New Orleans, someone once said, is a city that is always talking to itself, in constant conversation about its history, its future, and the changes along the way.
Add to the names of those who contribute to our civic dialogue that of Brian Boyles, vice president for content of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and author of “New Orleans Boom & Blackout: 100 Days in America’s Coolest Hotspot.”
Boyles, a Pittsburgh native, came to New Orleans for his undergraduate work at Tulane, where he studied history. Then it was off to New York for a stint in publishing at Simon and Schuster, work with the Williamsburg Art Nexus and the Gathering of the Tribes Gallery. But after watching Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath unfold on television, he felt a spark drawing him back to New Orleans.
For the past seven years, he’s been working in public programming at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, overseeing such events as a public discussion series on the topics of brass bands, the mayors of New Orleans, the media, the history of immigration, and offshore drilling.
“How can we step back and add to the conversation about the new New Orleans?” Boyles said. “We can go back and look at other ideas about the new New Orleans.”
That idea of “the new New Orleans” is at the heart of “New Orleans Boom & Blackout: 100 Days in America’s Coolest Hotspot,” which chronicles life in the city from Oct. 25, 2012, to February 3, 2013 — Super Bowl XLVII Sunday — and what was meant to be the city’s redemption song of branding itself anew post-Katrina.
And then came that third-quarter blackout.
“I didn’t enter into this knowing about the blackout, of course,” Boyles said. “But that doesn’t necessarily change the way America looked at New Orleans.”
In 100 days, Boyles covers myriad events: the taxicab drivers’ motorcade protest, the frustrations of home owners, shop owners, bar owners, mule carriage drivers in the French Quarter and CBD as construction was underway, the indictment of Ray Nagin, the changes at The Times-Picayune, the opening of the Loyola Avenue streetcar line, the unfolding of Bountygate, the rippling effects of the consent decree.
The pace of change, the sheer volume of major civic activity, is breathtaking. And then there was the last-minute transformation as media crews began to arrive and the Super Bowl machinery exploded into motion.
And all this time, the city was in constant discussion about its essential values and the striving toward an economic boom through tourism.
The cast of characters tempts a reader to say “only in New Orleans,” as well. James Carville and Mary Matalin, chairs of the Super Bowl committee, Saints owner Tom Benson, Jazzfest impresario Quint Davis, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — those are names most of us would recognize.
But there are other memorable voices, perhaps not so well known — those of Darryl Parlow of the To Be Continued Brass Band, exiled from its lucrative French Quarter street corner; Meg Lousteau of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, worried about the damage of construction to the architectural jewel of a neighborhood; mule buggy driver John Cosentino and his mule Shine; pedicab driver Marlo Barrea; Paul Tymphony of Hobnobber’s Restaurant and Bar; and the gang at Handsome Willy’s Bar and Lounge, where Boyles is a frequent DJ.
Mike the Tarot Card Reader offers what many might regard as essential New Orleans wisdom from its heart in Jackson Square: ”If it (the city) wants you, it’ll keep you. If it doesn’t want you, you can’t stay. It’ll either destroy you here or it’ll make you leave.”
The conversation about the new New Orleans goes on today, and Boyles has a personal stake in it: He and his wife Kimberly VanWagner and their 1-year-old son, Ivan, make New Orleans their home.
That passion and loyalty doesn’t cloud the measured intelligence and rigor Boyles brings to “New Orleans Boom & Blackout”; he loves the city but he seems to see it clearly.
“We all know that things have changed, but do we know the why and the how of it?” he says. “I want all of us to get a clearer picture of this period.”
And, as usual, Boyles says, the city itself sometimes seems to have the last word.
“That’s New Orleans,” he sayd. “Chance and mystery continue to play havoc on our best-laid plans.”
Susan Larson hosts WWNO’s The Reading Life and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.