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New Orleans a City Characterized by Its Diversity

City's culture developed and thrived with waves of immigrants

By Stephen Kaufman | Washington File White House Correspondent | 07 September 2005

Washington -- With much of the current news about New Orleans focused on desperate victims, destroyed neighborhoods and recovery efforts, it is sometimes easy to forget exactly what has been lost and why many are determined to resurrect it, whatever the cost.

Before Hurricane Katrina brought disaster on August 29, New Orleans was known as a city for parties and revelries such as Mardi Gras. It was the birthplace of jazz music, where one could listen to a brass band in the French Quarter while enjoying Creole-Cajun dishes like gumbo or jambalaya. Beneath the swampy and swank surface lurked the mysterious aura of voodoo, and the dark and tragic heritage of the African slave trade.

New Orleans began its life in 1718 as a French port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, serving as a hub for trade between towns along the river, the second largest watershed in the world, and gateway to markets in Europe and Latin America. The area was a rare spot of natural high ground between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. After France lost the Seven Years War in 1763, New Orleans and all of the Louisiana territory were ceded to Spain. France later resumed control after Napoleon conquered Spain in 1801, but sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803.

Washington Post writer Ken Ringle notes in an August 31 article that “death, particularly ghastly death, is part of the historic warp and woof of New Orleans.” Indeed, the city suffered devastating fires in 1788 and 1795 that destroyed most of its earliest architecture, as well as yellow fever epidemics, especially one in 1853 that killed nearly 10,000 of its residents.

A RESILENCE BORN OF DIVERSITY

It is a city defined by its special multicultural diversity of people who have shaped its history – especially African-American, French and Spanish Creole, Irish, Italian and German.

“[T]o speak of New Orleans’s resilience is simply to cite its history – a demographic and cultural melting pot of German industry and French and Spanish elitism, of Irish gregariousness and Sicilian emotionalism, of African exuberance and American frontier cussedness that embraces death, too, as a part of life,” Ringle writes.

“Katrina’s catastrophes will no more define New Orleans than the Nazi occupation defined Paris, though they may last almost as long,” he says.

Due to its role as a principal port, New Orleans played a leading role in the slave trade. Its slave market in the middle of the famous St. Louis hotel was the scene of heartbreaking separations of families, and abject humiliations. But the city also had North America’s largest community of free blacks before the American Civil War, many of whom worked as artisans, sculptors, businessmen and in other prominent positions.

French-speaking African-American poets and writers came together in the 1840’s to publish the first-ever literary magazine in Louisiana, called L’Album Litteraire.

Internationally acclaimed fiction writer Anne Rice writes in a September 4 New York Times editorial that the city “became home to blacks in a way, perhaps, that few other American cities have ever been.” Two of the most-respected African-American colleges, Dillard University and Xavier University, are located in New Orleans. After the civil rights movement helped to end segregation, the city’s black residents “entered all levels of life, building a visible middle class that is absent” in many other U.S. cities, Rice says.

THE UNIQUE MAGIC OF THE CREOLE CULTURE

The first settlers of New Orleans, French, Spanish and African-American, are known as Creoles. They spoke their own characteristic dialect of French, and their culture greatly has affected both New Orleans and the surrounding U.S. Gulf region. It is from the Creoles that the festival of Mardi Gras became an integral part of New Orleans culture. Celebrated the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, the revelry is marked by parades, costumes and colorful beads.

The Creoles also developed the cuisine for which New Orleans is famous, and which reflects the city’s multi-cultural heritage. Terry Thompson, in his book Cajun-Creole Cooking (HP Books, 1986), describes the cuisine as having “French roots, livened with Spanish spices, inspired by African vegetables and general magic, ‘Caribbeanized’ by West Indian hands, laced with black pepper and pork by the Germans, infiltrated with potatoes by the Irish, blasted with garlic and tomatoes by the Italians, and even touched in some ways by the Swiss, Dutch, Malagans and Malaysians.”

Specialties include beignets (also called “French donuts”), gumbo soup, jambalaya rice dishes, etouffee stew, and red beans and rice.

Irish immigrants began arriving in great numbers in the early 19th century, attracted by the cheap passage from the English port of Liverpool, where ships exporting cotton would return to the southern United States full of those seeking a new life in a new world. Germans and Italians soon followed.

Into this diverse demographic mixture, jazz music was born at the end of the 19th century in places like the New Orleans red-light district of Storyville. Jazz combined elements of ragtime, marching band music and blues, but added the widespread use of improvisation. A young cornet player named Louis Armstrong, born and raised in New Orleans, became the greatest jazz musician of his era and eventually one of the most popular performers in the world.

DETERMINATION IN THE MIDST OF ANGUISH

Today in the American media, many New Orleans writers, journalists and others with personal ties to the city are expressing conflicted feelings of anguish and a determination to see their city restored.

“Those of us who are from there are being left with a storehouse of memories that have lost their physical referents,” writes Christopher Rice September 4 in Salon.com.

He describes the spirit of New Orleans as “a wild hybrid spirituality that combines Catholic and Pagan influences into an adamant insistence upon enjoying the city's sensual beauty in the face of nature's constant encroachment.”

But, he says, the city’s spirit “does not depend on the specifics of its infrastructure.” New Orleans “has never offered permanence to anyone and there's no reason not to believe that something just as unique will replace her.”

Novelist Anne Rice criticizes the media’s focus of attention on the minority of residents who took advantage of the hurricane devastation to commit abhorrent crimes such as looting, rape and murder. “During this crisis, you failed us,” she says. “You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us ‘Sin City,’ and turned your backs.”

However, she says, “I know New Orleans will win its fight in the end,” citing the “very gentleness” of its residents “that gives them their endurance.”

“They will rebuild as they have after storms of the past; and they will stay in New Orleans because it is where they have always lived … where their churches were built by their ancestors, where their family graves carry names that go back 200 years,” she says.

Fellow author Christopher Rice says the city has a long history of “wearing down any invader that has tried to bring it mediocrity, convention, or most [important], despair.”

Like the continued failure of modern corporate influence to homogenize New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina also will fail to “escalate the city's lackadaisical pace or deprive it of its cultural identity,” he says.

For more information on the storm and its aftermath, see Hurricane Katrina.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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