If the restoration of New Orleans fails as miserably as its rescue, the nation will have lost not only a cultural treasure but an important enclave of progressive values and Democratic strength in the Deep South.

From the time French explorers claimed a clearing for a settlement along the massive river three centuries ago, New Orleans existed as a place distinctly different from the rest of the country. There was nothing remotely Puritan about its early years. A strong hint of the pagan could be smelled in the air, and in modern times the city became a refreshing detour off the Bible Beltway. While the rest of the region exercised piety, New Orleans honored tolerance. In New Orleans, wine, women and song were not synonymous with sin; gay people found refuge; and racially mixed couples were acceptable at a time when there were laws against miscegenation in neighboring states.

New Orleans was not without the racial tensions and urban problems that grip other American municipalities. Its public schools had deteriorated badly, presenting an image as shameful as its gang-infested housing projects. In the days since Katrina struck, the world has been exposed to New Orleans’ saddest and seamiest side: the inequities that trapped the poor in neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding, the distrust that troubled relations between blacks and whites. New Orleans was always a poor place; that’s why the blues resonated so clearly here. Yet a dogged live-and-let-live spirit helped the city transcend its difficulties and persevere as one of the last resorts for romantics.

Though a polyglot army of pirates and militiamen fought a famous battle a few miles down the river at the end of the War of 1812, New Orleans was not known to be bellicose like its sister cities in the South. The city surrendered without a fight at the beginning of the Civil War and endured its occupation with characteristic élan. Residents painted the visage of Union General Benjamin Butler on the bottom of their chamber pots and dumped the morning contents on the heads of Yankee soldiers from the same balconies where their descendants would fling Mardi Gras beads a century later. That was the extent of the resistance. New Orleans did not suffer from the hard-core Confederacy complex that still contributes to the South’s conservatism. The city got over the war and went about the business of growing as a cosmopolitan port.

The city harbored slave markets in the first half of the nineteenth century. But even before Emancipation, New Orleans had a bourgeois class known as “free gentlemen of color.” Many came from the Caribbean, spoke French and supported a network of educators, musicians and writers. After Reconstruction, African-Americans and Creoles gained a foothold in New Orleans more rapidly than elsewhere in the South. Well before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, New Orleans blacks voted in large numbers, encouraged by the quirky populist regime of Huey Long, which controlled Louisiana during the Depression. The city’s black society sent out two sons, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, who became mayors of Atlanta. By the mid-1970s the black majority had gained political supremacy in New Orleans as well, resulting in a succession of black mayors that continues to this day.

Disgruntled whites shuffled off to suburbs in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, and their departure left the city increasingly in the hands of blacks and whites unperturbed by racial fears. When David Duke, the wizard of a faction of the Ku Klux Klan, wound up in a runoff for governor of Louisiana in 1991, he was rejected overwhelmingly in New Orleans, where 87 percent voted for the eventual winner, Edwin Edwards. A year later the New Orleans vote provided Bill Clinton’s margin of victory in Louisiana.

Politics in New Orleans has been a byproduct of a way of life that grew out of the city’s history. While much of the South was being settled by Calvinistic Scots-Irish immigrants, New Orleans developed as home for a mélange of ethnic backgrounds. French and Spanish flags flew over the city before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Slavery brought thousands from Africa. Then came the Irish and Italian laborers, German businessmen, Greek restaurateurs and merchants from the Middle East. By the beginning of the twentieth century New Orleans stood as a largely Roman Catholic island in a sea of Southern Baptists. A strong, stable Jewish population provided more leavening. The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart might prosper down Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, but New Orleans was hostile territory for the tent revivalists and braying fundamentalist demagogues.

