The Local Angle
A eulogy for New Orleans
by Jack Neely
Two months ago I took what I hope was not my last trip to the gorgeous, hideous, complicated old city of New Orleans.
On that trip, I walked down Canal Street toward the river, turned near the casinos, and proceeded to a place called the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. I didn’t have a convention to attend, but being from Knoxville I was curious about the legacy of the New Orleans’ World’s Fair. It opened 18 months after the Knoxville World’s Fair closed, and was the last world’s fair in America.
The theme of the New Orleans World’s Fair was “Fresh Water as a Source of Life.” That fair was all about water, with water rides and scholarly symposia about the prudent management of water. One of the fair’s theme sculptures was a giant head, turned on its side, with water flowing out of the eyes, like tears.
The New Orleans World’s Fair left even fewer traces than Knoxville’s fair did. I’d been told the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was the fair’s only architectural remnant. It stands out as the dullest building downtown, one of the few buildings in New Orleans that evokes nothing at all. Two decades ago, its architects never guessed that it would ever be a place of passion, that the cameras of the world would be trained on it, as people shouted and wept and died there, of heat or dehydration or shock.
America’s last two World’s Fair cities developed as two very different 18th-century river towns with trade connections, personal connections. People named Farragut and Jackson and Claiborne left footprints in both places. Blount and Sevier kept wary eyes on New Orleans. Knoxville’s early manufactured goods, especially liquor, ended up all the way down the river, as some of our barge cargo does now.
Our French Broad River is named that because it was on the French side of the mountains, our side, the side once claimed by the colonial authorities in New Orleans. Water that landed on Knoxville as rain is now in the streets of Orleans Parish.
The two cities addressed their rivers in opposite ways, both of them problematic. Knoxville’s prudent settlers, circumspect about the unpredictable river, built the city on top of a bluff. Knoxville’s location was a problem during the steamboat era; cargo had to be hauled up the hills. People still complain about these decisions made in the 1790s, the steep hike up and down to the riverfront, and the Old City, and the cheap parking. And then we have to keep rebuilding the viaducts that connect downtown to the rest of the city. But Knoxville’s central business district has never flooded.
The French built New Orleans right down by the water, between the big river and the big lake. It worked wonderfully for trade, and, in spite of the storms that hammered the place every year or two, a lot of people got rich. When they built levees, and drained the swamps with pumps, they began building under the level of the water. It’s currently the biggest urban-planning problem in America.
New Orleans endured disaster after disaster over the years, mostly those big winds from the Gulf of Mexico. That the city still has so many old wooden 19th-century houses is something that’s hard to account for. Even some of the city’s poorest live in what we would consider historic houses. When you look around New Orleans ghettos you don’t feel quite right about calling them pretty.
When Orleanians talk about rebuilding, they say, sure we’ll rebuild. Amsterdam’s below sea level, too. It’s the handiest example of another metropolis below sea level, and it works. Of course, Amsterdam’s not in a hurricane path.
In 1965, my grandparents were stuck in New Orleans, unable to evacuate in time to get out of the way of Hurricane Betsy. They talked about it for the rest of their lives. This past July, many evacuated New Orleans because they thought Hurricane Dennis would hit it. The hurricanes have given New Orleans a seductive fatalism. They make life seem urgent.
Last week, my son was there when the clouds started rolling in. He got out just in time. He is, or was, a student at Loyola University. It’s next to Tulane, on St. Charles Avenue. Which is, or was, the most beautiful street in America.
The TV news here was looking for the local angle. Gasoline higher at the Knoxville pumps, something about TVA’s power grid, whether Katrina might bring us that rain we were needing.
I’m prejudiced, but I think the local angle is that it’s New Orleans. More Knoxvillians know New Orleans than know, say, Maynardville. Stop someone on Gay Street, and chances are they can recommend a restaurant in the Quarter. Thousands of people here have family there, or business interests. In downtown bars and restaurants all last week I overheard New Orleans stories, recent and long ago. New Orleans is in our hearts.
The time before last that I was in New Orleans, I was alone at a bar on Decatur Street, sitting next to a couple of tourists from Australia. We got to talking about all sorts of things, especially about New Orleans. It always makes for handy conversation. Are you from here, they said. Without thinking, I said yes. And then corrected myself, and said, well, Knoxville. Talking to Australians, I felt local enough.
Last week I caught myself thinking, well, New Orleans was past its prime anyway. This summer I feared that New Orleans was becoming a cliché. More than ever before, it seemed touristy in ways that were sometimes cloying, sometimes venal. Of course, I’ve always been there as a tourist. Maybe I’d always been a sucker for it.
But even through jaundiced eyes, the place was still thrilling. Most of Bourbon Street may be an X-rated Gatlinburg, but one where if you take a wrong turn and wander a couple of blocks, you may find yourself in the middle of almost feudal poverty. Or a couple of blocks in another direction, to find 200-year-old Spanish townhouses, scuffed by the terrible weather, where proud eccentric old Creoles live, where beyond weatherbeaten doors waiters wear black ties and serve whiskey and oysters and wonderful etoufee in quiet courtyards.
New Orleans, good and bad, was real.
Is real. I’m trying to be optimistic.