We talk a lot about culture here in New Orleans. We should: we’re fortunate to have one of the most vibrant, eclectic, and most thrilling cultures in the United States, if not the world. The mélange of histories, geographies, ethnicities, and styles that defines this city challenges us no end, revealing its innovation and dynamism each time we encounter it. Residents and visitors alike discuss the culture in reverent terms, exploring its origins, composition, and value – and how we have nearly lost it on so many occasions.
In my last column for UptownMessenger.com, I’d like to explore a slightly different question. I ask not what is New Orleans’ culture, but where?
The first and simplest answer is: wherever we cast our eyes. As first-time observers frequently note, New Orleans resembles few other places in America. Citywide, our architecture spans centuries, from the colonial-era footprint of the Vieux Carré, to antebellum mansions Uptown, to Reconstruction-era shotgun houses and Creole cottages draped across the city like a blanket, to modernist structures like the Superdome and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. In individual neighborhoods, our compact landscape lends walkability and intimacy, and on individual streets, the presence of crepe myrtle, night-blooming jasmine, and live oak reminds us of our dwelling within, not just nearby, the natural world.
Our culture surrounds us, so all we need to do to find it is look. The second answer is: our culture is found in what we produce and consume. The standards of quality to which we hold our cultural forms – music, food, literature, design, and performing and fine arts – distinguish this city from those where the merely palatable is acceptable for a meal, or the merely listenable is enough for a concert. As artists of any discipline – chefs or eaters, tuba players or toe-tappers alike – by engaging one another’s work, we raise the bar not just for our own experience but for everyone’s. Rare and precious indeed is the kitchen in which two aspiring chefs will come to blows over the proper pairing of a cheese, but here, it’s the norm. I’ve seen it. I’ve worked in it. And the winner of the conflict, of course, wasn’t the chef, but the patron who tasted her first Brillat Savarin.
So our culture is found in our creative environment as much as it is our physical one. But to my mind the culture of New Orleans is, in its truest form, located in the spaces between us, spaces we seek by nature to diminish. New Orleanians are famous for speaking their mind when they feel like it, regardless of whether the opinion is sought. You may have observed that the central part of an encounter between strangers is the instinctive search for affinity. This affinity can take a number of forms: of schools, of bars, or of bands, or even just of the boys in black and gold. Kinship here is more than just about who your family is or “who you know,” though that, too, is a game we love to play. Rather, our culture in this sense is a form of mutual reassurance: that yes, we’re all still here, and no, we’re not going anywhere. No one’s a stranger for long.
This vision of culture is a far cry from that culture which we continue to advertise to our tourists – saxophones under streetlamps, steaming bowls of you-know-what – partly because it resists wearing a dollar sign. But to anyone who has ever visited for more than a weekend, it’s the quality that leaves you wanting more. No matter whether we live Uptown, downtown, in Lakeview or in Little Woods, it’s what makes us who we are: our culture is simply too wild and precious to be siloed into a single stereotype or neighborhood. Over the past six months, in the space of this column, it’s been a privilege to bring out some of those aspects. We’re all in this together, for better or for worse – so, as a parting gesture, I’d like to quote the poet Lucille Clifton:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
It’s been fun. See you in the fall. Just in time for oyster season.
Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary, a poetry collection, and The Bella, a novella. Around town, he can be found catching music on Frenchmen, crawling the galleries on St Claude, playing soccer in City Park, or tending bar at the Sovereign Pub Uptown. His column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at email@example.com.