Monday, March 15, 2021

Virtual Vacation - New Orleans, USA

New Orleans, I've always said, is the only place in the United States where you'll find culture of any substance. But of course this isn’t true. There are pockets of organic, uncontrived character in every corner and plain of the American west where Native American traditions still survive.

Culture goes back a long way in the New Orleans area, further even than the earliest gumbo recipe. Watson Brake, in northern Louisiana, is a burial mound complex thatwas constructed over centuries by a hunter-gatherer society. Dating from about 3500 BC, they are a thousand years older than the Pyramids of Giza.

Sometime between 1700 and 1100 BC the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley built a series of concentric C-shaped rings with a few roundish mounds scattered about the edges. Collectively called Poverty Point, these archaeological treasures up near the northeast corner of Louisiana are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Floodwaters at the edge of the Bayou

Archaeological evidence found where the actual city of New Orleans now sits dates back to 400 AD and the Tchefuncte, pottery-making hunter-gatherers who lived near streams all over the Louisiana area. The Tchefuncte subsisted on game meat along with fish, clams and, evidently, alligator – but not shrimp or crawfish. Their culture and their crawdad-free gumbo lasted through to around 200 AD.

Subsequent Lower Mississippi Valley cultures and the Native Americans who perpetuated them flourished throughout the New Orleans region until the 17th Century when the French came to town. Comprised mainly of explorers, traders and fur trappers, these  envahisseurs moved in, set up shop, and eventually built a fort on a midden, the scholarly term for a pile of animal bones, shells, and other forms of human waste.

So it came to be that in 1718, on this heap of detritus, the city of Nouvelle Orleans was founded.

The Big Busy

Early on, the town of New Orleans basically equaled today’s French Quarter. Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, a French priest and historian who had no interest in converting the Native Americans (but showed an oddly keen desire to turn the Japanese onto Jesus), described New Orleans in 1721 “as a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators.”

Of course, this no longer describes the French Quarter, just Bourbon Street and one stretch of the Rue de Chartres.

In 1722 a hurricane blew down most of the wretchedness, but the plucky French built it back up. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War (which lasted nine years), Britain took over the area and quickly gave it to the Spanish in exchange for Florida. Spain and France then began playing capture the flag, fighting over the town when it wasn't being ravaged by fire. After the twin blazes of 1788 and 1794, the buildings of New Orleans were rebuilt using brick instead of the colonial-era wood. Many of these structures still stand today.

In 1803 French control of the New Orleans region was tenuous at best. Before the Spaniards could wrest it back Napoleon sold New Orleans to the US, along with over 825,000 square miles that didn't even belong to France, in the Louisiana Purchase. "This transaction gives you pre-emptive rights to steal the natives' land from here to Canada," Napoleon explained, adding a quiet "Americains stupides" as he handed his quill to James Monroe, who proceeded to sign the worst real estate deal of the New World since a Dutchman bought Manhattan Island from a group of Canarsee Indians who didn’t even own it, they were just over from Brooklyn, there to spend the day in SoHo.

Since the Americans bought New Orleans the town has survived the 1811 German coast Uprising, the War of 1812, the Civil War, street riots in 1866, flooding in 1882, the Robert Charles Riots of 1900, a series of epidemics (malaria, cholera, smallpox, yellow fever), more hurricanes, more flooding, more race riots, and a whole lot of debauchery by stupid, drunk tourists (the ranks of which I have never joined more than three times).

Creole Salad with French Dressing and a Slice of Apple Pie

As a major port city, New Orleans had a knack for attracting a mix of immigrants. Along with your white bread American colonialists there were Africans, Haitians (coming over in the wake of the Haitian Revolution) and the curious, colorful spectrum of individuals that a lazy writer would simply call ‘Creole’.

British travel writer Jonathan Raban, who is not lazy, once wrote that “In Venice, one never loses the sense that life is being staged for the onlooker.” I hesitate to disagree with Raban since he has won one more Thomas Cook Travel Book Award than I have, but when I was in Venice the only impression I got was that the people who lived there just wanted the onlookers to leave.

That is not the case in New Orleans, where you get that exhibitionist vibe everywhere you go.

As long as that everywhere is in the French Quarter.

Not All That is Bronze Was Benign

Contrasting with the funk and freestyle of the French Quarter are the groomed grounds of Jackson Square, punctuated by a statue of "Major General Andrew Jackson" riding high on his horse. Backed by the understated facade and the pencil-point spires of Saint Louis Cathedral, this stately rendition of the once-future President catches the eye and inspires thoughts of "Well what was so great about him?"

That's what this once-anti-historian was thinking anyway.

As a military leader Andrew Jackson led campaigns all over the young United States, expanding and strengthening the young nation's territory from Florida to the banks of the Mississippi. In the 1815 Battle of New Orleans he commanded a force made up of Army regulars, Navy seamen, and Marines; militia members and volunteers from Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee, including several hundred African-Americans; a unit of Choctaw Indians; and a band of pirates thrown in for good measure. Though heavily outnumbered, Jackson and his troops repelled advancing British troops and held onto New Orleans for America - eighteen days after the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the War of 1812.

For this, Andrew Jackson sits on his horse forever, in the middle of the French Quarter, in the park that bears his name.

Less bronze-worthy is the fact that Jackson owned around 300 slaves during his life, and is known to have offered rewards to anyone who captured a fugitive slave. As a special bonus he threw in an extra ten dollars for giving the runaway one hundred lashes (offer good for up to thirty dollars).

Jackson also had a reputation for imprisoning political dissenters and executing military deserters, and was the architect behind the Trail of Tears, a series of roads that Native Americans, after being removed from their land, were forced to walk in the course of being relocated to Oklahoma.

Another Side to the City

The French Quarter is often the first thing that comes to mind for many people when they hear the name New Orleans. Others may think of shrimp gumbo, or the Saints, or that all-American creation called jazz.

Then there are those who think of Katrina.

The last time I visited New Orleans was in 2011, two weeks into a drive across the country with a sculptor who was hauling a quarter-ton, fourteen-foot cross from Los Angeles to New York City on the back of his pickup truck. Just your typical road trip.

Katrina was six years prior, but what she left behind still remained.

I got just a glimpse of the devastation Katrina had wrought. I could hardly imagine the full scale of her fury. But I saw with my own eyes something that a hurricane could not destroy.

We'd added New Orleans to our cross-country route to stop by, on invitation, Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church, a couple miles and a world away from the frenzy of French Quarter. The church was fully functional, but the school next door had yet to reopen.

Spend a little time with the people of the parish and you'd never know anything had gone wrong.

Mass went on for close to two hours. Half of that was taken up by singing and clapping and the exchange of handshakes and hugs.

"Katrina hit us hard," a man would say to me later. His smile and his spirit were equally infective. "But thanks to God we're still here."

For all there was to see in my limited time and my limited view, this is what I remember most about New Orleans.

See Naples and die, says the proverb. My view of things is that you should see New Orleans, and then try to live as much longer as ever you can.” -- George Augustus Sala

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