I came to New Orleans for the first time in the summer of 1996. Like most folks who’ve lived in New Orleans for any length of time, my house was a fire hazard of ‘throws’; multi colored beads of varying lengths piled on top of the occasional over-decorated shoe or coconut, a side affect of years of Mardi Gras parades. I visited Bourbon Street maybe once or twice in my first year, though it was quickly replaced with Frenchman, and small neighborhood haunts where friendship came easy. And like most lovers of this city, I’m still a sucker for a street party.
But ultimately, the party city wasn’t the New Orleans I fell in love with. The New Orleans I loved was more the city of deep conversation on my front porch steps with random passersby. Of being called ‘Baby’ at the grocery store by a cashier that I’d only just met. The smell of home cooked gumbo wafting through the open shutters of a neighbor’s kitchen window, and the surety that I’d be offered some if she saw me walking by. Or that low hanging evening fog that swirls through the streets in the winters. So many places here give you that “time-slip” feeling. You find yourself in neighborhoods surrounded by houses built before the US was a country, listening to the clip clop of horse’s’ hooves in the distance.
I fell in love watching friends from the local college play neighborhood bars in the Treme and 7th ward. I fell in love dancing in the street on Frenchmen, because the guys playing on the corner were just as good as the ones playing on stages and I didn’t have the money for much more than a corner store daiquiri. Living in New Orleans sometimes feels like living in a music video; the sound of horns or piano or bounce beats lingers in the air no matter what neighborhood you live in. Music seeps up through the streets here, just like the water during a heavy rain.
Sadly, the city that I loved is a rapidly disappearing place. Since Katrina, the vast majority of those local musicians and food service workers who kept me in good food and good cheer, have been forced to relocate. The rent in the apartment that I used to live in, and most of the apartments across the city, tripled seemingly overnight; and that close knit community feel that is so dependent on long time residents has been relegated to ever shrinking pockets of the city.
Leaving here felt like leaving a loved one and every time I go back I’m shocked and saddened by the ways that she’s changed in my absence. New Orleans is the kind of place that gets in your blood and settles for a lifetime. It’s a feeling of home that’s never left me, no matter where I’ve moved or how long I’ve been away.