Reconceiving NOLA

The first time Scott and I walked through the sparse Terminal D of Louis Armstrong International Airport I asked him if he had any preconceived ideas of what New Orleans looks like. I asked because I have this tiny memory floating around in the back of the mind of what I thought Williamsburg would be like before visiting in 2008. The memory is so small, and biased with what I actually experienced there, that I can hardly access it. I know it involved a black fixie, a billowing mens tank, and a broad tree-lined street, but I really can’t describe it in more detail. What I imagined then was mostly inaccurate, but it gave birth to a fun mental exercise. Knowing little of New Orleans as I walked through the airport, but with the foresight that I would soon know many nooks and crannies, I wanted to commit to memory my imaginary New Orleans.  I struggled to visualize the city. What did I really think Bourbon Street looked like? Based on a few stereotypes I pictured oversized plastic booze cups, faded mardi gras beads, and a fat man in a dirty apron holding crawfish. It may be hard to believe, but prior to moving here I had never really seen images of New Orleans – aside from shocking footage of Katrina. I can’t really articulate my preconceived notions, but they are inside my brain, existing as tiny funny memories.

One thing I did not imagine is the god-awful streets. I’m not exaggerating when I say sometimes I get a headache riding my bike due to the rough terrain.  I have been riding in fear since my morning commute requires navigating a particularly bad patch of pavement. Last week my back tire unceremoniously exploded. Over the weekend as my tube was getting replaced at a local bike shop, the 20something guy fixing my bike struck up a conversation. When I revealed that I have only been living here two months the guy immediately launched into a mini-rant about how many newcomers there are to the Crescent City.  I’ve heard this tirade before in Portland and in Brooklyn. Now I take it as a sign I have been making good choices. This is the time– pre-children/mortagages/adultstuff – to move around and try on different cities. I feel lucky that I have the chance to live in a variety of places. I understand why people are territorial (hell, I felt a little protective of my grandparents beach in Rockaway after Rippers and Rockaway Taco opened), but when the bike shop dude divulged that he has only spent three years down south, I silently balked.

The real defining feature down here is whether you are a Pre-K or Post-K resident. Katrina affected the city in a way in which I will never fully understand. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the feelings and emotions of people who lost things to the hurricane. Lives, homes, businesses, gardens, the losses are unintelligible for someone who was not there. These war stories come up often in conversation, it is impossible for them not to, for the storm changed the course of peoples lives dramatically. I have no claims to city, but I am happy to be here soaking up the sun and culture. Although I will remain an outsider in many ways, the community as a whole is very welcoming. There are people moving here for many reasons as the recent article in The New York Time’s Magazine outlined – “with its last-frontier appeal and a magical mixed bag of culture, New Orleans is quietly luring a circle of expats, who find an evolving city that is just the right amount of undone.” With disaster-tourism now gone nearly 8.5 years later, the city is experiencing a new growth cycle. In a way I’m glad I couldn’t really imagine what my life in New Orleans would be like, the blank canvas has left room for anything and everything.

As I have met farmers, attended a native plant symposium, and spoken with the LSU Ag department, I have been blown away by the community’s commitment to the environment, the food system, and social justice issues. Things the national media does not pay much attention to.  It is inspiring to see how progressive many people are here. Stereotypes do not do Louisiana justice, and I can imagine the same goes for other parts of the deep South. On my way to Memphis a few weekends ago I had a delicious lunch at Vegan restaurant in Jackson, Mississipi – who would’ve thought? When I remarked to a farmer how impressed I am with the level of interest in food systems here, he was not surprised Louisiana is not on the local food scene map. “We’re used to people forgetting about us here,” he replied with a tinge of sadness.

Ps – Bourbon Street is more terrifying than I even imagined, but the rest of the city has charmed the pants off me.

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2 comments

  1. kaitlin, this is so awesome. your writing is wonderful. so glad to be following along on your adventures from afar! 🙂

  2. thank you shoko! that means a lot coming from you, you’re a blogspiration 🙂

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