March 27th, 2012

On revisiting New Orleans

I spent this past weekend in New Orleans, attending the Information Architecture Summit. It’s a wonderful city – just as beautiful as I had remembered.

Kerrie and I spent our honeymoon in New Orleans. We were stationed in the French Quarter. This was in 2003 – before the term “pre-Katrina” had any meaning. We were young. We spent a lot of time in bars. We had no children – no house payment, even. We were as free as New Orleans would allow us to be.

Nine years later – and despite the conference hotel being a mile away – I found myself wandering toward the French Quarter whenever I had a chance. There was never any purpose – just aimless wandering, walking through memories. Much of the area is still identical – little has changed in the Quarter over the past decade. Sheltered from the hurricanes, it lives on as a testament to New Orleans’ perseverance.

I expected to be disappointed. I’d built New Orleans to unrealistic expectations. I assumed I’d have the place all wrong – that New Orleans could barely live up to the image it creates for itself, let alone my own memories.

But every day I’d wake up with this longing. I wanted to go back into the city. I wanted to wander some more. I’d come across poverty, and run down buildings, and wonder why this wonderful city couldn’t get its shit together, and I’d turn the corner and see the lattice balconies and smell the best food in the world and remember that it’s to be expected. The city’s been knocked down enough times. At least let it get up before the 10 count.

When we got back from our honeymoon in 2003, I wrote a little narrative about our trip. It wasn’t great, but I found it mirrored my experience this weekend. It’s touched with the same sense of longing – and the same feelings of disgust. An exerpt:

The next morning, after running a few errands, we found ourselves standing in Louis Armstrong Park, located on the north side of Rampart Street: the “wrong side of the tracks” and the thin line between tourism and poverty. I was in a definite “bleeding heart” sort of mood, saddened to see what once could have been a majestic park, a historic land mark for one of Louisiana’s own sons, so out of maintenance, with murky pools, cracking asphalt, and a general air of dirtiness. I was, at the time, sort of disgusted that things could have become so worn out, that New Orleans could let itself get so run down.

But now, writing this, I realize that this isn’t just a solitary event, one that could be stopped and reversed, like a botox injection onto the dotted line at Rampart. This is New Orleans. And this is how New Orleans deals with itself. It’s a city that celebrates and clings to its history by allowing it to age – by letting those cracks and that dirt show up to the tourists. I have heard many people tell me that New Orleans is so dirty – so “vile” – and that, because of this, they didn’t really care for the Big Easy.

You know what? Those people are right. New Orleans is dirty. New Orleans is vile. New Orleans is somewhat incredulously without care. New Orleans is a city that never makes excuses for itself. It lets everything hang out, all of the inspired debauchery, the uneven streets, the garbage on the ground, and even the smell.

Everything is done its own way, as if New Orleans itself was turning to the rest of the metros – looking New York City and Los Angeles in the face — and flipping them the bird with one hand while holding a fifth of Phillips Rum in the other; the cousin from Louisiana that everyone is both embarrassed by and fascinated with.

I know now its mystery, though I could never start to understand it. I try to accept its fallacies. I embrace its undying quest to be the drunkest town on earth. It isn’t hard to imagine getting sucked into the history and charade of New Orleans.

It’s everywhere you look, in every gated doorway, around every rustic street plaque, under every iron lattice balcony. It’s at the bottom of the beer you drink while swapping stories with a local land owner. It’s in the neon signs that line the French Quarter at night. Everyone gets sucked in. That’s the whole point of New Orleans.

What takes time to develop is an appreciation for the legend of New Orleans. An appreciation that, no matter how dirty, or unorthodox, or insanely confusing it gets, New Orleans is in control – and always has been. There’s nothing that has happened that she doesn’t know, and, thankfully for everyone who has experienced a few minutes of uninhibited Louisiana pleasure, she never tells a soul. Orleans never shares a secret.

And New Orleans has a lot of secrets.

My feelings haven’t changed a bit. I love that city, even if all I wanted to do after the first two days was come home. I love it in spite of itself.

Category: Travel, Vilhauer


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