By Nicole Rupersburg
I’ve long been fascinated by the thought of New Orleans. Since my perception of the Big Easy came to be formed in my idealistic, adolescent mind, New Orleans has always held for me a certain kind of mystique—a decaying romanticism unlike that of any other city. “There is nothing in this world now that doesn’t hold some sort of…fascination.”
New Orleans—a city unlike any other. A city built upon swamps, rising up from the Gulf of Mexico and the muddy banks of the Mississippi. A city with its own culture, Cajun and Creole, born from the settlement of Haitians, Africans, and French colonialists. A city filled with antebellum architecture that clings to its storied past, from the double-gallery houses in the Garden District to the sprawling mansions that line St. Charles in Greek Revival, Victorian, and Italiante styles. This is a city with its own distinct culture and traditions—voodoo queens and cities of the dead, jazz and zydeco, dubloons and Carnival. The wealthy white plantation owners and their posterity hiding in their wealth on Prytania; the Caribbean and African slaves intermingling with the French-speaking quadroon servants and mistresses, the mingled blood furthering merging distinctly different cultures and creating new ones wholly unique to the Vieux Carré; two centuries later still divided as much by class as race.
This is New Orleans—a city trying desperately to maintain its history, so much so that it becomes mummified within it. The world changes, yet so much here stays the same.
It is said that New Orleans, particularly the French Quarter, is full of ghosts. “The most haunted city in America,” the touristy travel mags and websites advertising guided tours with local historians claim. And it is, but not by Marie Laveau or Confederate soldiers. It is haunted by itself—by its former wealth and glory, and its cruel past.
Any native New Orleansian is more than happy to speak about the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, they speak of it with a seeming excitement and pride. And it’s not the white citizens; the white citizens were quick to move back into their palatial mansions along St. Charles and continue soaking in their bourbon and their old-world wealth. Their homes were not affected by the flooding, and their stories are simply matter-of-fact. It is the black citizens—the cab drivers, the streetcar operators, the tour guides, the musicians, and the busboys in the century-old New Orleans “institution” restaurants full of French wine, bad food, and old money—who take pride in Katrina’s wrath. They will happily point out the devastated downtown Projects, under federal control since Katrina during which time most of what remained was torn down with the federal government refusing to rebuild. They will tell you how happily they live in their rotting homes, still in the process of reconstructing, in the forgotten backwaters of New Orleans parish where there are no longer any grocery stores or government-funded public services such as a police force or hospitals. This they will tell you with a laugh of pained irony, an irony that only a city steeped in centuries of racist divisions and convenient ignorance can produce. Katrina wasn’t a catastrophe; it was a reminder. New Orleans is a city haunted by its past, and not since the plantations were closed and the slaves were freed has that past been more obviously thrust in the faces of every naïve New Orleansian.
And while time may have stood still on Prytania, on the other side of Canal something quite different was happening. History was all but forgotten in the French Quarter, with its cast iron balconies and Spanish architecture of flat roofs and stucco (built during the Spanish rule of New Orleans, after fires destroyed the French colonial architecture). For decades now the Quarter has been known as New Orleans’ hotbed of tourist activity, with bustling Bourbon Street at the epicenter. The Quarter, built on dry land long before the levee system was designed and thus saved from the floods of Katrina, is still this same hotbed, though perhaps on a lesser scale. This neighborhood—the oldest in New Orleans and with the most diversified culture and history—has fallen victim to the bane of tourism. What was probably once a beautiful, languorous historic neighborhood is now full of garish neon, gaudy souvenir shops, and drunken tourists stumbling and screeching down the street, with frat boys chanting and half-naked women squealing and vomiting in corners, all of them feeling like they have achieved the “true” New Orleans experience. Every other establishment is a strip club, and the rest serve frozen drinks out of slushie machines in tall plastic hurricane glasses that continuously bob up and down the street. The Garden District and Uptown may be frozen in their stubborn refusal to relinquish their Southern gentile past, but the French Quarter is its own skeletal remains preserved in flashing neon, more like the seediest parts of Las Vegas than one of the oldest and culturally richest neighborhoods in America. The tourists consume it and the locals forget it; history is lost and the ghosts of New Orleans have no presence, save for the dollars made off tourists trying to catch themselves a glimpse of a genuine, bonafide, well-advertised N’awlins spirit.
This is what is left of New Orleans. This is the New Orleans that I found—a ravaged shell of itself, bastardized by decades of heavy tourism and full of living corpses desperately clinging to a past that is no longer relevant. New Orleans is a relic; a vulgar pawn shop full of antiques. The romance and mystique is gone, replaced by apathy and overindulgence. Hurricane Katrina wiped away the glossy facade and revealed the city for what it really is—a decaying remnant of itself, its very own Diaspora. There is a sadness there that cannot be explained by economic devastation and destruction—it is the sadness of time past and things lost.
The future of New Orleans lies not with the tourists who would just as soon trash it, nor with the wealthy who would just as soon let it rot. It lies with the people who still live there, despite having every reason in the world to leave; who still love there, despite having every reason in the world to hate; the people who will tell you all about the devastation Katrina wrought and the suffering they themselves endured with a bemused laugh and a sincere smile. They are the jazz and blues musicians who set up shop on Royal Street and play amazing music for indifferent tourists who might be generous enough to pitch a handful of change into a guitar case. They are the cab drivers and the tour operators who tell the stories that keep New Orleans alive. They are the people who were nearly forced out and who take great pride in the fact that they stayed. They are the people who will rebuild not just their homes, but their culture. Because the struggle is all they know. The struggle is all there is.