current events

Tonight I dream of New Orleans (“N’awlins”)

The second I landed for the first time there was no denying it: I was in love with New Orleans. It was a bit grimy, yet charming, sad but vibrant and somehow chaotic at a slow pace. The multiculturalism of the city, embodied in its food, music and architecture make it a veritable delight to experience and puzzle to unravel. My hair was in non-stop frizz mode due to the humidity, but I didn’t mind because my stomach was having the time of its life. I came to find that some of my favorite food in the world is best done New Orleans style: gumbo, jambalaya, beignets, pralines, muffulettas, catfish po’boy and so on. Ah, the remoulade! The best breakfast I have ever had was at Fleur de Lis. Hands down! The best strawberry daiquiri I’ve had was at Cafe Marigny. My first old-fashioned was at Antoine’s. Of course, while I’m always in a state of food delight, I have to always be on high alert for the ever-present shrimp paste and for someone like me that is highly allergic to shrimp my culinary adventures, while amazingly delicious, also pose great peril. That’s the New Orleans that I love: all the senses are on high alert. Sometimes, when you wander through the city streets, you are in some form of haze. I’ve done the silly swamp tour although I was in a Dramamine haze. Other times I’ve been in anaphylactic shock-like haze due to a waiter’s poor understanding of what being allergic to shellfish means. But with the music blaring everywhere, with the historical significance and with the throngs of people on small city streets you can’t help but be a little foggy at times.

I have been there pre- and post-Katrina. Nothing saddens me more than how we have let that city down. It is the last standing, most unique city in the United States. Founded May 7, 1718 it has a rich and colorful history (and astrologically is a fellow Taurus-which means that it is a resilient and stubborn city that keeps finding a way to persevere). I for one cannot wait to see where it goes next.

My first trip to New Orleans was a post-college graduation trip with girlfriends from school. We stayed at the Fairmont Hotel in all its grandness and attended a phenomenal, super packed Run DMC concert at House of Blues. Unfortunately neither Run DMC nor the New Orleans Fairmont Hotel exist anymore, both due to tragic circumstances. Many trips and a decade later, I got the chance to experience The Roots at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. If you ever get a chance that festival is an experience worth having. The music at Preservation Hall, although off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and thus extremely touristy, is still pretty enthralling. If you want super local musical experience, for ostensibly $4 (the cost of two screwdrivers) I have had the chance to hear some of the most awesome live jazz in a room slightly bigger than my office.
I’ve been to several conferences held in New Orleans, including the American Psychological Association (APA) and HIV Prevention Leadership Summit (HPLS) and while I remember my meals with vivid accuracy, I couldn’t tell you one single thing of note about the conferences; namely because one was huge and filled with competing small-pond rock stars preaching to the groupies and the other – which had originally started off as community-driven event, but barely exists now, is more for the founders requiring grandees to attend it than for actual community members. Yup that’s community for you. Oh shucks, I digressed into another of my nonprofit and academia rants.

While at one of these conferences I did the “9th Ward” tour. I had been ambivalent about such a tour since it seems a bit in bad taste. I know, when I lived in Battery Park in NYC and passed “Ground Zero” every day on my way to work, I was annoyed by the tourists and felt a bit invaded. But I suppose the space becomes a place for the whole country to mourn and reflect and that must be respected. While on the “9th Ward” tour I saw a house that had a boat on top of it. I saw the handwritten “X” followed by numbers on houses denoting how many people had died in each house. Talk about a shock to the senses. All you could do on that tour was shake your head and wonder how this came to happen and why actions hadn’t been taken to fix the wrong we as a country had done, both in failure to prepare and failure to react to the devastation of Katrina. That night I went to dinner at the Court of Two Sisters, with my mentor, a known social justice advocate. We couldn’t help but note the history of this restaurant in light of what we had just experienced. The Court of Two Sisters once housed a governor of colonial Louisiana, later becoming the home of Bertha and Emma Camors, the two sisters after whom the restaurant is named. The sisters owned a “notions” shop here, selling imported Parisian perfume and other niceties for New Orleans’ upper-class ladies. What a contrast to what is occurring today in New Orleans. The city truly assaults one’s senses.
I love the Popeyes that pepper the city, the liquor drive-thrus and now the taco stands. Hondurans were the major portion of the Hispanic population in New Orleans until Katrina came. Now, the city has seen an increase in Mexicans who came to help rebuild as cheap, hard-working labor. Some estimate that the Hispanic population went from around 10,000 before Katrina to over 50,000 after. The architecture, if not the politicians, should be welcoming. And every academic, from infectious and tropical disease specialists to anthropologists to social psychologists are surveying, observing, interviewing, screening (and whatever other data collection method you want throw out there) the heck out of the emerging Hispanic population. Welcome to the Deep South where every Latino is an academic’s potential wet dream while also being the biggest conundrum and possibly biggest nightmare for existing social services providers. Language, translation, transportation and documentation issues abound. Question is where will New Orleans go now? The land of multiculturalism and the last unique city in America has a chance to enhance its vibrancy and controlled chaos.

New Orlean’s politics are served up in the gumbo and devoured like a catfish po’boy. Nothing escapes the native cynicism of the city, but nothing escapes their passion either. The music courses through the city’s veins and hopefully will never be muted. Tonight I dream of N’awlins.

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