Do You Know What It Means…
By Bob Seibert
Let me make it clear at the outset that I love New Orleans. I’ve been in love with that city since my first experience with it, in August of 1963. I spent four plus years there as a graduate student; and have returned periodically many times since then. The city has never disappointed me. It is (or was) a truly distinctive American city, one of the few with a character and ambience all its own.
The city pleased me in so many ways. Let me count the ways…
The palate. New Orleans has always valued food. The proper preparation and enjoyment of food has been cultivated to a fine art there. It is one of the few places in the United States where people actually take the time to enjoy a meal. I have never felt rushed in a New Orleans restaurant…something I cannot say about Chicago, New York or Washington.
And what meals there were…meals from the top and bottom of the prandial continuum. There are few places in the world that can take the basic ingredients of life, rice and beans, and turn it into a platonic dish: New Orleans Red Beans and Rice, the Monday staple of the whole city, indescribable to the unfamiliar.
Or a beef po’boy from Parasols or any one of hundreds of neighborhood sandwich shops. The ingredients are familiar, even boring to us in the abstract: roast beef, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, french bread. But put together in a way no other city in the nation can. Or fried soft-shelled crab, pepper weiner, trout, or grouper po’boys…all distinctive and all addictive. Washed down with a good cold local beer or a Barq’s rootbeer…I can taste it now.
On the high end of the scale, restaurants of international repute offered their best. The best meal I have ever had anywhere, anytime, was at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. I can tell you to this day what we had and the order in which we had it. In fact I will: Mixed Oysters, bienville, rockefeller and raw; salad with fine herbs and merliton; turtle stew; a main course of trout amondine, potatoes brabant, and a distinctive cheese souffle; for desert, a decadent stuffed profiterole with bitter chocolate sauce. Wine with every course. I even remember the conversation – I treasure it, every bite and word.
But enough about food. There was also coffee and it didn’t take me long to discover the delights and effects of chicory-laced coffee, dark-roast coffee and other variations of java in the Big Easy – long before Starbucks was a world phenomenon…strong, cheap, and memorable. I was on my way for a second cup of this brew when the news came from Dallas about Pres. Kennedy’s assassination. New Orleans, you will remember, played a role in that drama, too, although no satisfying resolution came of it.
Architecture. New Orleans was a town of great contrasts. The great houses on Saint Charles Avenue were and are impressive. The great homes of the Garden District beguile and intrigue, as do the mansions near Lake Pontchartrain. But very near them all, a block or two away, are the homes of simpler people, the servants, slaves, merchants and policemen. The famous “shotgun” houses of the city. These homes, rich and poor, presented themselves in a checkerboard pattern. Unlike the endless ghettos of wealth and poverty in other American cities, the wealthy and the poor generally lived close enough that they had to acknowledge each other, interact with each other. A social richness resulted, unlike any other American city I am acquainted with: Savannah, maybe, or Charleston?
And of course, the homes and buildings of the Vieux Carre, the old French quarter, with buildings of apparent French and Spanish influence: courtyards, fountains, balconies, iron grilles and intriguing doorways. I’m not speaking of Bourbon Street here, but the smaller, more private streets of the quarter. Royale, Bienville, Decatur (then), St. Peter’s, Rampart. The Napoleon House comes to mind, and the Casa do los Marinos, Acme Oyster House, the Pontalba buildings, Jackson Square, Café du Monde, Preservation Hall. People actually lived, ate, loved and died in those buildings. They were not so much tourist attractions, as attractive to tourists, a distinction I insist on. Like the other neighborhoods of the city, they charmed and beguiled the visitor and the native alike.
Need I mention Mardi Gras? No, I don’t think so…
What I’m talking about here are components of the New Orleans ambience, the overall effectof the city . A complex brew of indulgence, over-indulgence, aesthetic stimulation, heat, history, Spanish moss, Ann Rice, Pete Fountain and Aaron Neville, and the pleasure of a population of great diversity. The range of accents alone can carry us to higher levels of appreciation for the variety of people making their way in the Crescent City.
New arrivals in New Orleans were quickly apprised of the precarious nature of this urban jewel. In 1963 I was acquainted by by Joe E. Walker with the “button-hook” vulnerability of the city, the devastation that would surely occur if a hurricane button hooked over the city, attacking first from the south, and then reversing course over Lake Pontchartrain, in effect dumping the lake into the saucer of the city. The levees, it was said, were inadequate to such a strain, the pumps too small and too old to handle the deluge. How prophetic that insight has proved to be. What happened last week is almost exactly the model of the buttonhook hurricane, and the effect is quite literally overwhelming.
