Spirits of the City

Half a man's life is devoted to getting out of the neighborhood and half is devoted to longing for what's left behind.



Cor te reducit. The heart leads you back.

The radio show was being taped in front of cozy Le Chat Noir, and there sat 70-odd schoolkids from some high school out of New Rochelle, N.Y. They doubtless had been dragged here by chaperones desperate for PG-rated culture and sat there dubious but dutiful.

When it was over, there was a little Q-and-A session with the audience; out there in the half-light, the smiling schoolkids flashed row after row of teeth like piano keys. Then, one of their plucky number raised her hand with a query about something she had heard during the show, something one of us would say to another of us.

"What," she asked earnestly, "is an Irish Channel?"

Pericles once urged his fellow citizens to "day by day fix your eyes on the greatness of your city until you become filled with love for her."

Now, this is easier said than done because, if you have eyes to see, you will look at your city and see warts and all -- and New Orleans has warts as big as Creole tomatoes. But it also has greatness, even if it's mostly in undeserved self-esteem -- or the refusal to be impressed by greatness. And if you don't watch yourself carefully, you sentimental slob, you'll begin to feel yourself getting all filled up.

New Orleans, this mosquito-cursed land. What do I love about you, baby?

Start with your neighborhoods.

It is one of the tricks of memory, one of the many. When you stand in front of a building or maybe now a mere empty lot. You know this area, this block, this very lot, have known it for decades, so you should have no trouble identifying what was once here in this spot.

You should, but do you? You may remember instantly and perfectly: Yeah, this was that long house with the blue shutters and the two old sisters. Or this was the place where you could buy live poultry, and in the back room the guy with a couple of missing fingers would wring necks and dunk your chicken into a drum of scalding water and then grab fistfuls of feathers. Or your memory may fail you yet again, and you will not be able to summon this Lazarus from the grave. What was on the corner?

But even if you can't recall, in New Orleans there is someone who can, probably someone who still lives nearby. So these things, these blue-shuttered spinster homes and these poultry markets and a hundred other neighborhood things, take a long time to die. Everything is a procrastination, everything is as in a film that is always being rewound and reshown.

There is yet another thing about New Orleans neighborhoods that contributes to this prolonged passing, that prevents the total triumph of the new in New Orleans. There is hardly a neighborhood without its own embedded cemetery. St. Patrick, Lafayette, Holt, Mount Olive, St. Roch. Each cemetery in each neighborhood makes life go on a little longer. And each, too, serves as a reminder of the kind of place this is and the kind of people who best inhabit it. This is a culture of the flesh. The flesh is fed, it is shown. It is perfumed, it is putrid.

Every neighborhood knows this. The smell of jasmine, ligustrum, sweet olive, honeysuckle. And the smell of garbage and dog and death. The beauty of the place is everywhere, and the decay is never far behind. Stop living in a house here -- or just stop tending it -- and the vines will soon show their graceful heads.

No, intellects do not flourish here. But life does and so death does and each in turn. Albert Camus wrote, "The opposite of a civilized people is a creative people," and you find evidence of this creativity in each and every neighborhood: Broadmoor, Carrollton, Black Pearl, Gentilly, Gert Town, Pine Village, Lower Algiers, the Garden District. And yes, children of New Rochelle, N.Y., the Irish Channel. No channel, no Irish.

Still a New Orleans neighborhood.

Cor te reducit. The heart leads you back.

"They are often secret, the loves you share with a place." -- Albert Camus, "The Spirit of Algiers."

The boundaries of New Orleans neighborhoods were not as clear as Kashmir or Alsace-Lorraine, but were well understood. And in most cases you did not cross them lightly, at least not without invitation.

In the xenophobic days of my youth, you were born and died in a neighborhood (today, it's a place you moved three years ago to get into a certain school district) and between those existential extremes, you probably worked there and courted there; e.g., I lived in the Third and Fourth Wards and the grandest employers were the Dibert-Bancroft Foundry on Tulane Avenue and the American Can Company on Toulouse.

Courtship could be pretty parochial, too. Guys who married young almost always married within the neighborhood. But girls -- were there more girls than guys? They seemed more often to spurn the familiar.

My father once told me a story of how he'd once found himself a guest at an Uptown house party, and there met a gal who was from his neighborhood. As he told the story, the gal was solidly unattractive, but he asked her to dance all night long and they did.

That story always makes me smile. Everywhere there is Us and there is Them, and maybe among the most progressive thinkers now that line between Us and Them would never be drawn on such a capricious thing as the Industrial Canal or the Mississippi River. Or what playground was in your neighborhood. Or among Catholics between what parish church and what other.

Because almost every neighborhood in New Orleans had things in common. Most had some blocks of baronial splendor and even more blocks of what looked like servant quarters. And each neighborhood had its old houses; houses, like people, had to learn to substitute wisdom and character when beauty bowed out, and many did.

And the people: Everywhere were every kind of people, much like Camus writing of his native North Africa: "you become aware of the simultaneous passing of every skin from white to gold, then to brown, and finally to tobacco color, the ultimate effort of transformation of which the body is capable."

You saw them all in the neighborhood. At the Escorial Show, or Sugarmann's Dry Goods or Gerson's Clothing or Dutch's Barbershop or Kleinpeter's Grocery or Bizot's Beer Garden or sashaying around with a parasol or sitting on a stoop chewing Brown Mule.

They were all known by you. Not like today, when half the people don't know their neighbors' names; you saw those people, heard them, touched them, even smelled them.

So much has changed, but maybe even more has not. There is still a Lakeview and a Lower Ninth and a Back o' Town. Maybe a little different, but differently the same. The poetry of the place is still cynical and still childish, and it still makes you wonder.

Half a man's life is devoted to getting out of the neighborhood and half of what remains is devoted to longing for what's left behind.

"I talk with it, I sing with it, I see, taste and feel with it, I know why I want to keep it." -- Carl Sandburg, "Style."

Yep. In New Orleans, your sense of style more often than not came from your neighborhood. Each separate place suffered under the same burdening sun and bore its suffering with the same placid grandeur.

But each neighborhood had its own style, its own way of anchoring those who lived there, its distinctive claim to your loyalties and your soul. You are not alone and forgotten. There are names and dates in your life that matter. You are somebody. We're your neighbors. Comic, beautiful. Defeated, but never ready to yield, always ready to change the rules of the game. You are where you live. Or where you have lived. And that is the best thing about your neighborhood and mine. Not that it's near this busline or that school, not that its gingerbread is well-preserved or its parade well-practiced. Not them alone. But together they can be counted as places of certainty, predictability, privacy. Together they can be counted neighborhoods.

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