1. Environmental
March 4, 2016updated 20 Jul 2021 10:55am

On New Orleans, and the resurgence of the American city

By Frederick Kuo

“Without New Orleans, there would be no America.”

-Keith Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band

America boasts many great cities. New York, city of brash talkers and big doers. San Francisco, city of thinkers and imaginers. Los Angeles, city of glamour and big dreamers.

But New Orleans has always stood apart, with its own unique place in the American story. It is a city which has always embodied “otherness” and exoticness in the American fabric. Yet it has also been the originator of many indispensably “American” creations, from its renowned cuisine to its musical traditions.

The “Big Easy” is one of the few American cities which has been able to draw in immigrants and influences from around the world, and not only to have absorbed them, but to have created a uniquely regional identity that’s taken on a life of its own, nearly completely separate from its original influences.

A little over 10 years ago, New Orleans, which is perhaps sited in one of the worst spots in the world to build a city, suffered from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. The city was brought to its knees, as the majority of its population fled to other cities in Texas and across the south. Some even questioned the wisdom of rebuilding at all.

A decade later, however, New Orleans has recovered to nearly 90 per cent of its pre-Katrina population. And it is once again, as it always has done, ambling forward in its own quintessentially New Orleanian rhythm and pace.

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The city of “the other”

When New Orleans was incorporated into the United States in 1803, it had already spent nearly a century as a coveted port under the rule of the French and Spanish empires. Established by the French in 1718, on native Chitimacha land, the city quickly grew into an important port commanding access to the great Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico.

Even before the burgeoning American nation absorbed the vast swathe of territory known as the Louisiana Purchase, the great strategists of the age were aware of the future economic and political importance of New Orleans. Napoleon Bonaparte famously claimed that “whoever controls New Orleans, controls the fate of the continent”.

But soon after he spoke, Haiti became the site of the first successful slave revolt in the Americas, an event which led to the decimation of France’s colonial military. The revolt created the conditions in which Napoleon was forced to end his dream of a “New France”, and sell his fledgling North American empire to the rising American Republic.

Surrounded by water: New Orleans from above. Image: Google.

The result was that, unlike many of America’s great cities such as New York or San Francisco, New Orleans didn’t enter the Anglo-centric American nation as an empty slate to build on. It was already an adult and foreign city, which had to learn the ways of its new country.

In the years following its incorporation into the United States, New Orleans received a further influx of Francophone migrants fleeing persecution in Haiti, Cuba and other areas of the Caribbean. These included white French and their slaves, as well as French speaking free Blacks.

The slaves who arrived in New Orleans were unlike many of the Black slaves elsewhere in the South, who were long acculturated to American ways. Many of the new arrivals had more recent African roots, and came from Caribbean colonies where African slaves had formed large majorities and been better able to retain many of their traditional African folk religion and traditions.

And, reflecting the more liberal attitudes on interracial socialising practiced by the Spaniards and French in their colonies, New Orleans has always adopted a more relaxed attitude on racial segregation than was evident elsewhere in the South. Slaves were allowed to congregate and socialise in the city’s Congo Square; their descendants eventually mixed European musical instruments with their African rhythms to form the first globally relevant American musical form, Jazz.

The city’s slaves, more connected to their West African origins than those elsewhere in the South, were also able to retain and practice many of their traditional folk beliefs. Chief among these was Voodoo, a living religion that also contained a certain superstitious ritualism which has largely defined its notoriety in the Western mind.

The power of voodoo was not limited solely to the Black population, however. Much of New Orleanian elite society were believers in its magic and frequently consulted voodoo masters in order to solve their problems. By the mid-19th Century, voodoo priestesses such as Marie Laveau came to enjoy heights of power, social status and influence that was unimaginable for a Black woman elsewhere in the Antebellum South.

The cultural melee of New Orleans and the surrounding bayou also produced Francophone ethnic groups which came to exert a strong influence on its regional identity. Creoles, the white and mixed-race descendants of urban French elites, always featured prominently in the city’s civic life.

A street car on Canal Street in 2009. Image: Getty.

Meanwhile, the surrounding Bayou was dominated by the Cajuns, descended from Acadian French Canadian refugees; their lifestyle borrowed heavily from what they had learned from the native Chitimacha, who had been honing their swamp survival skills for thousands of years.

To further spice the melting pot, New Orleans also served as a destination for many early Filipino, Latin, Spanish and Caribbean immigrants who were rarely found elsewhere in the United States. These disparate groups ultimately contributed to establishing New Orleans as the most exotic metropolis in the American fabric.

The uniquely American city

Despite, or perhaps because of, the qualities that separated it from other American cities, New Orleans has historically made an incomparable donation to much of what can be defined as “uniquely American”.

From jazz to jambalaya, the products of New Orleanian culture are not simply derivatives of various immigrant cultures, but a truly American concoction created by the gradual mixing, simmering and fusion. It’s akin to the process of cooking gumbo, mixing different cultural influences to create something completely that was previously completely unknown.

Many American cities are famous for their hometown dishes. Chicago is known for the deep dish, New York for its dirty water hot dog, Philadelphia for its cheesesteak. But no other city in America can boast of having its own unique cuisine. Cajun or Creole, Southern Louisiana is home to a truly American culinary culture that boasts an abundance of diversity, as well as a variety of cooking methods, enough to rival the national cuisines of many countries.

