A Kale of Two Cities: the magical New Orleans and the Americanist version

New Orleans transplants seem torn. One school clings to a romantic view of the city as vine-clad and perfumed with jasmine. The  contrarians among them insist it ain't all that different from Cleveland.

Karen Gadbois / The Lens

New Orleans transplants seem torn. One school clings to a romantic view of the city as vine-clad and perfumed with jasmine. The contrarians among them insist it ain't all that different from Cleveland.

The fault line under New Orleans is rumbling again. It acts up every few years, but it’s different than most fault lines since the people who monitor it nationally are always new and always seem to think they’re the first ones to have discovered it.

Local people have known of its existence for centuries, of course, but national self-appointed culture experts must verify for themselves, because of their profound distrust or disregard of locals’ analytical abilities. The fault line is an intellectual one; the two plates that periodically scrape and jar are the will to mystify New Orleans and the will to debunk the mystification.

I’ve referred to these two tendencies in the past as New Orleans exceptionalism (the will to see in New Orleans an alternative to mainstream American values) and Americanism (the notion that New Orleans is not more special or valuable than the rest of the United States, just weaker, poorer, lazier, dumber). Both points of view depend on seeing New Orleans as “other” than the rest of the country, but one side in this tussle is positive, celebratory, while the other is simply insulting.

The funniest thing about the debate is how the participants, especially new transplants, seem so unaware that they’re re-enacting an age-old script.

The latest flare-up came in a New York Times piece that unleashed “kalegate” in the blogosphere. Many locals were amused that one of the recent transplants interviewed for the article claimed there was “no kale” in New Orleans. There were lots of responses on Facebook and in the local press, one of the best coming from local columnist Jarvis DeBerry.

Some wondered why the interviewee couldn’t find kale in the city, since it’s been around for years in a variety of grocery stores and restaurants, and others wondered why we needed kale in our diets to attain some kind of national legitimacy. But the most remarkable thing about the Times travel piece was that the reporter dispensed altogether with what might have been thought a basic requirement: to talk to someone actually from New Orleans.

Lizzy Goodman’s “research” involved talking to a handful of folks who had just moved here within the past couple of years and saw the city, according to her, with “fresh eyes.” Yet their impressions were patently not fresh. They were as ancient as the earliest exceptionalist-minded transplants, smelling magic wafting from every sagging, vine-covered gallery. Yet, it’s true; night jasmine does have an intoxicating fragrance. So does sweet olive.

The de rigueur Americanist debunking of this viewpoint came from Dave Thier in Esquire. Magic? Mystery? All bunk. Take away the climate and New Orleans isn’t much different than Cleveland, Thier contended. He declares that he’s become just as bored here as he’s been everywhere else (whose fault is that?) and has taken to watching Netflix — which is available here, even if newcomers have yet to find their way to a plate of kale.

Thier presents his credentials for finally seeing through the mystification: He’s been here three years already and seems to think that Hollywood invented the moonlight-and-magnolia myth of New Orleans right around when he showed up in town.

What’s arrogant about both the newly transplanted exceptionalists (Goodman’s kaleless interviewee) and the newly transplanted Americanists (Thier) is their total disregard of how long this debate has been raging.

Charles Gayarré set the tone in his first history of Louisiana, back in 1846, by suggesting that the “poetry” and “romance” of the region — forget objectivity — was the way to understand it. Tennessee Williams was one of the great mystifiers, too, and a smart one. He has Blanche DuBois famously say, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”

Yes, Blanche is viciously punished for her love of fantasy, but I’m no fan of the Blanche haters, especially since she has emerged as a symbol of New Orleans itself (even though she’s not from here).

What the debunkers of magic don’t get is that the will to imbue New Orleans with magic is in fact the source of that magic. It’s like a gris-gris bag. We can laugh at the silly superstition of the gris-gris bag, as if it would protect someone from getting hit by a bus. But the wearer of the gris-gris bag doesn’t believe that. In voodoo terms, it’s about intentionality. The gris-gris bag has been blessed by the will to believe and, thus, makes people feel more safe and empowered. Others use not gris-gris, but “poetry” and “romance” to make the world appear more beautiful than it is.

