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“A model chocolate city, perhaps”: An interview with Rob Walker, author of Letters from New Orleans

A few years ago, my friend Sarah and I took a cross-country trip. It was, overall, a great time, but it was also a little depressing. It was a little depressing to discover that so much of America is the same. As we were leaving a city—any city—we’d pass through the ring of big-box stores that surrounded it. We’d drive across hundreds of miles of farmland or desert. Then we’d arrive at another Wal-Mart, next to another Home Depot, adjacent to a Burger King and across the street from a car dealership. It was like we hadn’t gone anywhere at all.

There was the nauseating sameness, and then there was the sense of unreality: In a lot of cities, I felt like the real town had been gutted to make way for tourist-friendly shops and restaurants. Sometimes the sameness and the fakeness was simultaneous, in that the shops and restaurants of Santa Fe weren’t that different from the shops and restaurants of Austin or the shops and restaurants of Woodstock, New York.

None of this was true of New Orleans. Being there was being somewhere—somewhere different, somewhere exciting, somewhere real. Sarah and I had a ball, and my most vivid memories of that trip are from New Orleans. I have, of course, thought about that trip a lot since Hurricane Katrina hit.

Letters from New OrleansI’ve also read Rob Walker’s Letters from New Orleans. Walker lived in New Orleans for a spell, but he’s not a native. His letters began as e-mail missives sent to friends and, ultimately, interested others. They’re brief, but illuminating, vignettes, written from an outsider’s perspective. The book offers an affectionate portrait of a great city, and Walker is donating all the proceeds it generates to hurricane relief efforts.

When you list the traits that make New Orleans unique, you include “unselfconsciousness.” May I ask you to explain what you mean by that?

Rob Walker: Actually, I was just thinking about this the other day. As you know, the book was published about six weeks before Katrina, and obviously most of it was written a few years before that. A lot of the book probably reads differently to people now than it did before the hurricane. There was a period when this really worried me, but now I think it’s probably the most interesting thing about the book, that it’s this time capsule, and that it wasn’t written out of nostalgia.

So having said that: What I meant when I wrote that is, in part, that New Orleans struck me as a place that’s not only unique, but that couldn’t care less if any given non-New Orleanian gets that uniqueness or not. People would sort of grumble, but really they would laugh, about the way much of the rest of the country perceived, for example, Mardi Gras. But it wasn’t really a big deal. Enough people did get it, so it sort of didn’t matter if no one else did. It wasn’t just that New Orleans was a place apart that made it so appealing—it was that the unique elements of the culture were so deeply embedded (for better or worse) that they were just taken for granted.

Obviously I’m not in New Orleans any more, so maybe I’m wrong about this, but I feel like that attitude has changed. As an example, I get the sense that a lot of people in New Orleans are very, very upset with media coverage of the carnival season this year. They’re not so unselfconscious now. I think part of this new self-consciousness is logical—mischaracterizations of conditions or attitudes in New Orleans may have real-world effects on the city’s future. And partly it’s more emotional. Actually as I was writing out my answers to your questions, my friend Charles down in N.O. passed along a piece that just ran in the Times-Picayune.

The headline—“Why the hate us (and we don’t care)”—sort of says it all. Obviously one of the things it says, indirectly, is prior to Katrina, no one would bother to write, read, or link to, this editorial. But right now I think it speaks to, and for, a lot of people. That’s a change.

You also describe New Orleans as a city in denial, which is something I’ve heard from other residents, and which seemed to be confirmed when Hurricane Katrina hit. Do you think that New Orleans’ anti-rationalist attitude has survived the storm? Do you think that New Orleans can survive without its anti-rationalist attitude?

RW: The word “denial” is an example of the kind of thing that’s in the book that might seem a little more loaded now than at the time of writing. I’m afraid that people outside the city—and ignorant of the city—might take it to mean, “They were in denial about the obvious danger they were in; they should not have lived there; they don’t deserve my concern.” I think a number of outsiders have essentially drawn the conclusion that it was crazy for anyone to have lived in New Orleans in the first place, so New Orleanians somehow got what they deserved.

Actually, New Orleans exists in large part because the port there is important to the global economy. And as New Orleanians will tell you, most of the catastrophe post-Katrina was cause by failures of flood walls that were built by the federal government. Those are a federal matter not because Mardi Gras is cool or New Orleans is a culturally fascinating place or whatever, but precisely because the existence of a port, and thus a city, at the mouth of the Mississippi is important to the nation.

But despite all those caveats… yes, emphatically yes, part of living in the city was knowing that there was enormous risk. You basically had to be in denial about that on some level, or move.

Then again, I feel quite strongly that most of us, most of the time, live in various forms of denial. That could be denial of risk (dirty bomb in NYC; earthquake in LA, etc.) or some other kind of denial—you really can’t live in the suburbs without being in some form of denial, for instance.

I also wonder if the disparity between rich and poor that has so defined New Orleans is intrinsic to its distinctive culture. That is, is poverty an essential element of New Orleans. If the city becomes more white and overwhelmingly affluent, will it still be any different from, say, Atlanta? Is it possible to preserve the New Orleans-ness of New Orleans without rebuilding a pathologically stratified society?

RW: Oh, I don’t know about any of that. Class stratification is an element of every big American city I’ve ever been to, but none of those places is anything like New Orleans. Seriously, the single most depressing thing to me about the aftermath of Katrina is that instead of raising issues about class in the United States, it just sparked a lot of finger-pointing about class in New Orleans. I don’t deny any of the problems the city had along these lines, but why not ask: Is poverty an essential element of America?

In an early letter, you praise a bar by saying that it’s “not a theme park”. This is my biggest fear for New Orleans—well, my biggest fear for the city itself as opposed to its devastated and dispersed residents—that it will turn into a simulacrum of itself. Obviously, there were already elements of the hyperreal before the storm—you describe, for example, a corpse-free “jazz funeral” staged purely for tourists-but I’m worried that the whole city will become ersatz. Am I being overly pessimistic, or overly romantic?

RW: This is what’s so bizarre about the situation in New Orleans right now. Sometimes I think what you’re describing is exactly what will happen. Other times I actually think the city will basically be left to die. And then I’ll come around to thinking that somehow it will all work out. That represents a thought cycle that turns over every 60 seconds or so. It’s just hard to say. So I understand what you’re saying. The thing to keep in mind is that in some ways, it was always possible to go to New Orleans and experience a kind of ersatz version of it—or, to get beyond that and see the real thing. (Lots of people have always gone to New Orleans specifically to participate in the Bourbon Street foolishness they see on TV every Mardi Gras, which was never the real N.O.)

In some ways that’s what the book was about; in that jazz funeral piece, I was dealing with exactly that question as an outsider living in the city: Is this for real? I experienced that strange phony version—and then later experienced the real thing. So, given that so much of what makes New Orleans different is the people, as opposed to the physical structure, and it appears to me that many of the most interesting people have no intention of leaving, thus there will still be an interesting, real New Orleans behind any facade that may emerge. That’s my optimistic spin, anyway...

What would you like to see happen in New Orleans?

RW: I would like it if everyone who wanted to come back, was able to come back—and helped to come back if they needed help. I would like if nobody had to live in a flood plain anymore. I would like it if New Orleans could be a lot like it used to be, but with better public schools, and more jobs. A model chocolate city, perhaps.

Rob Walker’s column, Consumed, appears every week in the New York Times Magazine. He also maintains a site about the song “St. James Infirmary”, and a Flickr project, MLK BLVD.

February 28, 2006 | Permalink

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