Like most people experiencing Katrina from a distance, I hoped at first that New Orleans had escaped the storm as it suddenly and unexpectedly veered toward the northeast. Perhaps New Orleans had “lucked out” once again. But then came the news that the flooding was serious, that the city had to be totally evacuated, and finally that the levees had broken and the city was flooded.
Two politicians drove the point home by Tuesday. Mayor Nagin used the word “Pompeii” in a press conference, invoking that hapless Roman city destroyed in minutes by a pyroclastic volcanic cloud, preserved for all time in its death throes.
Speaker Dennis Hastert startled the media by speculating that New Orleans would never be rebuilt, given its unique geology. The speaker was quickly silenced by a firestorm of criticism as the country contemplated the possible loss of this treasure of a city.
But in truth, the speaker spoke the truth. There is no good reason to rebuild New Orleans in situ, only to have it ravaged in the future by a similar story. Scholars of weather patterns insist that we are in for a period of superstorms, like Katrina. Whatever the cause, the oceans have warmed and risen. The resulting effects provide the perfect catalyst for the perfect storm.
It is statistically probable that we will face more storms of the category five variety. And more tornados, droughts, ice storms, and heavy rainstorms. Weather patterns are changing, and not necessarily for the better.
In the case of New Orleans, we have a geological worst case. Below sea level already, the city is sinking at an alarming rate. Covering it with fill will, in the long run, probably hasten the rate of sink. The Mississippi silt that makes up most of the ground in New Orleans is fragile and slippery. It is already beyond its carrying capacity. In other words, the city is already at its geological limits.
New Orleans, in its periphery, is an industrial city, filled to capacity with chemical plants, petroleum storage facilities, pipelines, refineries and shipping entrepots. These industrial complexes exist in dialectic opposition to the city proper.
In this industrial backyard, the product of America’s heartland, our corn and wheat, pigs and cattle, flow out through the port of New Orleans. Treasure from the outside, petroleum, liquified natural gas and other necessities of industrial society flow in.
These industries are poor neighbors to the saltwater marshes, bayous, barrier islands and mangrove swamps that make up the Mississippi delta, bathing these precarious ecologies in industrial effluent and sewage. Damaged, these areas can no longer protect New Orleans from the onslaught of storms from the sea…a vicious circle of cause and effect.
For this and other reasons, I conclude reluctantly that the City of New Orleans should be abandoned where it stands. We have the wherewithall to reconstruct this city on safer land, farther up the Mississippi, for example, where the land is stable and hurricanes are less likely to reach it. We have done this on a smaller scale all over the U.S. where natural disasters have pushed us to our limits. Many riverside small towns have been uprooted and moved to higher ground along the Illinois banks of the Mississippi, and even in Knox County along the banks of streams.
Much of the French Quarter could be disassembled and moved to a new location, to become a tourist attraction like Williamsburg and Nauvoo. The skyscrapers and mansions of the city, probably not. The shotgun houses of the poor and middle class are probably damaged beyond removal and repair. The rich can afford to rebuild anyway, given insurance and their personal wealth.
And most likely, any new configuration of this old and precious city will lose or destroy the peculiar ambience of New Orleans, that combination of tastes, smells, sights, sounds and pleasures that have beguiled our nation for decades.
The price of the big easy’s ambience has been too high -- many thousands of lost citizens, hundreds of thousands of refugees (the word is not too strong for the situation facing these poor people). We should not risk this again.
We probably shouldn’t risk it in Pass Christian, Gulfport, Biloxi or Slidell, either. Maybe a five-mile national seafront, with human habitation limited to further inland, a location both safer and more ecologically viable than the current incursions on the fragile coasts of the gulf. Casinos can be given, of necessity, the right to construct their riverboats on dry land, increasing the probable size and take of these dubious enterprises.
We have an opportunity now, as unpleasant as that may appear, an opportunity to do something intelligent with the land and beaches cleared for us by nature itself, red in tooth and claw.
It is all too clear now that our government is not up to the task of protecting its citizens in such dangerous locales. It is clear that the government is not willing to invest in the infrastructure that makes such a location viable and safe. It is not even capable of providing the most basic relief in a reasonable period of time. We should not bet on our government’s abilities in the future.
The tragedy of New Orleans should not be repeated intentionally. No modern, industrial state should put its citizens at such risk. It is time to grow up.
…To Miss New Orleans.