Not that all of us are susceptible to the magic. Freud confessed in “Civilization and Its Discontents” that he was unable to sense in himself that “oceanic feeling” to which people of faith lay claim. But he at least acknowledged that their feelings are real. To translate into NOLA vernacular: You gotta believe!

Americanists like Thier (and the scores who have written pretty much the same thing before him) suggest that the will to fantasy, to magic, is somehow a cause of our social ills and a factor in our neglect of them. But this charge involves a disregard of history more egregious than the exceptionalists’ addiction to huffing jasmine’s intoxicating vapors.

Because the fact is, New Orleans has had plenty of muscular political and social movements — from the labor movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries to Civil Rights. Lafcadio Hearn’s love of moonlight didn’t prevent waterfront unions from organizing and even transcending racial barriers (until a state commission stepped in).

In just the past 20 years, New Orleanians voted to raise the city’s minimum wage (until the state stepped in), and a mayor sought to sue gun manufacturers (until the state stepped in). Today, of course, the East Bank levee authority has filed suit against oil companies to help pay for coastal damages (though the state is fighting it).

Wearing crazy outfits and pretending to be other people during Carnival doesn’t seem to prevent these committed efforts to upgrade the real world.

Of course we can’t expect the new transplants arguing about New Orleans on their big national stages to know about any of this, and they’re clearly not interested — though they claim to know the city better than your average tourist possibly could. Worse, whether they celebrate the magic or debunk it, they don’t accord the city the dignity of an intellectual history.

Lavender Ink, a local publisher, just released a new anthology, NOLA Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature. Maybe transplants who are truly in to the place should pick it up and give it a read.

Until they acknowledge the New Orleans that existed before they got here, they will simply be colonialists, imposing whatever their uninformed and youthful imagination wants on what they falsely perceive to be a blank slate. The natives have opinions, too, y’all, and have been engaged in defining their own city for generations. The national press shows, as often in the past, that it’s not really interested in New Orleanian self-analysis. Apparently we’re not qualified.

So, if we’re doomed to be subjects rather than agents of our own definition, which master do we choose: the exceptionalist magic lovers or the Americanist anti-magic crowd? If the choice is between beautiful savage and dumb yokel, I guess I’ll go with the former. I’ve got the perfect outfit for it, and the right mood music, too. The fantasy is working its magic — I feel better already.

C.W. Cannon

C.W. Cannon

C.W. Cannon grew up in the Marigny. He teaches English and New Orleans Studies at Loyola University.

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  • Dang foreigners! Get out of here! You just don’t understand how special we are!

  • sounds like you don’t understand…the article.

  • Jenel Hazlett

    Marvelous. Thank you. I feel better too.

  • Tristan Tzara

    A well done piece. Certainly more insightful and on steadier feet than those it cites. Speaking of, and including last October’s New York Times piece by Sara Costello with that faulty pack, why is it that the national pieces are generally limited to new people writing about new people (just himself in Thier’s couch potato case…apparently he’s boring so we too are boring) in New Orleans? Is it that the Northeast Corridor is simply bewildered why their “best and brightest” would move to our town? Aren’t there writers-who-have-been-here with national connections that just need to pitch some stories? How difficult would it be for the slant to make a basic shift, those who have been here writing about the new people, or new people writing about those who have been here? That tack sounds far more interesting anyway. But you know what? New people writing about new people kind of smells like what’s already happening on the ground. Many new people have their limited microcosm of “new people stuff,” their restaurants/food trucks, events, and the like. They’ve built up a little new people world in the midst of the rest of us so they can associate with other new people and decidedly not the rest of us. They’ve colonized. Does conquering come next? Will the New Orleans literary scene be defined nationally to a few who just moved here, people that at this point none of us have ever heard of? Add art to that and who knows what else. New Orleans music is already defined nationally. Again, they’ve colonized. Does conquering come next? Because the pieces you’re commenting on read like the first shots…or maybe they’re only hapless misfires.

  • can I save you the typing? New Orleans is a third world shithole. Always has been. Always will be.

  • Alan Maclachlan

    It seems to me that the attitudes of newcomers towards New Orleans, and of New Orleanians towards newcomers, are strongly influenced by the reasons for which the newcomers come here.

