Why we love New Orleans
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I have a T-shirt I look to fondly that reads, “Only New Orleans is real, the rest is done with mirrors.” I often wonder if I have the tenacity to make that claim, or what that even means. I’m no venerated local or Mardi Gras veteran, I’m a college transplant from Florida’s white dunes and have only lived in New Orleans for about three years now. That being said, New Orleans isn’t a town that’s going to turn me away for my origins or anybody else’s. Due to the city’s stubborn, persisting charm, I can say that I’m more at home here than anywhere else.
The late local playwright Tennessee Williams wrote, “Instinct, it must have been directed me here, to the Vieux Carre of New Orleans, down country as a-river flows no plan. I couldn’t have consciously, deliberately, selected a better place than here to-discover-to encounter-my true nature.” Williams found his way to New Orleans’ French Quarter as a Missouri transplant and mentioned a unique flavor of mysticism enjoyed by newcomers and locals alike, one you can’t attribute to any one thing. I don’t think this X element has changed too much over time: hedonism found through jagged sidewalks and chance encounters, insufferable heat and ensuing showers.
For the first time in my life, I can walk somewhere aimlessly and end up where I need to be, which is a far cry from the dead ends and suburban beach sprawls I grew up in. You’re rewarded here for wandering, and I don’t see myself stopping that anytime soon. In larger skyscraper cities, you become accustomed to seeing thousands of new people cycled out each day.
Here, a jazz concert on Frenchmen Street attracts familiar faces, just the same as a punk show hidden on St. Claude Avenue. Here, characters become associated with locales, and both are in no short supply. This isn’t a metropolis, but a series of woven neighborhoods, diverse and compelling.
Here, people are not confined by towering fences and freshly manicured lawns, which are part and parcel for anywhere else I’ve lived. Imagine my surprise my first weekend in school when my friend and I were invited from the street into a family’s house for paella and lemonade, welcomed with open arms. I thought we were being tricked before I realized that this is the front-porch dwelling, exuberant Carnival conduct that I believe is exceptional from anywhere else in the American South and indeed the rest of the country.
What the visitor bureaus and Quarter tours won’t tell you is that loving New Orleans is often conditional and strained, a place I recognize for its faults just as confidently as its pleasures. Yesterday, I had my bicycle tire stolen. Here, I can’t walk five feet without tripping on a skate ramp of a sidewalk. I remember a homeless man hurling a can of shaving cream at me from the street with surprising precision.
In the end, none of these things can deter me from loving New Orleans. I wear that shirt proudly, knowing that I’ve never lived anywhere as unabashedly real. I’ve found myself not the same person since arriving, and as I approach graduation, I’m hard-pressed to imagine living anywhere else but this confounding, beautiful place.