A TALE OF TWO CRESCENT CITIES
Why New Orleans Matters
by Tom Piazza
“New Orleans, in fact, is filled with people who came for Jazz Fest and never left. Or who went home and quit their job and came back. I think Jazz Fest teaches them what to love about the city, and how to love it. It is a kind of distillation of the mythology.”
When I read this paragraph—a concise and near-literal summary of this blog’s genesis—I almost laughed aloud. It’s no wonder I related so strongly to Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina love letter, emotional exorcism, and national call to action. Much like I conceptualized My Year of Mardi Gras after a post-breakup spiritual renewal at the church of Jazz Fest, similar circumstances initially drew Piazza to the city:
“That January, coming off the long and painful breakup of a relationship, I attended a party thrown to help everyone through the final grinding weeks of a long New York City winter. Someone mentioned that he was going to Jazz Fest . . . . ‘Why don’t you go?’ he said. ‘Think of it as spiritual renewal.’ I began to offer my usual excuses . . . .
My friend looked me in the eyes and said ‘Go in debt.’ It was the best advice anyone had ever given me.”
I did laugh out loud when I re-read that last sentence recently while lounging by a lake in Virginia with a group of friends including Marquis de Metairie who talked me into this move during that fateful Fest. This is just the type of concise, humorous wisdom he so coolly spouts. I couldn’t help but picture him as Piazza’s friend–that response is so New Orleans.
But it is much more than shared experience that drew me back to this book. If Gumbo Tales is the book about New Orleans that stole my heart, this is the one that captivated my mind. If books were people, I’d take this one down to a funky French Quarter bar, buy it a Sazerac, and discuss local arts, culture, and politics into the wee hours of the morning. Written in those raw months following ‘the storm’ (although Piazza provides a searing indictment of how Katrina is a euphemism and metaphor for human error and political incompetence that were the disaster’s true cause), Why New Orleans Matters is half ode to the city he feared may be gone forever and half document of his return to wade through the mind-boggling damage. (It’s more like 61.37% ode and 38.63% document of the aftermath, but why split hairs?!)
Piazza’s language is rich, descriptive, nuanced, and expansive. This book weighs in at only 187 pages, and being small and generously spaced it’s a light 187, but every sentence jumps off the page. Piazza began his career by writing about jazz and this love for melodic invention spills into his writing, such as in his distillation of the spirit of the jazz funeral which shatters the misconception that, by celebrating life, New Orleans is shallow and hedonistic:
“Most funeral traditions in our society are there to reminds us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In New Orleans the funerals reminds us that Life is bigger than an individual life, and it will roll on, and for the short time that your individual life joins the big stream of Life, cut some decent steps, for God’s sake. No individual life lasts forever, and it’s the responsibility of those left outside the walls of the boneyard to keep life going. This isn’t escapism, or denial of grief; it is acceptance of the facts of life, the map of a profound relationship to the grief that is part of life, and it will tell you something about why the real New Orleans spirit is never silly, or never just silly, in celebration, and never maudlin in grief.”
He goes on to perfectly articulate my ongoing argument on why Bourbon Street is not New Orleans:
“[T]he vulgar spirit offered on Bourbon Street to the casual visitor [is] a version of the culture where the most obvious elements are exaggerated and the subtleties erased.”
Despite the affection that radiates as he describes biking through this beautiful city, the wonder of Mardi Gras and its mysterious Indians, or the restaurants where food provides spiritual sustenance as much as physical, Piazaa admits, “Everyone who loves New Orleans learns to love it with its flaws.” This theme in my own blog has resonated with every reader who has lived in the city, especially those who have moved from elsewhere.
“Sooner or later New Orleans will test any love you bring to it. At first, for many, it is a spangled, dancing place, the City that Care Forgot, arm in arm down midnight streets, toasting life, Spanish moss and delicious food, gorgeous architecture, sensuality and more sensuality, a willingness to go where the day leads you.”
