Sweet City

How can we not help but treasure and save New Orleans?

By Dwight Young

Order a copy of Dwight Young's book of Back Page essays

Once when I was walking in the Faubourg Marigny (the neighborhood just downriver from New Orleans' French Quarter), I discovered that someone had scratched "my darlin Noo Awlins" in the wet cement of the sidewalk. I thought it was one of the truest, wisest inscriptions I'd ever read.

I've never lived in New Orleans. I've visited it maybe two dozen times in the past 20 years, but none of those stays lasted longer than a week. Yet even though my knowledge of New Orleans is not exhaustive, my experience of it has been intensive. In fact, at one point friends almost issued an edict forbidding me to visit the place anymore, because every time I went there I came home besotted with love and crawfish ?touff?e, dreamy-eyed and muddle-headed and muttering lines from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The adjective that best describes New Orleans is peerless. Many (or most) American cities look pretty much like one another, but this one's different. Sure, it has its share of characterless skyscrapers and strip malls, but many of its architectural wonders?not just the famous cast-iron galleries of the Quarter but also the Creole cottages, shotgun houses, and raised bungalows of a dozen off-the-tourist-track neighborhoods?simply aren't found in such gorgeous profusion anyplace else. If the song "America the Generic" ever gets written, New Orleans won't be mentioned in it.

Aside from its visual allure, the city offers a profusion of aural delights. You never know when you're going to be serenaded with a snatch of jazz or the joyous frenzy of gospel or the sudden blast of a riverboat's steam whistle. One night I heard a girl on a street corner sing "Desperado" in a voice so breathtakingly sweet and clear that I wonder if I'll ever fully recover from it. On another evening, I was sitting on the balcony of a friend's French Quarter apartment listening to Jessye Norman belt out Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs" when a storm swept in. The music got so thoroughly intertwined with the thunder and lightning that I thought, if I go to heaven, this is what the trip will sound like.

The city is full of old, precious things, but a museum it's not. Museums don't smell like mildew and magnolias, hot sauce and afternoon rain. Museums don't subject you to heat and humidity so murderous that you can't even summon the energy to sweat. Museums don't have sidewalks strewn with glitter and sequins, or above-ground tombs that make a cemetery look like a hobbit metropolis. Museums don't steal your heart and make you grateful for the theft.

Maybe you see why I can't bring myself to write?or even think?about New Orleans in the past tense. Some people say it would be foolish to spend billions to rebuild the city, since it'll only get submerged again sooner or later. I can't imagine what they mean. When Florence was flooded in 1966, no one suggested we should just board the place up and walk away. When San Francisco got knocked flat and burned up in 1906, no one doubted it would?and should?be rebuilt, better than before and as marvelous as ever.

When President Bush said it's impossible to imagine America without New Orleans, I almost stood up in my living room and cheered. Some places are just too important to let go of. An essential piece of our national soul abides in New Orleans, mud-spattered and moldy but alive, and if we lose this fabulous, funky city?either by turning our backs on it or by recasting it as a theme-park parody of itself?we'll never get it back.

I'd go tomorrow if I could. Many of the museums may still be closed, but the streets display works of art in iron and brick and stucco. I've heard that the Caf? du Monde has reopened, and I'm sure that in some kitchen in the Quarter or on Magazine Street, someone is assembling muffulettas or cooking up gumbo as dark as alluvial mud. I need to be there?and when I can't be there, I need to know that it's waiting for me.