The Indomitable Spirit Of New Orleans And The Revival Of The City Pt.1


I went to New Orleans this past weekend, and experienced the songs and sounds of Jazz Fest as well as the beautiful city.

I was living in Gaborone, Botswana when Hurricane Katrina happened almost ten years ago. I don’t know whether it should feel like ten years. Or shorter. Or longer. Ten years feel like a long time ago. But going to New Orleans this past weekend for the first time ever, it also somehow, felt short.

I’m still looking for the words to describe the city accurately. New Orleans, known as everything from The Big Easy to The City of Jazz, to America’s European Masterpiece to America’s Most Interesting City. Indeed there are many names that New Orleans goes by, but that most famous one – The Big Easy – historically used as a comparison of the city to New York City, I certainly did not think was accurate. And calling New Orleans, America’s Most Interesting City would suffice if it didn’t seem so plain, almost dull; which New Orleans is anything but.  So while I search for ways to describe the city, I give it another name in the mean time: The city with an indomitable spirit.

I did not get to spend too much time to spend in New Orleans – four days, three nights. And you can never capture any place in its entirety even if you were born and raised there or have lived there for a few years. How much less, a traveler? But I made it my mission to find out what the city stood for, what and who made the city run, and who it’s people were, and are.

Unsurprisingly, I found that Hurricane Katrina left a mark in the city in a way that outsiders could not imagine. Perhaps one of the locals I interacted with first, put it best, “The stories I was told revealed a narrative of broken families and homes, unfulfilled dreams and hopes, stories of lifetimes that will forever be or at least feel incomplete. And it would completely alter, at least for a time, how people would see the city, their city.

One of the saddest narratives I was told was of a woman who knew of a close family-friend, the kind of family-friend that might as well be your family, whose son moved her to Atlanta to be closer to him. But New Orleans is her home, and even though she is getting up in years and is with her son, she is not in her home. She is not with her friends, with her life. “She feels like she is just waiting to die,” is what I was told. I get the sense that New Orleans is to the people the kind of place that once you make your home for a while, nowhere else will ever compare.

When you come into the city, the warmth is immediately felt – the people, without any pretension, are glad you came to see them. They welcome you with Mardi Gras beads and a genuineness that may even outshine ordinary Southern hospitality. And it does feel like home, very quickly, because of the people. Being an adopted Chicago girl these days, I realizde quickly too, that it’s a different kind of home – the pace is slower, the weather is hell of a lot warmer, and everyone has time for you. The city makes you slow down.

Perhaps, however, apart from its people, nothing is quite as spectacular in New Orleans are its sounds and its sights. Immediately you notice the music that fills every place you go, with people being free to sing and dance and laugh with strangers who become friends so quickly. Jazz, soul, blues, folks, Bayou music, pop, etc. It is all so alive in New Orleans.

The atmosphere of the city brings out the uncensored version of yourself so ready to become a part of what you experience – happiness. A happiness that infiltrates everything the city is known for – its culture. A happiness that you will want to explore more.

But on your first full day in the city, before you get wonderfully overwhelmed with all it has to offer, you will realize that this raw, beautiful city thrives, ten years after Katrina, for the reason it has probably always thrived: The happy people are not just happy, they are resilient. And they have an indomitable spirit. A spirit that you will not only admire but embrace as you discover the many parts that makes New Orleans.

Part Two

Almost every city will claim that it is the place you should go for food, for music, and for culture. And New Orleans is no different, except New Orleans is distinct in it’s music, food, and culture from most other American cities. Although history would technically tell you otherwise, New Orleans could easily substitute for the birthplace of Jazz music. And indeed many people will tell you that it is. Or at least it might as well be. And certainly from inside clubs to street corners, you will be greeted with Jazz sounds that sometimes invigorate, and sometimes send you in a soothing trance.

But it’s not only Jazz that’ll touch your soul, it’s all the different kinds of music that infiltrates the city everywhere you go. The diversity in sound represents the diversity in cultures of New Orleans. Cultures and sounds that are sometimes distinguishable, and sometimes indistinct – combined and integrated in beautiful and meaningful ways. It’s why the city is as vibrant as it is. So from jazz to blues, to calypso, to reggae and Bayou music, you will naturally stop to listen or stop to dance, or simply just stop. It’s the that kind of city where you can  do that – just stop. And be.

Being at Jazz Fest was a cultural experience in and of itself. Now I am admittedly in the world of “types” as we designate them to the activities people enjoy doing, not a “festival type.” But there was something easy about being in the grounds for the two days I went to Jazz Fest. Of course Jazz Fest brings people from all around the world to engage in the experience but I think the New Orleans way of a certain kind of easy-going, free-flowing, happiness makes it seem like you’re just at one huge part with thousands of your closest friends. Everyone easy to talk to, to dance with, to sign with, to be friend.

