Why New Orleans Matters
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Every place has its history. But what is it about New Orleans that makes it more than just the sum of the events that have happened there? What is it about the spirit of the people who live there that could produce a music, a cuisine, an architecture, a total environment, the mere mention of which can bring a smile to the face of someone who has never even set foot there?
What is the meaning of a place like that, and what is lost if it is lost?
The winds of Hurricane Katrina, and the national disaster that followed, brought with them a moment of shared cultural awareness: Thousands were killed and many more displaced; promises were made, forgotten, and renewed; the city of New Orleans was engulfed by floodwaters of biblical proportions—all in a wrenching drama that captured international attention. Yet the passing of that moment has left too many questions.
What will become of New Orleans in the months and years to come? What of its people, who fled the city on a rising tide of panic, trading all they knew and loved for a dim hope of shelter and rest? And, ultimately, what do those people and their city mean to America and the world?
In Why New Orleans Matters, award-winning author and New Orleans resident Tom Piazza illuminates the storied culture and uncertain future of this great and most neglected of American cities. With wisdom and affection, he explores the hidden contours of familiar traditions like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and evokes the sensory rapture of the city that gave us jazz music and Creole cooking. He writes, too, of the city's deep undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice, and of how its people endure and transcend those conditions. And, perhaps most important, he asks us all to consider the spirit of this place and all the things it has shared with the world—grace and beauty, resilience and soul. "That spirit is in terrible jeopardy right now," he writes. "If it dies, something precious and profound will go out of the world forever."
Why New Orleans Matters is a gift from one of our most talented writers to the beloved and important city he calls home—and to a nation to whom that city's survival has been entrusted.
its old name, Shakespeare Park, or the pressed-tin-lined Maple Leaf Bar up on Oak Street, where James Booker used to wring unbelievable sounds out of one of the worst pianos ever destroyed by the hands of man, or the old Glass House, or Vaughan’s, or long-gone and much beloved Little People’s in the Treme. You will find folks outside listening to the sounds from inside, taking a break from all the heat and noise, having a few laughs and talking with friends old and new. Mac Rebennack, better
their costumes, which they call “suits.” Nobody really knows the genesis of the Indians, although the oldest gang, the Creole Wild West, dates its founding to back in the late 1800s. Some say interest was stirred up by Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show; others claim that a bond was forged between escaped slaves and local Indians who sheltered them and gave them sanctuary. Nobody knows for sure, just as guesses as to the etymology of the Mardi Gras Indians’ characteristic patois are
more energetic, more lethargic, more violent, more passive, more insightful, more oblivious. I felt all these things, and I was in a place with heat, water, medicine, food, air-conditioning at the push of a button, people to help out, people to care, television to give me up-to-date news, friends and family bombarding me with calls and e-mails. What about the man I saw on television, walking down the street holding two young boys, his sons, by the hands, wearing only a ragged T-shirt, crying in
and bad), the violence, and the sense that one’s actions might conceivably have an effect on one’s environment. Like any frontier, it attracts adventurers, profiteers, romantics, desperadoes, and those who want to remake themselves in some way, to rewrite the map of possibility. It also has been attracting a startling number of idealistic and tough people from around the country, mostly young but not exclusively so, who see a chance to make a difference. Unlike most frontier towns, this one also
sidewalks and seemed to lean a little to one side, casting deep shadows, with names like Luthjen’s, Big 25, Mama Lou’s. In the formal portraits the men were dressed in their band uniforms, looking proudly straight at the camera. They seemed to know that they were worth something. They often held their instruments with a little flair, at a certain angle, never as if an afterthought or an appendage, but somehow as the point of their presence there. Often the photos were scratchy, the only copy of