How Can You Explain New Orleans?

Have had a few people talk to me about my blog last week, about the Colorado gentleman who experienced some “effects” from Hurricane Katrina—the humidity went up. Of course we agree this insensitive soul should have kept his mouth shut. A New Orleans-born friend who lives in the western U.S. said that a gentleman attending a picnic with her didn’t want to seem offensive, but wondered why anyone would want to rebuild a city that was below sea level. In other words: what’s the point, if it’s just going to flood again.

She had to point out that, while her parents’ house flooded, they’d lived there for 53 years and never had a flood. My mother lived in her house for 35 years, and it never flooded, but got 10 feet of water as as result of the tidal wave generated by Katrina.

Hell, we might as well move everyone off the coasts and into the interior of the country, right? I suppose they don’t feel that way in Holland, since the Netherlands has managed to control the flooding in their country.

OK, I’m starting rant, so let me get to the point:

It’s not that often that I fall in love with a book, but after reading through New Orleans, What Can’t Be Lost: 88 Stories and Traditions from the Sacred City, I’m raving about it.

New Orleans, What Can’t Be Lost: 88 Stories and Traditions from the Sacred City

I purchased my copy at the event where Sweet Home New Orleans published its report on the state of the music community last week. Christopher Porché West, whose photographs you’ve probably seen in New Orleans (I have one of his in my office), contributed all the photos in the book.  Porché West has been a documentarian of the “Sacred City” for over 30 years now, and his photographs, coupled with short jewel-like written vignettes about what makes New Orleans such a special place, create a book to be treasured for anyone who loves New Orleans.

It’s almost impossible for any media—television show, film, poem, photograph, visual art, essay, book—to capture the essence of New Orleans, but I’d say this book comes pretty damned close.

There are entries from everyone from Poppy Z. Brite (“The defining characteristic of New Orleans is surely a live-and-let-live credo, a near-universal belief that as long as that fat man wearing his pirate costume and pushing the hot dog cart [referring to Ignatius Reilly] isn’t hurting anybody, he’s not crazy, he’s just interesting.”) to Anders Osborne (“The music of New Orleans is as rich as the smoke of fifteen kitchens cooking at the same time on one block; it is as deep as ten thousand years of culture merging on one square; it is as joyous as the birth of a child and can be as mournful as life without any hope or faith.”) to Simonette Berry (“Performance is a part of daily life here. The famous costuming tradition is translated into a different ceremony through the decoration of homes and businesses.”) to Michael Sartisky (“New Orleans was, is and will be—even more so if we perish—the shrine and seedbed of American culture.”).

These are certainly not the most incisive, pithy or profound statements from this book, but it’s so chock-a-block with ideas and realities about what makes New Orleans so special, that’s it’s difficult to quote what’s best.

The photos by Porché West aren’t necessarily tied to the essays within, but they certainly demonstrate what the city is about; its beauty, pathos, fun, decay, music and all the rest.

One of the best things about the books is that its proceeds will benefit Sweet Home New Orleans, an organization that’s done so much to help local musicians and culture standard-bearers recover after Hurricane Katrina.

If you love New Orleans and find that why you love it so is difficult for you to express in words (as I often am), then get this book, read it, and buy one for your friends

  • Twj

    I would recommend that those who clearly do not understand New Orleans or the implications of
    Katrina see the Shearer’s documentary film, “The Big Uneasy.”

  • Pinehollow

    Dear Jan, this is only my 2nd week to read your blog, seeinz i get offbeat and am not a computer bug, Last week you had my heart and now, today, i have already ordered your ‘book of the–5 years’ and like you, photography is the capture of those memories that life makes and it also steals my heart. ansel adams. i love so much how you and joe and offbeat make my day here in wisc. Carr valley makes way better cheese than what i gave you. next time i will bring what I like!! barb&carl

  • Pinehollow

    i heard an interview but did not get to see. sounds like you did. very moving, yes? the crap that gets covered up. and now the oil spill. and yes i will see, the big uneasy. read jan’s blog. get the book from LA press!

  • jacq

    Just like humans, the most interesting places to live aren’t predictable or explainable. They don’t have perfect weather, well behaved human-droids and top 40 ‘music’ assaulting the ears. I look forward to reading this book.