Why New Orleans “Works”

After spending a few days in New Orleans I have come to a simple conclusion: There is no city quite like New Orleans in the rest of the United States. Its combination of old-world French influence, southern charm, bayou sensibility, and whatever other culture has passed through depositing some component of itself on this stalagmite of Americana.

For many of the same reasons and a lot of others New Orleans is lambasted by many who do not live in or who have never even been to the city. It’s below sea level, they cry. Or, it was ruined by Katrina so why bother? On and on the critics pile on and, yet, New Orleans survives and, dare we say, thrives. New Orleans “works.”

I do not mean “works” in the sense that someone steeped in the mythos of Rust Belt cities thinks of work—industrial facilities belching smoke, train yards full of cacophonous sounds, etc—but rather that something about the city, despite its many faults, attracts people.

It’s not about bars on Bourbon Street or voodoo tours, but that is part of the allure. It boils down to the bedrock principle that New Orleans was a city designed and built around people. Yes, interstates cut into the city along the western edge of the Central Business District and modern glass towers do rise from the same section of the city.

However, so much of the city is on the human scale. Cars do not rule as hordes of pedestrians make their way across streets and often times using a part of the street as a de facto sidewalk given the volume of foot traffic. As the city has been developed over hundreds of years and the limits of its geography forced the hands of the people building alcoves and pockets exist to surprise. In most modern U.S. cities the de facto answer when developing is to scrape as much clean as possible and build a monolith. If you do not believe me, spend an afternoon in Denver and tell me what developers prefer to do when given the choice. There is still space in New Orleans for the shop making hand loomed rugs because it is located in a storefront no more than ten feet wide.

New Orleans is also not homogenized like so many other American cities. If you get knocked out and woke up in many mid to large sized American cities you would be hard pressed to know where you were at save for the loyalties to professional sports teams. If you woke up in New Orleans almost everything would scream where you were finding yourself foggy headed. Now, there is the threat that New Orleans will become a bayou themed shopping center with Bubba Gump and H&M outlets like so many other places. Just imagine the horror on my face when someone tells me that they ate out in New Orleans and thought the Guy Fieri joint was so authentic.

If you get a chance, enjoy this unique piece of America before it gets wrecked by hipsters and developers.


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