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New Orleans: The City That Was

Beneath the frantic and putrid abyss of looters and bodies and desperation that New Orleans (search) became this week, there's a decadent city of crawfish bisque and sparkling jazz, a ferocious city that beat back the British army, a tenacious city that has survived plague and fires, a seductive and sultry and sweet place beloved by many.

It is, quite simply, one of a kind.

"In terms of the big cities of this country, New Orleans is clearly one of the cities with the most unique character," said Paul Farmer, executive of the American Planning Association (search). "What's happened goes well beyond the devastation of one city — it's a national tragedy."

Its singular ways date back to its French and Spanish history, its Caribbean character, its geographic diversity of lake and marshlands.

The city was born in 1718, a swampy French-Canadian outpost next to the mouth of the Mississippi River. In the ensuing years it would be held by both France and Spain before becoming the largest and richest city in the Confederacy, thanks in large part to its bustling international port.

But its location also made it vulnerable to attackers on sea.

In the brutal 1815 Battle of New Orleans, French and Spanish settlers joined soldiers, slaves, militia, Indians and even some pirates as they sheltered behind stacks of logs and cotton bales to defeat British invaders.

Soldiers weren't the only threats.

A plague of yellow fever, spread by mosquitoes, struck summer after summer in the mid-1800s, killing thousands of residents. Fires have all but leveled the city as well, and there have been deadly hurricanes and floods, although none on the scale of this week's disaster.

Despite it all, New Orleans has always been a city that entices, and those who come often stay. It has more native-born residents than any other major American city, and it's not uncommon to meet families who have been there for five generations — along with their neighbors.

Those who come for short durations — and there are more than 10 million visitors a year, and 3,000 business meetings and conventions — come to experience an exotic place that has been called America's only European city.

There's the pre-Lent revel of Mardi Gras (search), which generates a billion dollars in revenue every year. There's the naughty fun of Bourbon Street. And fine restaurants. And magnificent jazz — at the annual Jazz Fest, at jumping joints, even after funerals.

In fact, much that New Orleans flavor has been exported. Mardi Gras parties are ubiquitous now; dishes like gumbos and po'boys and jambalaya are featured in restaurants everywhere. And the music — from Louis Armstrong to B.B. King (search), from Fats Domino (search) to the Neville Brothers — is the soundtrack for our lives.

But beyond the historic architecture, the spice-laden cuisine and the beguiling voodoo underground, live close to 500,000 people, mostly poor (more than a quarter live in poverty), mostly black (more than 66 percent), clustered into 73 distinct neighborhoods.

Crime, even before the hurricane, was high. The murder rate has come down in recent years, but remains 10 times the national average. Last year, researchers had police fire 700 blank rounds in a city neighborhood one afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire.

"Maybe New Orleans should be nicknamed The Big Un-Easy, due to a high violent crime rate and a high unemployment rate. There's also a significant number of suicides and divorces," said Bert Sterling on his Best Places web site.

The city's school system is a shambles. The district almost went broke this past year — teachers nearly missed a paycheck — and 55 of the state's 78 worst schools are in New Orleans.

Dozens of school employees are under indictment for corruption. But then, corruption in New Orleans is nothing new — politicians, judges, the police have all been caught.

Still, New Orleans did not lose its luster. It had higher education (Tulane (search), University of New Orleans (search), Xavier (search)). It had the port that made it a city in the first place (fourth largest in the world, by gross tonnage).

And it still had that quality that inspired its unofficial motto — "Laissez les bons temps rouler" (Let the good times roll). Though it's too tough to remember now.

Pableaux Johnson, a food and travel writer from New Orleans, could only reminisce about his beloved city in the past tense as he watched the destruction on television with family and friends in a nearby city where they had evacuated.

"It was a human-scale metropolis," he said. "It had its own really vibrant set of cultures, of food and music and literature and people. It had an amazingly rich tradition and it had a good solid funkiness. You could get absolutely spiritual food for three bucks, listen to absolutely amazing music in the equivalent of house parties."

Joe Lastie, a drummer with the legendary New Orleans Preservation Hall (search) Jazz Band, holed up in an Atlanta hotel with his family, somberly waiting to hear from clarinetist Ralph Johnson, pianist Rickie Monie and trumpeter John Brunious.

Lastie's band, named after the venerable music venue in the heart of the French Quarter, is known for its spirited shows around the world where Lastie and his bandmates, blowing their horns and clashing their cymbals, dance right off the stage and into the audience to lead a rollicking, joyful march around the theater.

"I go around the world sharing the joy that is New Orleans," he said. "And because of that joy, I know my city is going to survive. The New Orleans people are the type of people, well, you can't keep them down. Through the joy of the music and the spirit of the people, we're always going to bounce back."