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Love Letters: New Orleans

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Dar Wolnik is a blogger, activist and Girl Friday to her city of New Orleans. She lives downtown and is mostly seen on one of her three bikes or scooter, but also travels widely to work with community food systems across the U.S. as a consultant.

Dear New Orleans,

My confession starts this letter. As you know my lovely Crescent City, I found you only as a teenager. My first home and childlike love-the city of Cleveland-remains in my heart but not as you do.

I often try to find similarities between the two cities, to understand why I love them both. Besides water, I cannot find any other shared qualities. Great bodies of water and me, I guess.
When I came to live here with my New Orleans mother thankfully returning home, my own welcome was deep and magical. Old women on stoops and shopkeepers alike beckoned me over, asked for my teenaged story and warmly welcomed me home. It's true. That happened again and again. How did you know that I needed you?

And for the first time in my young life, I connected to a place, to a set of smells, sounds and sights that seemed overwhelmingly pleasing and joyful. I know now that city life appeals to me, but that it must be a place that is not too much of a city, meaning one only busy with business or building new or bigger. Your gracious face with its constantly decaying greenery, unique architecture and many hues and ages of people using public space freely, gave me the specifications for a scale that remains the most appropriate one for how I compare all other cities.

Aging is a delicate problem for all females and I know that you struggle with how to remain appealing and relevant. Those that love you worry for you and attempt to shield you from some of the worst criticisms leveled at you because of your age. Well, to be completely truthful, some of that criticism comes from your troubling past, which is linked to some of the most difficult days in our country's history and your present status as a city of recovery, yet again. We shield you and protect you, even as we try to strengthen you.

Your cultural attributes are world renowned but to limit you to only the delights of the dance hall girl is to miss your deep work ethic and political savvy. That work ethic can be seen in your shipping port for one. A port that remains one of the busiest in the world and vitally important to the health of the people in this country. You can be found morning and night, toiling valiantly at the unsexy work in bringing and sending the food and goods needed to be traded in a hemisphere of our size. Dance-hall girl only indeed.

That and the river. The great Mississippi River, our American Nile. That river is of course, why we are here with you; the explorers Bienville and Iberville came to find the mouth of it to give France control of the commerce that would surely flow in this New World. Oh, it's a beautiful thing and its work to keep flooding from those upriver and shipping flowing all along its course is remarkable. You have every right to be proud of it.

But sometimes, I think that you miss that what makes those attributes odd in the minds of other Americans. To many of them, they seem anachronistic in a country with east-west tendencies and speeding highways and planes. One could spend hours trying to explain how useful the port and river are to others and never make a dent in their understanding. The dance-hall girl is fun and so they search for that, found through your jazz and brass bands and cuisine. That lovely face has and will bring you many short-term loves, but it's not enough of a reason for them to love you in bad times too.

And bad times are part of the deal. From the yellow fever days, through slave commerce and the 20th century fight over the integration of schools and up to and including the levee breaks of 2005 and the BP oil spill of 2010. Those are the times when we know who really loves you by those willing to pick you up and carry you for a little while while you heal.

It would be wrong to say that you welcomed us at first- sickness and swamps were your opening salvo but lucky for us, enough Old World ne'er-do-wells, second sons and brave little nuns stayed. I know that you grew to love the type of people sent to you and that also makes you special; your love of your people and acceptance of their quirks. That love is reciprocated in how many people believe that hurricanes will never make direct landfall on the city or in how we willingly leave much efficient infrastructure behind to be with you. That willingness was mighty evident in the hundreds of thousands of your people that quickly returned in 2005/2006. The deep love that we have for you was so apparent in those days; I'm sure that you felt it, even as you lay in tatters and pieces, shocked and ignored. People living in cars and ten to a room rebuilt this place, finding joy in your slow recovery and showing their love.

We respect your ideas about multiculturalism and how they were built by the wide diversity of people that you accepted here, even as we angrily fight with you over your wrong ones too that bar some from realizing full citizenship. We feel your warmth and sadly, sometimes the brutality from you too. Our love is quite visible and open, possibly because it is tested often. We know that we have to verbally acknowledge it, talking of you with others often and exhaustively and through the many public spectacles where we celebrate you and you celebrate us in return.

So, I think of you not as my first love, full of overwrought and inaccurate ideas but as my mature love, aware of your flaws and your inconsistencies, and appreciative of all it.