Like an off-centered bellybutton on the lopsided torso of American culture, New Orleans is not a wrinkle-free world of manicured youth ideology. Withered time sits upon the scarred face of this city, covered in soot and sunshine. For some parts of the country, beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder – or in the hands of the plastic surgeon – but here, it is in the eye of the beerholder.
While renowned for the strip bar street of Rue Bourbon, Carnival season’s Mardi Gras, and several rowdy festivities where locals and out-of-towners celebrate bacchanalian style without inhibition or (in some cases) undergarments, New Orleans is much more than a hurricane, an oil spill, or a party zone.
New Orleans is history. New Orleans is the heroic Shakespearean character. She is a lovely damsel in distress; she is a beastly horror stalking the night; she is power and pawn; she is victim and vice; she is beauty and sorrow.
These many faces of La Nouvelle Orléans make her a camera-ready model, the perfect artistic subject for a still life study, an ideal target for the click/snap of photographs. For each flagstone broken unevenly beneath the footfalls of contemporary citygoers cries out its story of yesteryear, begging to be heard and waiting to be discovered.
New Orleans, with its dollop of charm and dash of mystery, has lived through centuries steeped in a gumbo of violence and death, skin trades and infernos, illnesses and plagues, yet somehow the city thrives and survives, becoming a universe filled with delicate architecture, street musicians and avant-garde artists, aristocrats and cutthroats living side-by-side in the crescent looped island cupped by the clench of a river gone by. Inside the embrace of this city, life turns on an unfettered axis, where texture builds itself thick and heavy, enticing fingertips to run along the razor-edged realm of realism.
The true reality of New Orleans is more than a checklist travel guide. For it is easy to namedrop iconic areas such as the Garden District’s rambling antebellum houses along St. Charles Avenue with its quaint trolley clang-clanging between car lanes, or the whitewashed walls encircling the sacred above-ground tombs of Lafayette or St. Louis Cemeteries. It’s simple to portray the slums of old Storyville where jazz was invented inside the lowdown dives and music halls along Basin Street. It’s cliché to mention the pulsating, palpitating heart of the French Quarter (a.k.a. Vieux Carré) in which Jackson Square’s landscaped pedestrian mall stands in the towering shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. And perhaps it’s without thought to note the lusty marshes overgrown with wetlands and wildlife only miles from the hubbub of downtown business.
But the city shaped like a croissant is best when seen beyond the tourist trapdoor that buckles beneath unknowing knees. Inside its succulent variety of images, an enlightened visitor can see the city’s charms in the most unsettling of places – in the crumpled heap of brick and stucco of houses dilapidated, in untidy walkways that cause a stumble-fall, in the sense of the river flowing lazily around the city, and in the low hum of steamboats paddling towards the delta while clouds loop like neckties in the sky.
There is beauty found where the wandering eye may fall, for New Orleans is a living, breathing artwork who succumbs to tragedy and triumph; she enfolds forces of nature and beholds the passion of lovers, and she plays both beautiful heroine and grotesque nemesis in a twisted story of misfortune and glory. She is heartbreak and heartthrob, and she will enrapture those who are daring enough to fall beneath her lovely spell.