New Orleans, the resurgence of the “American” city
By Frederick Kuo
March 4th, 2016
“Without New Orleans, there would be no America.”
-Keith Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band
America boasts many great cities. New York, the city of brash talkers and big doers. San Francisco, the city of thinkers and imaginers. Los Angeles, the city of glamor and big dreamers.
New Orleans however, has stood apart in 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 is also a city which has been the originator of many indispensably “American” creations from its renown cuisine to its musical traditions. The “Big Easy” is truly one of the few American cities which has been able to draw in immigrants and influences from around the world, and not only have absorbed them, but have regurgitated all of this into a uniquely regional identity that has taken on a life of its own nearly completely separate from its original influences.
A little over ten years ago, New Orleans, sitting in possibly one of the worst places 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 regions in the South and Texas. Voices were even echoed which questioned the wisdom of rebuilding at all. However, a decade later, New Orleans has recovered to nearly 90% of its pre-Katrina population and is, as it historically has done, ambling forward in its own quintessentially New Orleanean rhythm and pace.
NEW ORLEANS AS “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 in 1718 on native Chitimacha land by the French, the city quickly grew as an important port commanding access of the great Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico. Even as the burgeoning American nation sought to take control of the vast swathe of territory known as the Louisiana Purchase, the future economic and political importance of New Orleans was not underestimated by great strategists of that time. Napoleon Bonaparte famously claimed that “whoever controls New Orleans, controls the fate of the continent.”
However, soon unexpected events which saw Haiti become the first successful slave revolt in the Americas led to the decimation of France’s colonial military and created 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.
Therefore, unlike many of America’s great cities such as New York or San Francisco, New Orleans entered the Anglo-centric American constituency not as an empty slate to build on, but as an adult and foreign city which had to learn the ways of its new country.
The years following its incorporation into the United States, New Orleans received a further influx of Francophone migrants fleeing persecution in both Haiti, Cuba and other areas of the Caribbean. These included White French, their slaves and also French speaking free Blacks.
In addition, many of 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, they were slaves with more recent African roots, and originated from Caribbean colonies where African slaves formed large majorities and were better able to retain many of their traditional African folk religion and traditions.
Reflecting the more liberal attitudes on interracial socializing and mixing 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 socialize in the city’s Congo Square, and their descendants eventually mixed European musical instruments with their African rythms to form the first globally relevant American musical form, Jazz.
The city’s slaves, who were more connected to their West African origins than 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 subset of superstitious ritualism, which has largely defined its notoriety in the Western mind.
The power of voodoo however was not limited solely to the Black population, much of New Orleanean 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.
Meanwhile, the surrounding Bayou was dominated by the Cajuns, descended from Acadian French Canadian refugees, their lifestyle borrowed heavily on what they had learned from the native Chitimacha who had honed 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, directly due to 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 Orleanean culture are not simply derivatives of various immigrant cultures, but a truly indigenously American concoction created by the gradual mixing, simmering and fusion, akin to the process of cooking gumbo, of widely different cultural influences to create something completely unknown prior.
Various 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, which are enough to rival the national cuisines of many countries.
Along with the popularity of the local cuisine, New Orleans’ reputation as an American cultural capital also lies in its strong association with Jazz. The roots of Jazz could be sourced to various 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, who were prominent in the city’s many elaborate outdoor funerals and civic events, which ultimately all incorporated a marching band. Thirdly, 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, a musical form which allowed America to stop being a cultural importer and imitator, but defined it as a global cultural leader with Jazz being exported to Europe and elsewhere, transforming musical culture throughout the world.
KATRINA AND THE RECOVERY
The mouth of the Mississippi river consists primarily of lowlands submerged by water, creating the ubiquitous bayou that 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 of Mississippian importance.
Thus, New Orleans sits on ground that is roughly six feet below sea level on average. It is possibly the worst place in the world to locate a large metropolis. Perhaps the precarious nature of its existence contributed to the lackadaisical and carefree attitude that the city is known for, but it also makes it especially vulnerable to flooding and hurricanes.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, the city was evacuated of most of its population. A total of 1.5 million people were evacuated from the wider region, and only a population of under 200,000 sat out to weather the storm. The New Orleans based Data Center estimates that 80% of the city was flooded during the ensuing disaster. This meant a severe and debilitating impact on the viability of the city’s economy, which was already struggling for decades prior to Katrina.
Homes were left unlivable, businesses shuttered, even steadfast infrastructure such as government buildings and hospitals found their property significantly damaged and day to day function nearly impossible. 134,000 or nearly 70 percent of the city’s housing units were damaged. The city suffered a year on year loss of 95,000 jobs in the first ten months after the disaster.
In November 2005, the city’s employment figures were 105,300 less than the previous year. In all, economic losses due to Katrina resulted in a mammoth $125 billion in damages, especially shocking when considering that the city’s total GDP, or economic output, clocked in at $80.3 Billion in 2014.
In this climate of hopelessness and despair, experts fed into growing doubt about the city’s future as they actively questioned whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all. Buttressed by doubts over the city’s topographical viability and its increasingly poor economic performance throughout the past few decades as various shipbuilding and manufacturing industries have disappeared, many argued that Katrina had dealt the city a final blow, and the investment required to revive New Orleans would not be matched by its potential.
However, 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 1.25 million, roughly 90% of its pre-Katrina population.
In some key measures, the economy has largely recovered, with the number of jobs reaching 91% 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, which occupies more than 10% of all jobs in the region, a higher proportion than pre-Katrina levels.
With hospitality jobs averaging $18,019 per annum, and the city continuing to suffer from a dearth of middle income jobs, the viability of the city’s future prosperity provokes questions. What is happening is an increasing 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 revitalize its economy and bring forward new industries that could help it diversify its economy. These ranged from the much touted Silicon Bayou, hoping to establish a genuine tech startup culture in the city, to the building of a medical center on Canal Street which civic leaders hope would catalyze a new “biotech corridor”. However, despite achieving modest results, the city’s economy continues to be unhealthily dependent primarily on its restaurant and hospitality industry.
But rays of light are also emerging. The city is embracing a culture of revival as business startup rates climb to 471 per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the national average of 288. In addition, the annual number of tourists has reached 9.5 million as of last year, nearly equivalent to pre-Katrina levels, and trajectories appear to be upward bound. Therefore, despite the challenges that are present, the city’s resurgence and rehabilitation looks set to continue as its infrastructure has been rebuilt and a spirit of entrepreneurialism takes hold.
NEW ORLEANS’ IMPORTANCE
The contributions of the “Big Easy” to the American imagination are outsized in comparison to its size, a metropolitan region of 1.25 million, which puts it safely between Richmond, VA and Raleigh, NC. This standing does little to betray 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 such as the technology, finance and entertainment industries, New Orleans plays a marginal role. It is a medium sized city which has experienced several decades of gradual economic decline only to be hit with a disastrous life altering tragedy, which it has spent the last decade struggling to emerge from.
However, New Orleans and its resurgence plays a central role in the American story, because 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 New Orleans as a purely economic story pales in comparison to the financial might of New York or the techie vibrancy of San Francisco, but its comeback is no less than absolutely critical for the health of the American soul. For without New Orleans, there would be no “America” as we know it at all.