In my adult life, I’ve lived in more than a dozen cities and spent time in dozens more. And I’m here to tell you that, in my experience, there’s no place on this planet that can match New Orleans when it comes to pure, irrepressible joi de vivre.
What I find truly extraordinary, however, is the fact that this laid-back, fun-loving vibe has remained virtually unchanged despite the dramatic damage inflicted when Hurricane Katrina hit the Crescent City four years ago today. While many New Orleans neighborhoods remain devastated, the laissez le bon temps rouler spirit that earned this town the nickname “The City That Care Forgot” remains remarkably intact.
Though I’m convinced you need to experience this intangible quality first-hand before you can truly understand it, Dan Baum’s new book Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to getting to the heart and soul of what makes this place so special. The book is a great read, a real page-turner, as it tells the story of New Orleans’ unique culture through the lives of nine very different individuals, from millionaire Mardi Gras kings to hard-working blue-collar types, all set against the backdrop of the hurricane’s aftermath.
With all that in mind, we asked Baum to share some of his insights on New Orleans:
AR: In your book you say New Orleans is like no other city in the United States. What makes it so different?
DB: The U.S. tends to be a place where everyone is always trying to get ahead, trying to make tomorrow better than today. New Orleans is the opposite of that, a place where the people seem to pay no attention to the future whatsoever, they’re totally living in the moment. Which is a delightful way to live if you can get away with it. Another big difference is that there’s no such thing as a stranger in New Orleans. You ask someone you’ve never met a simple question and you wind up in this long friendly conversation where next thing you know it’s 45 minutes later.
AR: You went to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for the New Yorker. So how did you wind up writing a book that’s less about the damage done by the storm than it is the life stories of these nine people?
DB: It was about six months into my reporting when I realized I was really bored with writing about the hurricane. Katrina was a big thing, but it’s not the most interesting thing about New Orleans by any means. I just became fascinated by the unique culture of the city and decided the best way to tell that story was through these nine very different individuals.
AR: It’s been four years since the flood that wiped out entire neighborhoods in New Orleans. How do you think the city’s recovery is progressing?
DB: It depends what you want to see. When I go back to visit, I see the glass as half full. I’m amazed at how much has been rebuilt, especially considering the lousy help they’ve received. But the people who live there every day really do still feel the loss. They say “Are you kidding? A third of our people haven’t come back yet, all these local places we’ve been going to for years are gone.”
AR: Do you think New Orleans will ever be the same?
DB: People there definitely want changes like better schools, but they’ve also made a very conscious decision to put things back to the way they were before the storm. And I mean that in a good sense. They’ve already made it very clear they don’t want New Orleans to become just another a big soulless city driven by the dollar and the clock.
AR: Any final words for someone thinking about visiting the Crescent City?
DB: I’m always trying to encourage people to go to New Orleans. The food, the music, the architecture, the story-telling—all the things that make it such a great place to visit—are all still there. It’s also quite inexpensive, by the standards of most cities. I think it’s one of the best vacations you can take and more out-of-town visitors are exactly what the city needs most right now.