Director, Producer, Artist

What Makes New Orleans So Unique

Posted on: May 22, 2013

Louisiana and the good life


A Louisiana native friend of mine who works in politics in Washington writes:

I was talking with a friend in DC not long ago (another Southern expat), and we agreed that people from Louisiana, like nowhere else, have the best understanding of “the good life.” It’s OK to be average there – to go to work each day, come home, have a beer, and love your family and friends. One thing that really sucks about DC is that everyone here very seriously carries the burden of having to Change The World.

Man, is that ever true. I have never lived anywhere in this country like Louisiana in this regard. I’ve lived places where people were more socially reserved and driven than others (New York City vs. Dallas), but nowhere like Louisiana in terms of the good life, measured not by material wealth or career advancement. When we were first married, my wife, who was born and raised in Dallas, was sometimes frustrated by the front porch culture she’d encounter when we’d go down from New York to visit my family. My folks love to sit on the front porch and talk to whoever comes by. And somebody is always coming by. It’s pleasant, to be sure, but Julie wasn’t used to front porch culture as a way of life. But as she got used to it, she came to appreciate how rare it is nowadays to be able to just sit there and enjoy your drink and being with your friends and family.

People do this in other places, I know. But it really is a way of life in Louisiana, at least south Louisiana, in a fashion I’ve not seen anywhere else. When I was growing up in our town as a kid, the utility company undertook to build a nuclear power plant on the river, which brought thousands of construction workers in from up North. I well remember listening to some of these folks sitting in our living room telling my parents that they had never lived in a place like West Feliciana Parish. People were so nice to them, and really were laid back and able to enjoy life. A few of them said that when the job was over, they were going to try to figure out a way to stay. And they did.

You grow up with this and take it for granted. And then you go to college, you get ambitious, and therefore easily frustrated with the laissez-faire attitude, and its effect on public culture in Louisiana. The easygoing attitude towards life tends to manifest itself in a tolerance for corruption. Things that ought to get done don’t tend to get done. It was galling, but not surprising, to learn after Katrina that state money that had been appropriated to strengthen the levees was spent by a corrupt New Orleans politician on a Mardi Gras monument. That seemed so perfectly symbolic of what’s wrong with Louisiana. It is hard for an ambitious, educated young Louisianian to decide to stay at home. Jim Picht, a Louisiana economics professor, has some hard words about the state’s brain drain:

Louisiana ranks at or near the bottom of just about every indicator of social welfare in the United States. These include literacy, education, income, health, and crime. According to Sutherlin, our “misery index” is the highest in the nation and our standard of living is lower than Puerto Rico’s. Our roads are among the worst in the nation, costing the average resident of Baton Rouge $600 a year in extra car maintenance. We’re a net importer of minimum wage labor and a net exporter of college graduates, and we were for decades prior to Katrina. That disaster only salted the wound. … The death of a state with so many strengths doesn’t happen by accident. It requires considerable effort to squander so much. Corruption, bad fiscal policy, and inattention to infrastructure and education all play their parts.

This is why so many of us leave. It’s rational to leave. Louisiana is less a part of America than an Americanized Mediterranean or Latin American nation annexed into the United States, and if you expect life there to measure up to American standards, brother, you’re seeing things the wrong way. Here’s an interesting insight about New Orleans by the New Urbanist guru Andres Duany, who got to know the city post-Katrina, working there to rebuild:

Apart from the misconceptions of the tourist, I had also been predisposed by the media to think of New Orleans as a charming but lackadaisical and fundamentally mismanaged place that had been subjected to unwarranted devastation, with a great deal of anger and resentment as a result. That is indeed what I found at first. But as I engaged in the planning process I came to realize that the anger I witnessed was relative. It was much less, for example, than the bitterness one encounters in the typical California city plagued with traffic. The people of New Orleans have an underlying sweetness and a sense of humor, irony, and graciousness that is never far below the surface. These are not hard people.

