New Orleans, City of Dreams

In Lafayette Cemetery Number One in New Orieans, bright green vines grow out of the cracks in the graves, which are above ground, made of red brick covered with whitewashed plaster. The whitewash is powdery and comes off on your hands and sometime when the green vines grow big, they break off chunks of the plaster on the graves and the red brick shows through.

Lafayette Number One is one of the old cemeteries in New Orleans-some of the wounds on the gravestones are in French-but most people these days are buried in huge stretch of contiguous cemeteries near the city limits where the graves are granite covered with neatly trimmed grass. There is no white plaster that cracks and marks your hands, and no vines that insinuate themselves around the stone and grass. Everything, in short, is as it should be.

But that is not to say that Lafayette Cemetery Number One does not have its admirers. One of them is a photographer I know who, the last time I saw him and asked him how he was doing, smiled broadly, spread his arms and said, "I've decided Im going to become the chronicler of the decay of New Orieans". He was answering my question pobliquely; that is to say, he was saying he was happy. He had just combleted a sort of spiritual apprenticeship another, older photographeer who had spent his life taking pictures of old plantations crumbling to dust and being overtaken by vines up the Mississippi River a ways, and it was all starting to make sense to my friend.

It's easiest to describe what people like about New Orieans in terms of images rather than reasons, because the reasons often done't make a great deal of sense. Harper's magazine last year printed a long and comprehensive article that compared America's 50 major cities according to a series of criteria that made perfectly good sense-things having to do with education, income levels, population density, and so forth-and New Orieans not only came out near the bottom but also, judging from the Harper's critreris, had very litle to recommend itself. Forced to defend the city, I find my mind funning toward gravestones of white flaky plaster covered by intruding vines, but usually I find it hard to tell people about them.

There are, however, more articulate defenders of the city, people who boost it in public but privately worry about it. New Orleans, being something of a relic, is an extraordinarily self-conscious city, and people there are always thinking about it and fretting about how it is going to the dogs.


There are two major camps; those who are worried that New Orleans will become another Houston, big, ugly, impersonal, rich, obsessed with growth; and those who are worried that it will become another Savannah, old, genfeel, shabby, and dying. The two groups are constantly at war and their battles have for the last decade been the focal point of the intellectual life of the city; each claims to want economic growth within the framework of historic preservation, but in their hearts each seems to see the two forces, growth and preservation, as mutually exclusive. Thus the growth forces are always dreaming up new projects and tying to implement them; and the preservation forces are atying to stop the projects because they invoive tearing down old buildings.

The preservationists perspective on the city is a curious one; while northern cities celebrate their cultural attractions or ethnic mixes, New Orieans celebrates its architecture. One of the unusual things about the city is the way it defines itself according to its physical presence, the way people there perceive industrialization. say, in terms of skyscrapers and demolition rather than jobs or money. That is not, of course, the way the growth advocates think; their terms are economic ones, and while the preservationists see New Orieans's physical environment threatened, the growth people see the economy as what is really in danger.

New Orieans is one of the oldest cities in America and was long ago one of the largest as well, and it feeds now off of what it was as much as what it is. It's still an old city-most of its residential areas probably look much like they ded 50 years ago-and its second-biggest source of income, besides the port, is tourism. All this bothers the growth advocates a great deal; they like to attract the tourists, of course (the preservationists hate tourists) but they also like to wood industry and talk about how New Orieans is falling behind other Southern cities, a failure usually ascribed to a lack of dynamic leadership. The growth people are generally dynamic. The preservationists are not.

Like a lot of other things about New Orieans, the whole battle seems to border, if you think about it objectively, on the irrelevant. New Orleans has problems like other cities; perhaps not so much crime, but vast disparities in income and opportunity between the half of the city that is black and the half that is white. The schools are bad and, by and large, segregated; there is very little of the kind of premeditated city planning that produces parks and other objectively pleasant environments. There is not much of what usually passes for intellectual and cultural life-good universities, symphonics, things like that-and politics is more of a spectator sport than a process of responsible democracy. The New Orieans City Council, for instance, has delayed its elections for two years now because it refuses to comply with federal law and change its quaint and cunning division of the city, which keeps a strong white majority in four of five councilmanic districts.

It would all make abundant sense if everybody hated it in New Orieans, if there were a perpetual atmosphere of crises, if the newspapers could call the city a tinderbox, it people left the city in droves-but none of that happens. No riots, no suburbs to speak of. Things work out, people go their way, and to deal with it all you can talk about architecture or you can talk about images. If youn wanted to try to rationalize you could say that New orleans is more spread out than most cities, that vitually all buldings where people live are no higher than three stories and are surrounded by at least a little space and built attractively; and that it has a long standing tradition of unselfconscious ethnic mixing. But it's harder to make sense of than that.

The last time I was there I went to visit a friend who lives in a building in the French Quarter that everyone calls The Skyscraper because it is four stories tall and when it was built 150 years ago it was the highest building in town. It's now a lowermiddle-class apartment building with rickety wooden stairways and thick plaster walls, reputedly haunted.

On this particular afternoon it was hot and wet out. perhaps 95 degrees. and the fourists, wearing garish T.shirts emblazoned with racy messages that they had bought in the junk shops that lined the streets, were streaming by, red and sweating. There was a mediocre jazz band playing down on the corner, loud. The band, which plays all day long on the cornrt below my friend's apartment, is run by the cotoner of New Orieans, a man named Dr.Frank Minyard who decided one day that being coroner was boring and so called some of his friends, put on a Hawaiian shirt, and went down to the corner of Royal and St.Peter Streets and began to play mediocre jazz, which although he is still coroner, he continues to do almost every nice day, to the unending annoyance of the junkshop owners. Dr.Minyard says he is reviving the spirit of New Orieans and keeping the eity from going to the dogs.

My friend was bothered by all this, as he had every right to be since the heat forced him to keep his windows open, but he had learned not to pay much attention to it. Instead he worried about Charies Darwin, who he had conciuded was the gratest fraud of the modern age. My friend had quit his job some time before to devote his time to refuling Darwin, which he saw as his mission in life, so now he sits in his apartment and reads books about evolution and writes letters to Harvard professors trying to convince them that it's all a hoax. My friend said through the heat and the noise of the tourists and Dr.Minyard, New Orieans decaying all around him, that he was making substantial progress, and although I had no good reason to I believed him.