By J’Nelle Holland No one knows when or how New Orleans got the nickname, “The City That Care Forgot.” Well-documented research pins the first written acknowledgement on a tourist brochure produced by the Federal Writer’s Program of 1938. They seemed confident that this title was traditional. I grew up aware of it, not knowing what it really meant. As a fourth-generation New Orleanean, and a 36-year resident of Santa Barbara, I will never be separate from NOLA — as we affectionately call her. Her decadence and aliveness lures me from across the country. It’s the sultry climate, the grand and dilapidated architecture, soulful music, and addictive food. She’s in my blood, a generational miasma.
With more than 50 family members in close proximity, I fly back two to three times a year. Last August, my son and I visited my mother, now 92 years old. There we bonded with cousins in the typical NOLA way, by going drinking and dancing in the neighborhood — swinging to the rich tunes of the New Orleans Jazz Vipers at the Rock ’n’ Bowl. Where else could you experience such quality musical performance on the same floor as 10 bowling lanes? My heart was full of pride as I shared my quirky heritage with my son.
Who could have imagined that 10 days later, the very rooms we’d slept in would be swamped with murky filth, floating antiques, and drowned genealogy documents? And these were conditions to be thankful for. I wept as I watched from afar — the abomination of flooding, rescues, lack of rescues, and the desperate isolation of the citizens of NOLA. My heart was unbearably heavy, fearing that New Orleans would never be the same. In the weeks and months to follow, the news was even worse. The vastness of the damage and the hopelessness of recovery were wearily taking its toll on just about everyone.
Now that NOLA rarely makes headlines outside the state, many assume that everything’s back to normal, but it’s not. The situation is a national problem that’s not going away. I encourage all my friends to read Bayou Farewell by Mike Tidwell. It’s a real-life drama of the rapidly disappearing land and culture of South Louisiana, one that could be saved, if our government cared.
Katrina’s Wake Six months after Katrina I returned again to NOLA. It was Mardi Gras time and everyone who once lived there and could possibly make it back did. The overall feeling was of solidarity, in spite of unbelievable hardships. Last fall many doubted that there’d be a Mardi Gras. Yet this year’s celebration was remarkably exuberant — everything that’s good and bad about Mardi Gras was present. New Orleaneans are fiercely loyal to our traditions. “Mardi Gras’s in our DNA,” more than one reveler reminded me.
What Katrina’s wake made visible was what’s really at stake. It’s not just the physical survival of the landmass known as South Louisiana that’s in danger, it’s a way of life. New Orleans is not merely the sum of historical events that have taken place there, it’s her people who create the living culture. Without them it’s a city devoid of soul. (Read Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza and re-learn what “a soul” means.) When people used to ask me where I’m from and I’d say, “New Orleans,” invariably it brought a smile to their faces. Now, when I say I’m from New Orleans, most people express sorrow for the tragedy that recently occurred — the city of comedy and tragedy.
Yes, it is a tragedy; 300,000 citizens of greater New Orleans still do not have homes with electricity, water, garbage, or sewer service. Some have uninhabitable shambles, nothing to come home to. Some will never make it back. And the city will always have a void from the loss of them, exemplified by the empty floats in this year’s parades — tributes to those who perished in the flood.
But the flipside of tragedy is comedy. And probably better than any others, the citizens of New Orleans know how to laugh at themselves. This year’s parade floats will go down in history as the most satirical. Everybody and everything was game. Blanco, Brown, and Nagin were Category 5 targets. Even President Bush didn’t escape the wrath of the “Krewe of Chaos,” as the figurehead of a float mocking disastrous leaders. One float in the “Mid City” parade commemorated “Refrigerator Heaven,” where everyone’s fridge went after the EPA’s refrigerator graveyard. Another even poked fun at looting — with a grocery basket full of TVs, cameras, etc. — titled “Making Groceries,” the Cajun term for shopping.
Parade floats that had been damaged in the flood were covered with the same kind of signs that littered the neutral grounds months earlier, only no sarcasm was spared. One advertised “The Insurance Adjuster from Hell,” another “The Crust of Society — New Orleans Mold,” and another demanded that someone remove the city’s bathtub ring. This year locals in costume took advantage of the blue tarps to create “FEMA fashions,” or poke fun at the city of blue roofs floating in muck gumbo. One roaming group of chefs had a cart called “The Katrina Deli,” serving “Pigs in a Blanco,” “Bush Baloney Sandwiches,” and “Furniture Upside-Down Cake,” along with the flagship drink, of course, “The Hurricane.” Creativity was amply fueled by travesty.
The “Zulu” paraders warmed my heart, because the African-American population suffered dearly during the flood. In spite of their hardships they were out in full regalia and more than generous with their throws. Not everyone knows that Mardi Gras is a gift for the people, by the people. The city of New Orleans supplies only police and garbage cleanup. The rest of the party exists because of valued traditions.
Most people think that Mardi Gras is just debauchery in the French Quarter, and there’s no denying that some pretty raunchy sights are there. But unless you’ve lived in this city, you may not have enjoyed the parades passing through the neighborhoods.
We parked ourselves with friends in front of the now famous boarded-up business on St. Charles Ave. A hand-painted sign dated 9/2 reads (in part) “Don’t even think of it. I’m inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, and a claw hammer.” Next panel reads: “9/11 Still here, woman left Fri, cooking up pot of dog gumbo.” Last panel “Y’all come back. See ya here for Mardi Gras — I’ve got my spot.”
It’s not the plastic trinkets they come for; it’s the rash and foolish merriment. A mass of strangers is jumbled together: Old people stand in front just to catch a glimpse of their grandkids marching in a band or dancing the “funky butt” down the street; little kids ride on shoulders or sit in specially made ladder-boxes; people stand amid piles of trash, folding chairs, ice chests, and barbecues. Each time a float comes, a sea of hands goes up waving, everyone’s screaming, jumping. People see someone they know on a float and go ballistic, until they receive bundles of otherwise worthless baubles. People you’ve never met offer you beads, beer, and food. Jubilant shouts mixed with wild music and the noise of the tractors that pull the floats is deafening. If you’ve ever experienced this joy, then you know it’s worth caring about.
During this window of celebration, troubles are forgotten. Tragedy is mocked and the spirit of rebirth is extolled. From devastation, wings begin to sprout. We are celebrants of a cultural rite.
And now, I ask you all to care about New Orleans. Read the books mentioned in this article. Visit NOLA for Jazz Fest next month, your summer vacation, or Mardi Gras next year. Order books, art, music, or any items from local New Orleans businesses. Help bring misplaced locals back by providing a demand for their unique culture. Y’all come back now. Ya hear?
FOUR•ONE•ONE Keep a pulse on what’s going on in New Orleans and surrounds through the Times-Picayune’s Web site, nola.com; and Gambit Weekly’s bestofneworleans.com. Donate what you can to reputable organizations like Habitat for Humanity (New Orleans branch) or directly to local schools and hospitals. Review and sign these extremely important petitions: • capwiz.com/wetlands/issues/alert/?alertid=8314486&type=ML; • democracyinaction.org/dia/organizationsORG/GRN/campaign .jsp?campaign_KEY=2682; • democracyinaction.org/GRN/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=1521. For more info on these issues, visit americaswetland.com, leveesnotwar.org, or crcl.org.