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.