A young Louis Armstrong, perhaps seven years old, hangs around outside the door of a ramshackle building on Basin Street, listening through the window to the syncopated sound of Buddy Bolden blowing a trumpet for a raucously appreciative audience inside. Little Louis smiles, puckers out his cheeks, and blows while humming the melody to himself….
The French artist Edgar Degas sits in the Cotton Exchange on the corner of Carondelet and Gravier, watching his relatives work. First with a pencil, he begins to sketch the scene. Eventually his sketch becomes a painting, capturing brilliantly the essence of the city’s unique combination of industry and indolence….
Colonel Andrew Jackson rides into town and begins recruiting able-bodied men to volunteer to help with the coming battle against British invaders. Some of his best intelligence comes from a dashing pirate, popular with the ladies and known for his rakish charm. Together, Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the townsmen and Jackson’s army meet the British downriver from the city, in a place called Chalmette, and give the Redcoats a monumental thrashing….
In the 1950s, a young man from a famous literary family — who had hoped to become a doctor, but whose career had been derailed by tuberculosis — settles first in a city on the mighty Mississippi and then across the lake in Covington, where he eventually writes an award-winning novel called The Moviegoer. By the time he dies nearly three decades later, his literary opus has earned Walker Percy a reputation as a sage of modern Catholicism and one of his age’s great men of letters. In a private letter describing the appeal of his adopted metropolis, Percy praises its “unique admixture of foreignness and Deep South-ness”….
In an 80,000-seat football stadium on a private college campus, a ruddy-faced quarterback named Billy Kilmer, who once had been told he might never walk again after a car accident, ignores his supposedly professional team’s pathetic playbook to draw plays in the dirt, trying to figure out a way to get a wobbly pass into the hands of a slow-footed 17th-round draft choice named Abramowicz before being pounded into the turf by pass rushers barely troubled by Kilmer’s porous offensive line. Kilmer eventually is traded to the Washington Redskins and replaced by a southern legend named Archie Manning, whose own years being plagued by a horrible but lovable organization are redeemed by a son named Peyton who wins a Super Bowl….
That football team, known as the Saints, captures the heart of the city, and its black-and-gold colors become as much a part of the local landscape as the port and the parades and the “unique admixture” of cultures. One of the city’s famous sons, one of the nation’s earliest successful rock musicians known for catchy tunes such as “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That a Shame,” not only refuses to move out of his modest original neighborhood home but paints it black and gold in honor of the Saints. Later, Fats Domino will be stranded in that home during a hurricane, finally to be rescued and moved into the college apartment of his granddaughter’s boyfriend, to sleep on the boyfriend’s couch. Eighteen months later, that boyfriend, JaMarcus Russell, becomes the very first choice in the NFL draft….
Other colors, though, are equally identifiable with the city. In 1872, the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanov visited, and the city’s businessmen organized a parade in his honor on the already-traditional day of revelry before Ash Wednesday. Also in his honor, the new organization, called simply Rex, adopts the Romanov house colors: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. Modern Mardi Gras, the world’s greatest party, is born….
At one of the world’s greatest restaurants, the southern city’s Italian-American mayor with a New Jersey-like accent hosts the President of the United States as the President eats an unfamiliar shellfish dish. Awed to be seated next to the President, Mayor Robert Maestri remains tongue-tied for awkward minute after awkward minute…until he recognizes a subject, namely food, that any two men can talk about. Mustering his courage, he points to President Franklin Roosevelt’s plate and says, “So, how d’ya like dem ersters?” And so it is that the already-popular dish known as “Oysters Rockefeller” is made world-famous….
That same city spawns other world-famous restaurants — Galatoire’s, Brennan’s. Emeril’s — and so many top musicians — with names like Neville, Toussaint, Connick, Marsalis, and Jelly Roll — that one wonders if anybody there can even communicate without a melody and a backbeat. Authors, too, grow from the city’s streets like weeds, and others from far-flung locales settle there as if attracted by magnetic force.
The city’s port system is the largest in the world measured by bulk tonnage. It also is one of the world’s busiest cruise ports. The city serves as the hub of the nation’s most fertile seafood-producing area. And it serves as the business hub for 15 percent of the nation’s petroleum production.
Two years ago today, as everybody knows, as much as three quarters of that city was destroyed by wind-driven water. The water gushed through floodwalls falsely guaranteed by the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, having been built to inappropriate specifications forty years ago by the Corps.
New Orleans still suffers terribly today. And it remains as true now as it did when so many immediate-post-storm promises were made two years ago: A United States which fails to bring New Orleans back will be a nation that suffers a loss of culture and personality, not to mention a loss of a sheer joy of living, that is so terrible a loss as to be unimaginable.
New Orleans still needs help. We cannot afford to let it die.