From its site in the deepest part of the South, New Orleans acted as an anti-Montgomery, offering an antithesis to the Southern stereotypes of redneck sheriffs, moonlight and magnolias. And it stubbornly resisted modern homogenization. New Orleans was a city of idiosyncrasies, sweeping from the palatial mansions along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line to the rundown bungalows and shotgun houses in the working-class wards. Much of the architecture in the fabled French Quarter either reflected a Spanish influence or consisted of Creole cottages built in the Caribbean style. Despite its name, the Quarter was actually a residential neighborhood for Sicilian families for most of the past century, until it was discovered by artists and writers and antiestablishment characters such as Ruthie the Duck Girl, an elderly woman who kept a duck on a leash and cadged drinks in the corner bars.

In Faulkner, Joseph Blotner’s biography, the author writes of how the aspiring Mississippi novelist and others were attracted to New Orleans after World War I. These “young artists in revolt and champions of the arts” were reacting, Blotner says, to H.L. Mencken’s scornful 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart.” They felt Mencken’s theory could be disproved in New Orleans.

The South, Mencken had claimed, was a cultural wasteland. “In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate,” Mencken wrote, “there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays, or a single monument that is worth looking at.” Yet in New Orleans there were museums and orchestras and theaters. And the city nurtured writers, from Kate Chopin and Lillian Hellman to early Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson and, later, to Walker Percy and Richard Ford. Tennessee Williams called the French Quarter, the neighborhood he chose as his home, “the last frontier of Bohemia.”

Before the storm New Orleans hosted two literary festivals: one linked to Faulkner, the other to Williams. The latter featured a contest for those who felt they could shout “Stella!” the loudest, a slightly refined example of street theater.

New Orleans could be raunchy. The striptease joints on Bourbon Street were tolerated for tourists’ sake. But New Orleans preferred its own kind of spectacle, using the slightest excuse for a parade. St. Patrick’s Day. St. Joseph’s Day. Anybody’s birthday. Hundreds of transvestites in outrageous drag marched every Labor Day in connection with an event called “Southern Decadence Weekend.” To tweak the wealthy barons of Uptown, who bankrolled Mardi Gras through their private krewes–as they called the organizations responsible for the lavish carnival floats–commoners organized a rump parade called the “Krewe of Barkus.” It involved several thousand hounds of all description parading through the French Quarter. Most famously, New Orleans turned a religious event into a bacchanal, spending the two weeks leading to Lent in revelry as boisterous as the celebrations in Venice and Rio de Janeiro. Lent, when it came, was not observed faithfully, abstinence not being in the New Orleans manner. Bars were open 24/7 and drinking permitted on the street. The city actually had an ordinance requiring bartenders to furnish plastic takeout containers known locally as Go-cups.

The celebrities in New Orleans were chefs, men and women who enjoyed a higher place in the city’s pantheon than sports figures, political leaders or television personalities. New Orleanians talked about eating like Bostonians talk baseball. Visitors might have known about Antoine’s and Commander’s Palace, but locals knew Mandina’s and Casamento’s. The native cuisine was Creole–not to be confused with Cajun–and many of the ingredients came from the nearby Gulf. There was nothing bland about it. Even the lesser dishes were unique: the gigantic Muffuletta sandwich built with cold-cut salami and ground olives, the Po’ Boys bulging with fried oysters, the Lucky Dogs that gave sustenance to millions of late-night drunks. (Oh, that Ignatius J. Reilly, the purveyor of Lucky Dogs in A Confederacy of Dunces, could see his city now.)

As much as New Orleans loved good food, it moved to music. Gospel. Folk. Funk. Blues. Rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz was born here, and when someone died here there was no better sendoff than a jazz funeral beginning with soulful dirges and ending in an explosion of colorful umbrellas and an upbeat version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” New Orleanians appreciated good music–Mencken be damned. They were connoisseurs of the improvisation or the backbeat. They knew that Kermit Ruffins blew his horn on Thursday night at an out-of-the-way spot in the Bywater section. That Aaron Neville sang carols a cappella on Christmas Eve at a church on Rampart Street.

Suddenly, the sounds are silent, the streets still, the people dispersed. Merriment has given way to lamentation, and no one knows when the good times will roll again.