New Orleans’ reputation as an American cultural capital has other roots in its strong association with jazz. The genre can trace its source to several different sets of cultural influences.

The first was that of the African slaves, who were allowed to congregate in and around Congo square and practice their traditional folk music, which consisted of a variety of rhythm and beats. Secondly, the social scene of New Orleans in the mid-19th century was dominated by European brass bands; marching bands were prominent in the city’s many elaborate outdoor funerals and civic events. Local music was also deeply influenced by the contribution of Afro-Latino currents from Cuba, defined by the Habanera genre.

The melee of all of these cultural currents eventually produced the quintessential jazz sound. It was the first musical form which allowed America to stop being a cultural importer and imitator, and instead defined it as a global cultural leader. Jazz was exported to Europe and beyond, transforming musical culture throughout the world.

Katrina and afterwards

The mouth of the Mississippi river consists primarily of lowlands submerged by water, creating the ubiquitous bayous the region is known for. This makes it particularly hard to establish a city, especially the size of one required to serve as a commanding port for a river as important as the Mississippi.

And so, New Orleans sits on ground that is an average of six feet below sea level. It is perhaps the worst place in the world to locate a large metropolis. Perhaps the precarious nature of its existence might have contributed to the lackadaisical and carefree attitude that the city is known for; but it also makes it especially vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes.

The week after Katrina. Image: Getty.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, most of the city’s population evacuated. A total of 1.5m people were evacuated from the wider region; under 200,000 sat out to weather the storm. The New Orleans based Data Center estimates that, during the ensuring disaster, 80 per cent of the city was flooded.

This had a severe and debilitating impact on the viability of the city’s economy, which had already been struggling for decades even prior to Katrina. Homes were left unlivable, businesses shuttered, even steadfast infrastructure such as government buildings and hospitals faced significant damage, rendering day to day function nearly impossible. Nearly 70 per cent of the city’s housing units – 134,000 homes – were damaged. In the first 10 months after the disaster, the city lost 95,000 jobs.

In all, Katrina resulted in a mammoth $125bn in damage. That figure is especially shocking when you consider that the city’s total GDP clocked in at just $80.3bn in 2014.

In this climate grew doubts about the city’s future, and some even questioned whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all. Buttressed by doubts over the city’s topographical viability, and its poor economic performance over recent decades as various shipbuilding and manufacturing industries have disappeared, many argued that Katrina had dealt the city a final blow – that the investment required to revive New Orleans would not be matched by its potential.

But the citizens of this resilient city returned and rebuilt. Due to the unique culture and society of New Orleans, many could not imagine adapting to life elsewhere. As of this year, the city’s metro population reached 1.25m, roughly 90 per cent of its pre-Katrina population.

In some key measures, the economy has largely recovered, with the number of jobs reaching 91 per cent of pre-Katrina levels. However, job growth has been dominated by the hospitality sector, with restaurants and hotels catering to the city’s leisure and tourism sectors. Nearly 60,000 are employed by the restaurant sector alone, which singlehandedly accounts for more than 10 per cent of all jobs in the region – a higher proportion than before Katrina.

With hospitality jobs paying an average of just $18,019 per year, and the city continuing to suffer from a dearth of middle income jobs, there are still questions about the city’s future prosperity. New Orleans is increasing seeing a divide between the haves and the have nots, with the city’s wealthier households, generally white, increasing in number compared with a decade earlier.

The city has actively promoted projects which it has hoped would revitalise its economy and bring forward new industries that could help it diversify its economy. These ranged from the much touted Silicon Bayou, an effort to establish a genuine tech startup culture in the city, to the building of a medical centre on Canal Street which civic leaders hope would catalyse a new “biotech corridor”. But the results have been modest, and the city’s economy continues to be unhealthily dependent primarily on its restaurant and hospitality industry. 

But rays of light are emerging. Business start up rates have climbed to 471 per 100,000 people, significantly higher than the national average of 288. In addition, the annual number of tourists has reached 9.5m last year, nearly equivalent to pre-Katrina levels, and the trajectory is upward. Despite all the challenges, the city’s resurgence and rehabilitation looks set to continue as its infrastructure has been rebuilt and a spirit of entrepreneurialism takes hold.

Why New Orleans matters

The Big Easy’s contribution to the American imagination are far out of proportion to its size. The metropolitan region has a population of under 1.3m, which puts it between Richmond, VA and Raleigh, NC.

But this ranking does little to reflect New Orleans’ importance in the formation of American culture. As Tennessee Williams famously quipped, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

In terms of its GDP output and its importance in the industries which define American global might and leadership, New Orleans plays a marginal role. It is a medium sized city which has experienced several decades of gradual economic decline, then been hit with a disastrous life-altering tragedy, which it has spent the last decade struggling to emerge from.

But New Orleans and its resurgence plays a central role in the American story: it is the indispensable “American” city, responsible for the origins of much of what defines us as Americans.

To let it decline into irrelevance is to abandon an invaluable and irreplaceable piece of the American fabric. It is true that the resurgence of the New Orleans economy pales in comparison to the financial might of New York or the techie vibrancy of San Francisco. But its comeback is no less than critical for the health of the American soul: without New Orleans, there would be no “America” as we know it at all.

Frederick Kuo is a real estate broker, who spends his spare time writing about the American city. You can find more of his work here.

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