I spent part of last week in New Orleans — my first time in that city. The photos included in this post are mostly of architecture and a few street scenes around the Vieux Carré. I’ll post other batches, including of jazz clubs, houses in the Garden District, and the enchanting light that came over the streets during an impending and fierce storm (including a visit to the again-going Old Absinthe House) in a later post.
A group of young women, dressed as angels (with iridescent haloes), congregate in front of the St. Louis Cathedral to prepare for a Joan of Arc-Twelfth Night parade that also marks the start of the Mardi Gras season. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.
I hope to spend time in New Orleans, again. It is a fascinating city to explore, and to try to process, on so many levels: its architecture and urbanism, its layered social and cultural history, the surprising way in which its high culture, cheap alcohol, traditional Catholicism, hedonism, classicism, neon, jazz, old money, abject poverty, and all else seem to (mostly) gracefully coexist. It reminds me of no other place in America, yet it could not exist in any other country.
The streets of New Orleans (at least, those in the Vieux Carré) are reminiscent of a Mediterranean city, maybe one in Spain, with low rooflines and floral balconies and breezy palms, and everything organized on a grid around a central plaza (anchored, of course, by a fine old church). Other aspects seem not-quite-American: many people dress more carefully in New Orleans than most Americans do elsewhere (except, perhaps, Boston). Streetcars still operate. Alcohol is everywhere in public. As is live music. And, in stark contrast to the genericism that has now conquered much of the United States, the local culture here struck me as the most vital I’d encountered in the States. That is, people participate in it. (Following the image above, an entire parade, including floats and more costumery, sponsored by a local krewe, would arrive.) Yet, for all its distinctions, it is a distinctly American city, combining influences that have only ever converged in this corner of the Deep South.
There were moments when I felt like I had opened a time capsule and entered a world where the twentieth century hadn’t quite arrived. Instead, this potent preserve of Victoriana and Vaudeville was floating obliviously on the sea of 21st century America. I’m sure such an impression is engineered by the tourism bureau; and pressing beyond the confines of historic neighborhoods would yield plenty of evidence to the contrary. But with such a concentration of historic spaces, inside and out, and so many people still participating in centuries-old traditions, any line between fantasy and living memory, like other contrasts in this strangely familiar city, can seem ephemeral.
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