Iconic city and melting pot
New Orleans, in the news for the wrong reasons, is known for its multicultural heritage, music and cuisine.
PHOTO: AP, REUTERS
DISTINGUISHED CITY: Landmarks like the St. Louis Cathedral, the French Quarter and the Superdrome still stand tall though Hurricane Katrina has battered New Orleans.
FOR weeks now, I have been listening with dismay to the news of a city fighting for its survival. New Orleans, my first home in the United States, has always been vulnerable to flooding from storm surges since it lies below sea level. Surrounded by huge water-bodies on three sides, it is protected by a system of levees. The strong winds of the recent Category 4 hurricane created two major breaches in the levees. Soon the soup-bowl shaped city started filling up. It could be months before it returns to normal but in a sense, this charmed city might have taken a permanent hit.
A party town
Tourism has been one of the main revenue-earners and New Orleans had profited from its image as a party town. Visitors to the city know that a "Hurricane" is the potent signature cocktail of the famous Pat O'Brien's bar on St. Peter's. The adjoining Bourbon Street celebrates Mardi Gras every evening, minus the parades. The revelry is like a repressed adolescent's fantasy come true. The picturesque French Quarter (topmost in the set of two horizontal pictures), where all this action is located, also offers more sophisticated entertainment. Its many fine restaurants serve local Cajun and Creole specialties. Bars and music clubs where bands play soulful music are open until dawn. Typically these are places cheerful locals head to when they hear of yet another storm brewing off the Gulf coast.
In late August, when the warnings went out for Hurricane Katrina, most residents paid heed and left. Tourists seemed a little confused about their options since they were supposed to leave shortly anyway and did not want to take a detour to Houston. They hadn't had their fill of this old city's charm yet. Undeniably, this iconic city has innumerable attractions. Though poor economically, culturally it is one of the richest places in the U.S.
The spectacular French Quarter
Even to someone fresh off the boat like me, it was clear that New Orleans was quite unlike the rest of America. My ideas were based, of course, on Hollywood movies but this city seemed a lot more like home. It was as hot as Chennai, for one. At dusk, the giant uptown oaks with the Spanish moss waving in the wind looked spooky but reassuring. They reminded me of the Adyar Theosophical Society's banyan shoots just waiting to hit the ground. Streetcars/trams trundle rhythmically in the middle of an avenue flanked by stately garden homes. The last stop the French Quarter, the oldest section of the city is where you find the real New Orleans.
The architecturally distinct, brightly painted buildings with wrought-iron balconies, speak of its colourful past. America, like India, was once a British colony with the French vying with the Empire for a foothold. This city was under the French for a long time and the influence still hasn't worn off. A sign outside one of these establishments proclaims that the owner had offered it as a refuge to the deposed Bonaparte. The Emperor never made it to America but the "Napoleon House" is famous for its bar and upscale dining.
The St. Louis Cathedral (the vertical picture) stands aloof from all the activities around the Quarter's main square. A bunch of assorted psychics offers to tell fortune by reading palms or tarot cards. Painted mimes swear at stingy tourists. Café du Monde, across the street, has been in business for nearly a century. It closes only on Christmas Day and when an occasional hurricane "passes too close to the city". The cafe serves chicory-laced coffee and square beignets dusted with powdered sugar, all day. Hard to pronounce but great to eat, beignet means doughnut in French. Last year, Krispy Kreme, the fast-growing doughnut chain, opened a store right opposite this legendary café. In any other American city the opening would have been news. The police would have had to regulate the traffic of sweet-toothed customers for weeks. If managers brought in a box for an office meeting there would be a surge in their popularity ratings. But in New Orleans, the doughnut conglomerate actually had to close down the store. No one cared for its sweet delights. They had their beignets, thank you!
Jazz and history
With the doughnut battle, the eccentric Quarter proved that it will always remain a stickler for tradition, its Bohemian image notwithstanding. In the unpretentious clubs like the Preservation Hall, traditional jazz lives on. There are a few benches but patrons stand and listen to the music, late into the night. Outside many wait in line for their turn. Jazz had travelled up the Mississippi to become the music of America but people often return to its birthplace to pay homage.
The cemeteries of the city's most illustrious names are a short walk away from all the music. Voodoo queen Mary Laveau is buried there, as is the family of Charles Claiborne who, at 22, became the governor of the state. Following the Louisiana Purchase, no veteran administrator wanted this job of bringing the State into the American-fold. These cemeteries are marvels of engineering. No one has reported on the fate of the old dead in recent weeks. Understandably, primary concern is with the living.
How many of the historical sites which give the city its unique charm will live on in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is a question no one can answer just yet. For many residents, this is the very first time they have fled from a hurricane.
What will they return to?
Send this article to Friends by