Christopher Hirst: New Orleans will be back: music, food and all

For this spirited place to come back to life, the whole city must rise again


As the news from New Orleans has darkened over the course of this week, the city's very existence has increasingly been called into question. Can it ever recover from the scarcely comprehensible scale of its inundation? Even if it does, is such a low-lying community feasible in the face of annual hurricanes of ever-increasing ferocity?

The simple answer is yes. New Orleans will undoubtedly return. One reason is that cities always do. As a new book, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster, points out: "Subjected to everything from earthquakes to smart bombs, cities are among humankind's most durable artefacts." It will be a long and expensive task, involving heightened levees and increased investment in pumps and flood prevention, but New Orleans will recover.

The second cause for optimism lies in the nature of this particular community. If anywhere has the spirit to bounce back, it is New Orleans. The city is a great survivor. One of its lesser known treasures is a full-scale French chateau in the heart of the Vieux Carre. Little changed since 1750, the Old Ursuline Convent is less than 300 metres from the main levee that protects the city from the Mississippi River. The threat from water has always been there. The city's earliest graves are above ground, because the water table floated buried coffins.

Maybe the very precariousness of New Orleans has made it a legendary party town. In the face of lesser assaults, the city customarily throws a hurricane party. A mediterranean port that happens to be on the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans enjoys a perpetual holiday from American puritanism. As well as attracting an endless series of vast conventions - I once attended a surprisingly rumbustious week-long meeting of 30,000 cardiologists, several of whom ended up in jail - the city also draws a host of permanent invaders, customarily of a Bohemian persuasion. "N'Awlins sucks 'em in and spits 'em out," a resident told me.

If New Orleans has a very un-American reputation for languidness and moral laxity, it is also surprisingly tough. Anyone who can survive the unremitting intensity of its summer - a will-sapping heat and humidity that lasts from April to October - can put up with a lot. It is also a place of remarkable creativity. Jazz was born here - Louis Armstrong in particular - and the city remains a stronghold of zydeco and cajun from the Louisiana swampland. It has long been a vibrant literary centre. New Orleans was an ideal milieu for Tennessee Williams, whose 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire utilised the steamy passions of the city.

It is now better better known as the home of Anne Rice, whose gothic chillers have become a major tourist industry, but the seductive sleaze of the Big Easy is best captured in the literate, cop yarns of James Lee Burke.

New Orleans is notably unabashed about sex. Storyville, once the world's most famous red-light district, was named after Alderman Sidney Story who advocated the legalisation of prostitution in the area in 1897. Today's more strait-laced city fathers tried to ban nudity in the 2000 Mardi Gras with a singular lack of success. The dominant passion of the city is, however, food. From the po'boy oyster sandwich to a flaming dish of bananas Foster ("a few bananas for the potassium, a spot of rum for excitement", explains your waiter as he ignites the mixture), New Orleans offers by far the best indigenous food in the US.

Sadly, the past tense might be more appropriate for this glowing view of the city. Certainly, the African-Americans left behind when the rich whites fled have scant cause for civic pride.

Yesterday, the novelist Richard Ford, a former long-term New Orleans resident, expressed a wish that the flooding would "scour away the eccentricities and pseudo-romanticism associated with the city. I hope that the city that comes back will be a proper New Orleans". He concluded with the gloomy thought:"Americans are very dedicated to normalcy. The geographical isolation of New Orleans will cause people to look away."

It is a particular concern that many of the destroyed houses in New Orleans were uninsured. The wonderful balconied structures of the Vieux Carre and the immaculate residences of the Garden District will be splendidly restored, but most people in the city live in much more humble circumstances. For this spirited place to come back to life - to provide once more a breath of fresh air amid the often stifling conservatism of middle America -the whole city must rise again.

The editors of The Resilient City conclude: "Cities are not only the places where we live and work and play, but also a demonstration of our ultimate faith in each other." New Orleans is as good an exemplar of this as anywhere I know.

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