    There have been several episodes in the city’s history when economic opportunity has brought large numbers of immigrants to New Orleans seeking their fortunes. These newcomers have frequently known or cared little about the city before their arrival; instead, during these epochs the primary reason for coming to N.O. had everything to do with the money to be made here. These episodes have frequently been initiated by a disaster for the then-current residents, including the American takeover following the Louisiana Purchase, Reconstruction following the Civil War, and, most recently, Hurricane Katrina. Not surprisingly, these newcomer/opportunists were not always welcomed, nor did they concern themselves much with the sensibilities of the locals, being more inclined to condemn the shortcomings of what they found, or didn’t find–where’s the kale?

    Not surprisingly these episodes have been characterized by conflict between the established “native” population and the newcomers, and I think that that is what we are seeing right now. This is a generalization because many of the recent arrivals DO appreciate New Orleans, but I think there is some truth in it. The fact that newcomers came to help out after a disaster is a good thing, but there is something profoundly irritating when one’s own catastrophe is callously seen by someone else as their opportunity, and to add insult to injury, the compounding of do-gooderism with condescension makes a particularly bitter pill.

    On the other hand, sometimes newcomers are drawn by the character of the town itself, and so they and their attitudes are far more welcome. Lafcadio Hearn escaped the stifling atmosphere of Cincinatti for this exotic gateway to the Caribbean, and penned his famous indictment of Ohio’s conventionality as a result. Tennessee Wiliams similarly left his Midwestern background for a place where it would not be thought strange if he sat next to his swimming pool, naked except for a fur coat, while writing his plays, and no one complained; he fit right in.

    It is this motive for immigration which constitutes a dividing line within the attitudes of newcomers to the city; is New Orleans seen only as a place to get ahead, or is it seen instead with an understanding and embracing of the place for what it is, warts (along with a shortage of kale) and all?

  • Kyron’s critique sounds on point. The easiest thing to do is complain. That’s why fox news and msnbc exist. Human nature is flawed. It is up to each of us to decide whether to celebrate the flaws or let them hold us back.
    Immigration has built everything good in the world. But not alone, it takes mixing old and new. To stay relevant takes awareness and self discipline. Celebrate the haters. Remember, the spirit that makes New Orleans better is allowing people to join the conversation without hesitation, regardless of their point of view. Let those that complain exist and don’t hold it against the whole.

  • Janet Hays

    Great Op Ed C.W.!

    The magic that I felt when I came to New Orleans for the first time about 14 years ago was the freedom of expression that doesn’t exist in most other N.A. cities.
    Not constrained by mainstream ideology of what is considered “normal” allows people to express themselves in ways more conducive to the organic nature of the universe. It allows New Orleans to dance on the “and” – so to speak – when everyone else is on 2/4 time. It took me a while before I could appreciate that. For example – the myriad of rhythms happening simultaneously while following a brass band at a secondline. The 300 years of musical traditions all melding together in a musical stew that somehow works because the musicians are “one” with it. That’s the magic. But to see it, and hear it, and feel it requires one to listen. Shhhhhhhhhhh. Not understand it intellectually nor speak TO it. The brass band analogy is symbolic of how many things work in New Orleans.
    It’s like when I lived in India – (an incredibly spiritually rich place – and I don’t mean in a religious sense). I’d get on a bus thinking I was going somewhere but I’d end up somewhere completely different. If I got all irritated and tried to fight to get to where “I” decided “I” should be, the day would be a disaster. But if I let all that go, I would discover that where I was was exactly where I needed to be.
    It’s listening and trusting the universe to catch you when you dive off of that cliff and put you where you need to be.
    The struggle to push back forces that keep trying to put our spiritual freedoms in boxes so that they can be packaged and sold, or lock us up because we don’t comply to some standard that was arbitrarily set by an apathetic society frightened of change – and probably their own mind potential – is ongoing.
    My frustration is that I want newby’s – when they come to live here – to dive deep. To not try to figure things out and put things into mental boxes but to explore beyond the surface of their shallow, confined and predetermined lives and to respect the beauty that lies in each of us for who New Orleanians are. Not who they expect us to be. Magic is not something you can define in the first place. That’s why it’s magic. It’s something you know from a deep intuitive connection with everything and nothing simultaneously.

  • Fidget Zaftig

    Sounds like you don’t understand… sarcasm.