I miss New Orleans. I imagine I am one of millions, including the many who had to leave before, during, or after Katrina and were never able to go back. I have only been there twice, during two consecutive Easter weekends, but it is my favorite city in the world (edging out even Portland, Oregon, which is a brilliant, brilliant place that I still adore). Though I can never hope to understand New Orleans (no matter how many documentaries I watch or how thoughtfully I follow the HBO series Treme), I felt almost instantly the first day I was there that New Orleans understood me. That it understands everybody, really, and that everybody is welcome there– writers and poets and musicians and chefs and artists of course but also drag queens and pirates and science fiction fans and voodoo priestesses and prophets.
Even with all of the coverage the city received after Katrina, I wonder if most people really understand how important New Orleans is in terms of shaping American culture. Congo Square in New Orleans was one of the only places in 18th century America where African slaves were allowed to play their music, sing, and dance on the Sundays that they had free in the tradition of Spanish and French colonialism (as opposed to English colonialism). Because of this weekly event, where crowds of 600 or more slaves would gather and townspeople would come to watch the dancing and listen to the music, New Orleans became rich with the musical and cultural traditions of Africa and the Caribbean. Congo Square is thus said to be the birthplace of jazz (and perhaps, even of rock and roll).
New Orleans doesn’t feel like any other American city, though. Many people say that it feels either European or Caribbean, which makes perfect sense given its history and geography. It’s special. And fragile. It takes in a rich gumbo of cultures and peoples, simmers everything over a tropical heat in Mississippi Delta mud, and turns it all into a culture that soaks itself, swims, and proudly parades, dripping, in gorgeous food and art and music.