If the young men (and a couple of women) displaying Confederate flags, outfitted in what is best described as biker-militia casual, are to be believed, the South Will Rise Again.
At least that’s what the banners sprinkled among the Confederate flags announce. However, on a bright Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, the South isn’t so much rising as it is reclining on a lawn across the street from a line of stone-faced police officers.
Behind the police line and surrounded by a makeshift fence, is a is statue of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederacy, the conglomeration of eleven slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861, precipitating the American Civil War. The dark echoes of that war continue to reverberate through this city of three hundred and eighty-four thousand (down about ninety thousand post-Hurricane Katrina) more than one hundred and fifty years after the South lost.
The city plans to tear down the Davis statue, one of four memorials to the South’s Confederate past the mayor and his council have earmarked for removal. That it’s taken so long to do this in a community that is sixty per cent African-American comes as a surprise. What is not so surprising is that these guys with the Confederate flags want the memorials to stay where they are.
“That statue has been here since 1908—this same exact spot since June 3, 1908,” one of the sons of the South explains. “All of a sudden they want to tear it down? It’s part of our heritage,”
Never mind that our southern son is actually from Tulsa, Oklahoma and that the statue was erected in 1911 not 1908.
“I’m from here,” assures his friend, standing nearby.
“We’re all in this together,” adds the guy from Oklahoma.
The Big Easy these days is decidedly uneasy, although for the first-time visitor, New Orleans, as it always has, puts on a fine, if slightly edgy, show, part history, part lesson in the failings of man confronted by nature, but mostly a reminder of the town’s dedication to ensuring that a good time is had by all.
Street musicians are everywhere along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Artists showing their work ring historic Jackson Square, and the palm readers in front of St. Louis Cathedral are out in force, anxious to tell you your future—a subject the first-time visitor would just as soon avoid.
There are lineups outside the Cafe du Monde, tourists anxious to savor the chicory coffee and beignets, a local favorite, basically deep-fried donuts drenched in powdered sugar. The fried oysters at Lűke, the upscale brasserie that features Creole cooking, are delicious. The dress code at the city’s most famous restaurant, Commander’s Palace, remains firmly in place: no jeans or shorts, collared shirts required, jackets preferred.
You can board the jam-packed St. Charles Avenue trolley, imaging how it inspired Tennessee Williams to write A Streetcar Named Desire. On a Saturday night along Frenchmen Street, the party never stops as mostly youthful revelers spill onto the roadway, moving from club to club. Good luck finding the sort of Dixieland Jazz that made the city famous (Dude, Al Hirt is dead), but there is plenty of great funk and blues.
The French founded New Orleans in 1718. Then the Spanish took over before the French came back long enough to sell Louisiana off to the Americans for fifteen million dollars. No matter who was in charge, the town always has had a reputation as a good place for a great time. A city born in sin, says Troy Taylor in his book Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy.
“From the original charters that were based on fraud to the emptying of French prisoners to provide settlers to the region,” writes Taylor, “widespread government corruption, gaudy social functions, rampant prostitution and frequent lapses in any civilized moral code, New Orleans has a long and very colorful history of crime and vice.”
A topless woman in the early evening on Bourbon Street is about as close to vice as a first-time visitor gets, although what exactly passes for vice these days is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s just that the rest of America has pretty much caught up with New Orleans. You don’t have to leave home to be bad anymore.
Too old to be too bad, even on Bourbon Street, the first-tine visitor retreats to the oak-shaded magnolia-scented gentility of the Garden District. Fine old Victorian houses, complete with Doric columns, are intersected every so often by intricate ironwork, reminding that the Spanish are long gone but not completely forgotten. The actor John Goodman lives in the district; Nicholas Cage owned a number of homes around here before he went bankrupt. Sandra Bullock occasionally occupies a weird Swiss-style creation that would look better on the side of an alp.
The area’s best-known resident, Interview with the Vampire novelist Anne Rice, gets the prize for the most ingenious celebrity use of the neighborhood. A native of the city, she acquired a number of houses in the area over the years and then set parts of her bestselling books in the them, thus sharply increasing their resale value.
The Lower Ninth Ward, poor and predominately African-American, was hardest hit by flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Given what this neighborhood has suffered, the first-time visitor crosses the St. Claude Avenue Bridge and descends onto a flat landscape crisscrossed by neatly laid-out streets, unable to shake the feeling that he is stepping onto hallowed ground, certainly ground zero for the immense tragedy of Katrina.
Nearly twelve years after some of the worst flooding in U.S. history (eighty per cent of the city was underwater), the Lower Ninth looks better than expected, although abandoned houses remain and there are plenty of cement foundations on empty plots of land to mark where homes once stood.
But there are also impressive numbers of new and refurbished brick and frame structures, built off the ground this time so that hopefully they can survive the next flood. The locals tell you that privately funded efforts had as much to do with the revival of the neighborhood as any government aid. The best known—and most colorful—of the rebuilt houses are those financed by the actor Brad Pitt. You can spot the ones he is responsible for by the solar panels mounted on their roofs.
Only thirty-seven per cent of the pre-Katrina population has returned to the Lower Ninth. What strikes the visitor is the silence of the empty streets, a few people sitting on their porches, the odd stroller along banks of levees that have been rebuilt and strengthened, but which still look awfully vulnerable to an untrained eye.
The visitor departs, uncertain whether he has seen a community better off than it was or found an impoverished neighborhood still struggling to survive. Maybe a bit of both.
The iconic New Orleans the first-time visitor imagined throughout the lifetime it has taken him to get here, endures, but then so does the New Orleans of disastrous news reports, the town still conflicted about race and heritage.
A couple of days later, the statute of Davis is gone. Masked workmen with a crane make it disappear early one morning just before daybreak. If the South is ever to rise again as the Confederate flag wavers who stood vigil so fervently hope, it will not do it under the gaze of Jeff Davis.
Perhaps the Big Easy lies a little less uneasy as a result.
Grateful thanks to New Orleans resident Alan Markfield and his partner, Barbara Roston, for their generosity and hospitality showing my wife Kathy and me around town. They made a first visit to this complex, endlessly fascinating city a joy.