4.05.2009

Live From the Veranda at Cafe Luna

Brad V: So, Steve, what's your impression of New Orleans thus far?

Steve S: The slow decline of imperial grandeur. I think the Orleans Parish Criminal Court summed it up nicely for me -- this massive, art-deco/ French Colonial justice building; with seedy characters, public servants nearly asnooze at their desks in the lush heat, vaguely indifferent police, slightly crumbled murals faintly obscured by cobwebs. It didn't feel European so much as a former colony.

And, of course, the old wooden bars of Frenchman Street; the cacophony of blues and jazz and rock'n'roll pouring from the crooked doors of wooden bars along a narrow street. Perfection!

Brad V: Is there anything here that has surprised you? Does the city have a different feel in person than the tidbits I try to convey on the blog? Was there anything besides the visit to the courthouse at Tulane and Broad that summed things up - that got beyond all the Katrina media coverage and made it click, in a sense (or is the city still rather impenetrable)? And if that's not enough of a multipartite question for you to answer here in the warm breeze on the veranda, what should folks know about second lining?

Steve S: The city is more jungle-y than I'd somehow suspected (though I don't know what I thought it'd be). Especially the Garden District. NOLA has such a unique atmosphere -- really like nothing I've seen before. I think the second line gets to a lot of your questions -- the vibrancy of the community; the influx (it seems to me) of a lot of talented, creative, younger people; the joy and spontaneity and "organized chaos". Really a great tradition. And actually, just sitting in a park and watching how New Orleansians love their dogs -- it brought a new and really personal dimension to the city.

Brad V: Yeah - there is a strange and noticeable affinity for dogs here. It's very noticeable if you ever take a walk down near the levee upriver from The Fly. One other question, though - is there anything here that disturbs you?

Steve S: The decay can be beautiful, in the same way, say, Venice is beautiful as it sinks into the swamp. But of course it's worrisome too; especially the schools I see that are really falling apart. And there's a whiff of political corruption in the air -- maybe it's just the sometimes banana republic tropicality of the city, and of course I haven't been here long enough to say for sure -- but it gives one pause (or, I guess, for me, after the 'Baijan, makes me feel right at home!). Have you seen much of that? I don't imagine one can straight give a bribe to a cop to get out of a speeding ticket, but what is the dark side here?














Brad V: Hmmm - the dark side. I do my best to stick on the light side of things (and no, that's not supposed to be some sort of racial innuendo here in this complex checkerboard place). I think the city is improving significantly post-Katrina; some of the key players and old centers of political power have been shaken up. But there are lurking problems - the crime rate is still troublesome, the city lacks an effective, respectable mayor, and some areas with the most severe blight are remain years away from being decent neighborhoods.

But one interesting side effect of the dark side of the city - having more murders last year than any other American city - is what I've described to friends as a "de facto libertarianism born of bigger concerns." With hard crime the focus of most police resources, certain activities that are banned in other states are left legal here, seemingly as a recognition of human nature coupled with a business sense and a lack of resources. It's okay to walk with beer in a plastic cup down the street. There are no bar times. People park against traffic like it's going out of style. The local gay population thrives despite an unfriendly outstate electorate. Guests walk through the kitchens of even the finest dining establishments to get to their seats. Life goes on.

Then again, I have witnessed some pretty arbitrary low level action by law enforcement. I was pulled over in Algiers once while riding my bike with a friend - after being followed for blocks by a police cruiser. We asked why we were being stopped. The officers really had no reason, but noted that we must have been from the other side of the river..."from way Uptown."

Steve S:  Yeah, I noticed the parking here! It reminded me of Hungary actually -- they park willy-nilly there, too; when I came back from my year there, I tried to park the same way, having forgotten it wasn't kosher here, and got a ticket right away. Do you think that "de facto liberterianism" has any deeper cultural roots? Certainly New Orleans has always been a den of villainy -- does piracy set a precedent?

And what about the culture here? Does the outside world's image of brass bands and blues, cajun cuisine and benders hold up? I have my own thoughts, but what are yours?

Brad V:  The conceptions of local culture...that's an interesting item. I think the local cultural touchstones are definitely stereotyped and rebroadcast outside of New Orleans to a great degree - and usually heavily diluted "You're wearing beads? Oh, I know what you were doing!" [in reality, you don't have to do anything for tons of beads, except perhaps shout "Throw me somethin' mistah!"]

There's more nuance to the traditions here, more metamorphosis post-Katrina than I think some people realize. And it's certainly interesting to see - and sometimes, to be - a newcomer to the city, trying to tap into the traditions, but not fitting in perfectly, pushing the outer edges of the envelope, creating new hybrid traditions (like the Krewe of Hammurabi). It's a balance between the desires of preserving and engaging on one hand, and the risk of mocking and diluting on the other hand.

All that aside, though, New Orleans is fascinating far beyond the outside perspective. This is not a Cajun city - it's creole, if anything. It's not just a black city - or a French city. It's Jewish, it's gay, it's Vietnamese, it's old Dixiecrats, it's young, altruistic post-K "broombaggers" doing Teach for America, it's grungy Marigny hipsters, it's blue-haired matriarchs shopping at Langenstein's, it's Hispanic men waiting in the parking lots of Home Depot and the gas stations along Claiborne. This city is the Tchoupitoulas Wal-Mart on a Friday afternoon. There is so much that is endemic to this place.

And there are brass bands - incomparable brass bands that will never cease to make me want to get up and dance down the street.

Steve S: Really, that thought gets, for me, to the heart of the American experience, and maybe points toward why I like this city so much: that re-creation of the local culture by new immigrants, and therefore that culture's re-imagining. The city has struck me as wonderfully vibrant in a way that no other city has -- New York is too big, it subsumes its own vibrancy; Boston seems more staid. That mix, I think, makes the city.