Eventually, though, deep flaws will reveal themselves, challenging but never breaking your love. Sometimes I have felt guilty or silly when detailing the challenges I’ve encountered, often worsened by my own fumbling (Piazza seemed to learn the lesson that you just have to ‘go with it’ in this city much quicker than I) but everyone who truly knows the city relates to these posts, shaking their heads and telling me, “That’s New Orleans.” Wrestling with the city seems to make you part of the club.
Still, Piazza’s love for New Orleans is beautifully articulated and romantically infectious, yet this lyrical ballad abruptly turns to a shrill and dissonant dirge seething with anger, hurt, despair, and betrayal when he takes us with him back to the city after the storm to wade through the waters that weren’t water at all:
“’Water’ was a euphemism. No one knows for sure everything that was in the soup that flooded the city, although what is known—oil, lead, asbestos, human waste, human remains, benzine, battery acid, chemicals from chemical spills—was enough to scare even the military personnel I would encounter so often during my visit.”
He admits, “I felt dread, as if I were about to enter a morgue to view the body of my best friend,” before launching into a frantic, unbroken, stream-of-consciousness catalogue of the horror he witnesses—an emotional train descending a mountain of grief with the brakes too hot to function—until he eventually comes to an abrupt halt, realizing that anyone who lived it has their own endless stream of images. For those who didn’t, he suggests a mental exercise that jars you with its harsh directness:
“If you do not live in New Orleans you can try this simple experiment: Put a chalk mark on your wall at a point three feet from the floor, then imagine everything below that line coated with toxic scum, swollen with foul moisture. If this is difficult to imagine, take this book, place it in a sink filled with water and leave it there for a week and a half. Then place the soaked book on the floor and try to imagine the entire floor filled with several layers of such books. If it is still hard to envision this, take all of your books, place them in your bathtub and immerse them in a mixture of water, urine, spoiled food, feces, weed killer from the garage, and perhaps your beloved cat, preferably drowned and bloated. Make sure to turn all the lights off and to leave the house as nearly as possible sealed to fresh air, which, come to think of it, isn’t really fresh air anymore in New Orleans. If this suggestion seems odd, out of the spirit of this book, as if the author has suddenly turned into an unpleasant stranger, that is because the author went crazy at some point that day.”
It makes you wonder which is worse: fire or flood. At least fire cleanses and consumes, leaving behind a blank slate.
As he details the damage, Piazza shines a harsh light on government ineptitude and societal ignorance. You can nearly perceive the heat of his rage emanating from the page when he describes a conversation with a white woman of means who just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. She hadn’t flooded or lost power for long and the only real problem now was finding good help. It was five days post-storm and a lawyer friend had advised her that she was within her rights to toss out the belongings of a tenant who’d had the audacity to not yet phone her. As for all those images on TV, the Lower 9th Ward wasn’t really New Orleans anyhow.
“So true, I thought—and that kind of savage, self-satisfied, ignorant attitude of large numbers of the criminally oblivious privileged is also a part of New Orleans.”
Interwoven through this tale in two halves is Piazza’s case for why this is one of the most culturally unique cities in the world and why it is so vital that it be preserved and restored. He wrote a new Afterward in 2008 once recovery had begun to bloom into unlikely reality detailing progress and hope, while pointing out how far there still was to go. Now, this far into the renaissance, you may think that this book has lost relevance, but Piazza weaves a larger argument on why we owe it to society to protect and preserve all of our communities. In an age when efficient and necessary government is maliciously slandered as social control and compassion equated with weakness and societal corrosion, Piazza writes with a righteous rage that never caves into self-righteousness and a deep and complex empathy for the underprivileged who bore the brunt of the storm’s damage that makes this an important text for our jaded age.
Thus, even if you never come to New Orleans, this book is a vital testament to not only this city’s importance, but why it is all of our responsibility to protect our entire society, including lifting up the most disadvantaged amongst us. Piazza’s compassion is so concisely grounded in reason that I wish he would enter the national discussion with a follow-up entitled Why Progressive Understanding and Action Matters or, more simply, Why Empathy Matters.
Give this book a chance and you’ll be hard pressed to walk away without a new appreciation of this complexly beautiful city. “Long live New Orleans,” he concludes, and every preceding word makes it crystal clear why we should make it so.