The energy at the fest by performers feeds off from the energy of the crowd who for hours and hours, losing track of time, seem to have an unmatched stamina. You can see the genuine gratitude just to be experiencing music in this way, from all the faces around you. Dancing, talking, laughing, playing. It’s like being a child again. But incorporated with all the best parts of adulthood. The artists who perform, regardless of status and fame, connect deeply with the crowd. Indeed it is about music but when you experience it in the ambiance of Jazz Fest, of New Orleans, it is about so much more than music. It’s about celebrating life.

Oh, and I have to say I saw many wonderful artists, some better known than others. But seeing Macy Gray perform was a timeless experience that I’ll never forget. And the close second was a lady I found at a piano bar in The French quarter whose name escapes me. But listening to the soul of her voice last Friday night was nothing short of a spiritual experience.

As for the food in New Orleans, well let’s just say I did not hold anything back. From stopping in the famous Cafe du Monde and experiencing the popular beignets at 3 in the morning, as I was told is the best time to have them. I also experienced the local New Orleans barbecue in the Bywater area of the city. I love to eat in places where locals eat. But I made a stop at the Farmer’s Market in the French quarter last Saturday morning and I tried some alligator meat finally. And as I was told by many people, and finally getting to experience it for myself, it really does taste like chicken. But your foodie experience in New Orleans would be incomplete if you do not try the crawfish. The crawfish, put simply, will give you a food orgasm. I think I had too much, got in a food coma and forgot to take a picture. Oops.

So indeed every city is known for it’s food, it’s music, and it’s culture. And almost every city will tell you that it’s the best place for all three. I love many cities and places for many reasons but I fell in love with New Orleans and with it’s food music and culture, because I fell in love with the people who made things possible. People, who live their lives with this certain kind of indomitable spirit they put in everything they do. But even with that spirit that has kept them going during their worst times, kept them rebuilding and reviving, the people in this city know too that life still is sometimes just about having a grand ol’ time.

Part Three

To say New Orleans is any one kind of particular place is false. It’s not just a place for Jazz or Blues or Bayou music. It’s not just a place for crawfish and gumbo or its famous bignets, and outstanding barbecue. And indeed it may be the place where young people take pleasure in its “open container” allowances, and it’s seemingly unending nights. But it would not do the city justice to simply pigeon-hole it into those things because though it is known for all the ways it makes life a pleasant affair, a wonderfully spectacular existence, it is so much more than a caricature of a small city where the food is good and the people party too much.

In the city you are met with a certain kind of warmth – both in terms of the weather and the people – that I think is unique in these parts. I think Southern hospitality takes on a more authentic form, a more genuine experience among the people of New Orleans. People who don’t do it to be known as generous or kind or honest for the sake of reputation. They do it because the culture cultivates in the person who lives there an attitude of truly wanting the person next to them, who they may or may not know, to enjoy the interaction of being with a stranger turned friend, in a matter of minutes.

I met people in New Orleans who felt like my family after a half hour of conversation. People who told me about their losses in Katrina, people who had to rebuild their lives and their livelihoods unexpectedly. Their stories were stories about sadness and heartbreak and disappointment. Families disintegrated. Stories of the many young people who left because they could. Because when you are young, it is easy to get your life back together; to put pieces back in a puzzle. Or perhaps create a new and beautiful life as one would start on a new canvas if they were painting. But when you are established in your years, change is much harder. Especially the forced change of a natural disaster that you were not prepared for.

Indeed I talked to people whose politics were clear that the people of New Orleans were let down by the United States as a whole. I talked to people who know of friends and family who became homeless because of Katrina; some would later get back on their feet. Others were led into such despair that their mental faculties could not bear their physical realities, and they are still wandering the streets; a shadow of their former selves. They, and their families wounded for the rest of their lives with a pain that refreshes the memory ever so often.

But interestingly and unsurprisingly if you know of people and communities who have lost much, it is for this very reason that the people of New Orleans are very kind. To each other and to the many strangers who visit for various reasons. There are for example, many in the film industry who have taken to New Orleans to create. And although there is apprehension that when they leave, the newly created dreams of a mini-Hollywood will leave with them, for now, there is a sense that the people have hope that the outcome will be a Hollywood ending.

And hope comes not just in the form of an economic revival. But in a social and cultural revival of the city of New Orleans which has always pledged itself to a particular kind of integration of immigrants old and new, who seek to plant roots in the city. A cultural explosion that in almost many other American cities brings about segregation and separation, is a hallmark of celebration to most people. Those things exist; let us not be too romantic. But there exists too a pride that people can live together and create nuance culture over and over again through generations; that this is what constitutes New Orleans culture – togetherness of all things.

I did not spend nearly enough time in New Orleans to understand the city fully. My history is limited of the city, my perspective incomplete, and my understanding of it suffers. But the city and its people are a home that I want to return to often. A home that filled me with enthusiasm and happiness and curiosity. A home that makes an outsider, a traveler, and maybe even the rolling stone, want to call it theirs. Perhaps because the city’s splendor is not in its beauty solely. But in its rawness and unpretentious way of accepting this beauty, with unrefined parts. And in this way it becomes a place where the indomitable spirit that the city breathes in you, stays with you, hopefully for keeps.