What Exactly Is New Orleans?

Jackson Square

Since moving to New Orleans in September, I’ve been struck by how very town-like this ‘city’ is. It’s decidedly lacking in the metropolitan aura of Chicago or Seattle, or even San Francisco which, at not even 50 square miles, is tiny but feels big. (By contrast, New Orleans is nearly 170 square miles.) This is the kind of place that you can’t help but run into people you know pretty much everywhere you go.

New Orleans and Nashville have a lot of obvious similarities. Both are southern cities that draw in outsiders, tourists and transplants alike. Both make their bread and butter on the music and drinking industries. And both reticently face the changing social norms of America, and the world (New Orleans is surprisingly conservative considering its reputation). But whereas Music City draws musicians interested in a ‘professional’ career, locals in New Orleans seem skeptical of anyone who makes too much money as a musician or artist of any kind. This town thrives on a local music scene that stays local. Bands from the area predominantly tour in this city, while touring bands from outside the city play all around it but rarely here (it’s notable that Leonard Cohen is playing his first ever show here tomorrow night.)

There is no doubt that the locals love their city. This is true of every city, of course. Chicagoans, Seattle-lites, New Yorkers, they will all tell you why their particular hub is the place to be. But the Nahleans locals also have this tendency to live in a constant state of nostalgia. This city was much better before. Before what? Katrina, sure, but even before that. In the 90s, or further back, that was the heyday. Now, this isn’t unique to New Orleans (LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is a sharp ode to a pre-clean up Big Apple), but there is a tangible feeling that no one here thinks the city is as good as it once was.

Since Katrina, the number of restaurants in the city has purportedly doubled. An optimist would certainly peg that as a sign of financial growth that could bring the city into a more modern, stable future. But ask most locals, and they’ll tell you that the increase in restaurants has not brought with it an increase in money. Servers are making much less income than they used to, and while new establishments bring with it more jobs, that doesn’t really seem to please the locals. (That the culture down here stridently de-emphasizes ‘straight’ jobs for more artistic occupations certainly plays a part in the dampened enthusiasm.)

It doesn’t help that all outside money is met with the same sort of weary distrust with which the Native Americans must have met the Spaniards.

This all begs the question, then, what is New Orleans? Is it a city in decline or a city on the verge of a new birth? The impression I get from talking from people who have lived here for years is that it’s the former, yet if any outsider (myself, for instance) were to make any such assertion, that person would certainly be met with scorn and counterarguments. It’s not unique to this city, by any means, but New Orleans clearly has “We can talk shit on us but you can’t”-itis.

I still have five more months in the city, so I’m by no means ready to offer my definitive conclusions on the city. All I can say so far is that this is an odd city in a state of flux. It believes it has a right to exist exactly as it always has, and while I’m sympathetic to the desire to preserve an important and idiosyncratic part of America’s history, I don’t believe it’s realistic for the rest of the country to keep pumping funds and interest into a city whose infrastructure is so firmly planted in the unchanging past. 

(If another Katrina-sized storm demolishes this city, I suspect our increasingly financially conservative nation will be even less willing to offer support than they were the first time.)

New Orleans is kind of like your crazy, adventurous friend who you admire and look up to when you’re a teenager, but now you’re in your thirties and you’re thinking, “Maybe there’s more to life than partying all the time.”

Like I said, I have five more months in the city, and it’s heading into the season of warm (but not quite hot) weather and outside festivals. A lot can still happen to help shape my memory and opinion of the city.

But for now, I’m left wondering, what exactly is this city?