been trying for a long time to get the shot that captures New Orleans; but, unless they concoct some way to engage all the other senses at once, it's likely to remain a frustrated pursuit. Sure, there are iconic photos of French Quarter balconies hung with tropical plants and laced in iron filigree, of riverboats paddling the brown Mississippi River like grand floating wedding cakes, of motley street performers blowing sweet and lowdown on impromptu sidewalk stages, of the neon-glowing, 24-hour carnival midway of gaudy Bourbon Street.

Probably the most common group of vendors are the tarot card-palm reader-"read-you-like-a-book" psychics.

Evocative images, certainly, but the key to New Orleans is contrast and the alchemy of unlikely combinations--and that's something read by the ears, through the nose, over the palate and on the skin as surely as it is with the eyes. New Orleans is, in part, the thump and wail of a brass band leading a slow-moving parade thrown not for a holiday but whimsy alone; ...the throw-your-fork-across-the-table intensity of Louisiana seafood from a Creole kitchen; the omnipresent humidity, a tangible presence as hard to ignore as a third party in a honeymoon suite.

New Orleans is opulence and squalor sharing an apartment, resilience and decay working at cross purposes, explosive abandon and graceful reserve saluting each other from across the boulevard.

By turns exuberant and brooding, the city's character runs much deeper than its infamous identity as a party town. It is that, and has been for a long time, earning the 19th Century moniker of the "great Southern Babylon" and, later, "the safety valve of the South," mottos no chamber of commerce would invent but apt nonetheless.

"Transformer Man" (left) was one of the more unusual performers this afternoon.

This reputation stems from something more important to the essence of New Orleans than great music and free-flowing liquor. When it gets right down to it, New Orleans is a place where different rules apply, from the actual laws on the books to the unwritten codes of social conduct. (Kate had to take matters into her own hands to remind "Cowboy Statue Man" of proper social conduct.) For all the city's modern tourist attractions and historic properties, its festivals and museums and sporting events, this otherness, this exoticism underlying the familiar, has been the root of its distinct appeal--the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it sounds and tastes.

One of the chefs (right) from Cafe Pontalba took time out to observe the activity outside his restaurant--thereby becoming part of the activity.

And some clown (left) strolled through the scene with his dog.

Even with all the activity in Jackson Square, some visitors were content to do a little reading (right) or a little napping (below).

It's been this way for a long time. Two distant imperial powers, the French and Spanish, swapped the city's early governance between each other with the frequency of poker fortunes before America adopted it for long-term parenting.

The standards and expectations of the rest of the country never could cut through the experience of the city's formative years, however, and that still helps set it apart from today's America. The city is as different from its Southern neighbors just over the state line as Seattle is from Boston a continent away

The different tenor of life here has been a source of enormous creative license in the everyday lifestyles of residents and the never-never land vacations of visitors. This dynamic manifests itself in examples both historic and contemporary, grand and trivial. In antebellum days, for instance, African slaves were allowed unusual freedoms in New Orleans, including the opportunity to congregate and make music together in the slave market now known as Congo Square. A few generations after Emancipation, their descendants invented jazz on the streets and legalized bordellos of Storyville and changed the world of music.

Another example shows up in the city's love affair with dressing in costumes. A tradition set aside for Halloween or children's games elsewhere, fancy dress is a deeply ingrained part of celebrations year-round in New Orleans. With the liberation of masking, locals and visitors step out of their lodgings and into fanciful indulgence, changing at least their own world for a day.

People come to New Orleans to celebrate--whether for a weekend or for a lifetime--and as at any good celebration they aim to wring pleasure from each moment. The city obliges with bars that stay open forever, an embarrassment of musical riches and a regional cuisine that starts with its own language and ends with addicting anticipation of the next meal.

We have heard that the city authorities want to move the Square's vendors out of the area. We hope this "personality-ectomy" doesn't happen to the Quarter. The photo below shows the crowd that gathered on the steps opposite St. Louis Cathedral to watch a group of dancers.

As we left the Quarter, we noticed a young woman pushing a stroller along the sidewalk, and in that stroller.... This photograph below seems to exemplify McNulty's concluding paragraph: New Orleans has no monopoly on debauched revelry in modern America, but its atmosphere remains one of a kind. What happens in Vegas may very well stay in Vegas; what happens in New Orleans could only happen in New Orleans.

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