Pondering this one day, I had an additional insight. I remember specifically when on a street in the Marigny I came upon a colorful little house framed by banana trees. I thought, “This is Cuba.” (I am Cuban.) I realized at that instant that New Orleans is not really an American city, but rather a Caribbean one. I understood that, when seen through the lens of the Caribbean, New Orleans is not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities. This insight was fundamental because from that moment I understood New Orleans and truly began to sympathize. But the government? Like everyone, I found the city government to be a bit random; then I thought that if New Orleans were to be governed as efficiently as, say, Minneapolis, it would be a different place—and not one that I could care for. Let me work with the government the way it is. It is the human flaws that make New Orleans the most human of American cities. (New Orleans came to feel so much like Cuba that I was driven to buy a house in the Marigny as a surrogate for my inaccessible Santiago de Cuba.)

When understood as Caribbean, New Orleans’s culture seems ever more precious…

That’s true about Louisiana in general. These are not hard people — and that’s why Louisiana is so easy to care for. Every Louisiana expat I’ve known in my own expatriated years talks about it with such intense, usually mixed, emotions. Even folks who are angry about the place seem to know that their anger comes from heartbreak: they love it so much, but it is so, so disappointing. A dear friend, a Louisiana expat who lives and works in London, wrote me after he learned that I was moving back to our homeland, saying that he thought this was a great idea, because it has seemed to him that I’ve been trying to recreate what I loved about Louisiana in all the places I’ve been living. I thought that was a great insight, actually. Whenever a big storm is coming, my instinct is to ice down the beer and get out the gumbo pot. Now I’ll be living in a place where that actually makes sense to people.

Louisiana is a place where it’s easy to be frustrated, if you’re ambitious, or even if you have the perfectly reasonable expectation that things are supposed to work rationally. You can’t really romanticize these severe problems away. But also easy to be happy if you adjust those expectations of daily life, and of your life in general. I wrote in this space (hereherehere, here, and here) during our recent trip to St. Francisville to bury my sister about how moved I was by the outpouring of love and support from the community for my sister’s family during their time of trial — not only in Ruthie’s death, but throughout her entire 19-month struggle with cancer. The communal solidarity was astonishing, even a revelation to me. I mean, I knew I came from a good place, but I had not appreciated before how much I needed to be in a place like this. People are so easy to be with. They’re happy to see you come, and sorry to see you go. Mr. Ronnie has decided it might be a good night to make a gumbo at his camp on the creek, and wants to know if y’all want to come over? Just pick up a couple of six packs of beer and head down there, and sit on the front porch and drink and eat and and laugh and tell stories. That’s all. But that’s everything. Do you see? To be freed from the felt burden of having to Change the World, of having to get ahead, of having to think of your life in terms of achieve, achieve, achieve – it’s an unusual thing. You can be only okay in Louisiana, or maybe even something of a mess, and they’ll love you anyway, as long as you can laugh at yourself and at life, and know how to sit on the front porch, so to speak, and pass a good time.

I have a couple of old friends who left Louisiana 20 years or so ago for a better job in Minneapolis. They’re so sick of life there they can barely stand it, and would come home tomorrow if there were any good jobs. Can you have what’s good about Louisiana along with a booming economy? Or are the two mutually exclusive? Maybe they are. There’s a reason the Germans and the Dutch and the Scandinavians are the richest people in Europe, but they all want to vacation in corrupt, inefficient, life-loving Italy, Greece, and Spain.

I wrote back to my DC friend:

That’s the thing about Louisiana: people are pretty satisfied with their lives. It can look like being accepting of mediocrity, and it often is. But it can also look like a basic stance of gratitude for life, and that’s very appealing.

Here’s the thing: you’re probably not going to get rich in Louisiana, but if, to paraphrase the poet, you learn to love your crooked homeland with your crooked heart, you can be rich in ways that don’t make sense to your average Suburban-American. And you can’t earn that kind of wealth; you can only receive it as a gift, as a grace.


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