It’s almost an article of faith among New Orleanians that their city is sui generis — one of a kind, special, unlike any other place in the world.
And since Hurricane Katrina, with a steady stream of wide-eyed newcomers calling the city home, the perception that New Orleans is exceptional seems only to have increased.
But is the city really so different?
Of course it is, said James Richard Jr., a cook at the Bywater restaurant Elizabeth’s. “New Orleans is the jewel of the world,” he said, adding that his perspective is heartily supported by his many new neighbors.
But not everyone is so sure. And some wonder whether the justifiable pride that New Orleanians have in their culture gives short shrift to some of the city’s more pressing problems.
Count among the skeptics Adolph Reed, a New Orleans native and University of Pennsylvania political science professor who was in town last week to keynote a Tulane University conference on the topic of New Orleans exceptionalism. While Reed cherishes the city’s flavors — he never misses a chance to dive into an oyster po-boy when he’s home — he worries that the city’s singular attributes have become fetishized and commodified.
A major theme of the conference was that the city may limit itself by focusing so tightly on its culture, while larger problems are sometimes overlooked. Tulane professor Matt Sakakeeny, who co-hosted the conference with Thomas Adams from the University of Sydney, said the organizers hoped to put New Orleans in proper context while shattering stereotypes.
“Our aim is to go beyond the caricature of New Orleans, as one friend put it, as if everyone in this city was a Mardi Gras Indian second-lining down the street, po-boy in hand, on the way to Jazz Fest,” quipped Sakakeeny.
The banal and the sublime
Similar stereotyping — and the broader question of the city’s uniqueness — has been a favorite topic of Tulane University geographer and author Rich Campanella, who brings a healthy skepticism to the question.
“Not all is picturesque and outrageous, nor was it ever. Much of ordinary life in Louisiana is just that: ordinary,” Campanella wrote in a recent piece published in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine.
When Reed hears his hometown described as exceptional, he said, the speaker generally goes on to cite a litany of cultural images that Reed sees as over-used: Mardi Gras krewes, St. Charles streetcars under a canopy of live oaks, brass bands, Creole cuisine and the Saints.
Often unmentioned are the things that can make life in New Orleans more difficult and more like life in any other struggling city: a low-wage service economy, rising rents, sky-high incarceration rates and gaping income and educational disparities.
Put another way, the city’s rich folkways can lead to self-congratulation rather than self-reflection.
“There’s truth to that,” former Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson said of the city’s tendency toward cultural boosterism. “We do tend to hide away from what our real reality is. I agree we have to look beyond it.”
But Johnson, a music and literature aficionado who used to close down his courtroom during Jazz Fest, believes that looking beyond culture shouldn’t mean turning your back on it.
“Regardless of all of the crap that is a part of us, it is what makes us us,” he said. “Not in any shape, form or fashion should we get away from it.”
Reed sees that, too, and it’s not that he dislikes the city’s cultural traditions — far from it. But he fears New Orleans culture is now packaged and viewed through what he calls “the ideological penumbra of touristic culture.”
In other words, the city’s essence is now a marketing tool.
A venerable narrative
The roots of this “New Orleans as exceptional” narrative are a century old, said Rien Fertel, who writes about Charles Gayarré’s circle of 19th century white Creole writers in his book “Imagining the Creole City,” which will be released in November.
“Gayarré always started his talks with a description of the rivers and the trees and a land filled with poetry, where there was poetry in the ground,” Fertel said.
Gayarré’s series of talks was titled “The Romance and Poetry of Louisiana,” and he ended up writing a four-volume history of Louisiana that included deep research alongside a narrative that was embellished to fit his romanticized view of his subject.
“He said he wanted to set Louisiana’s history in a glittering framework,” said Fertel, who sees the same words used to market Louisiana today, paired with photo spreads featuring jazz, Cajun country and food. “It’s how people are taught to describe this place before they even come here,” he said.
Allison Plyer, of the Data Center, who has crunched the city’s demographic numbers for nearly two decades, said the city is exceptional “only in terms of culture.” For the few indicators the Data Center keeps about culture, New Orleans is “well above the national average,” she said.
“We’re also well above the national average in incarceration,” Plyer said. “But we’re not different than other places in other measures of hardship, and those are glaring and need to be addressed.”
For all of New Orleans’ numerical similarities to places such as Cleveland, when Plyer looks up from her spreadsheets and PowerPoints, she sees a city that is special, she said. “And because it is special, I am interested in working to address issues of hardship and well-being here,” she said.
Tony Recasner, who heads Agenda for Children, said that because of the city’s small size and tight geography, the problems of the poor are often in plain view, just like the brass bands and parades. That proximity among people of all income levels contributes to high levels of volunteerism here, he thinks.
Still, he’s not sure whether New Orleanians understand how wide the divide is here. Most probably don’t know, for instance, that the city has one of the largest racial disparities in childhood poverty in the nation: 7 percent for white children versus 51 percent for black children.
While that’s troubling, it may not qualify as exceptional, Recasner said. It’s just the opposite, really. “When you look at the data, we look like lots of other cities that have a problem with race and class,” he said.
Saved by exceptionalism?
Reed has a game with his son these days. Whenever disaster strikes elsewhere in the world, they call each other on the phone after the earthquake, tornado or wildfire.
“I don’t know why the hell someone would want to live there,” they say, echoing the sentiments they heard from out-of-towners in 2005 after the levees gave way during Katrina, leaving much of New Orleans underwater.
Soon, a dominant counter-narrative emerged: “We can’t afford to let this special place die.”
Though that message may have helped the recovery in New Orleans, Reed wonders why perceived exceptionalism seemed to be a prerequisite for disaster assistance. Should cities with more pedestrian pedigrees — “Omaha? Decatur, Illinois?” — be allowed to wither in similar circumstances? he asks.
At Loretta’s Authentic Pralines shop in the French Market, Robert Harrison, son of Loretta, checked his oven and then discussed how the city’s laissez-faire spirit can mask the hard reality of a tourist-based economy that thrives on low wages.
“They can pay you pennies on the dollar because there’s so much turnover and so many others waiting for jobs,” he said. And even a storm threatening in the Gulf that keeps tourists away can leave half the town without a paycheck.
“We say, ‘Let the good times roll,’ ” he said. “But we got a lot of problems.”
Pamela Dunn, a visitor from New York, walked up to the counter to order a praline, along with her friend Judith Lisella, of New Jersey. “We love the jazz, the history, the food, the real people,” Dunn said.
The city is special, the women said.
“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Lisella said. “Why would we come if it was just like New York?”