There are few things I can think of that have done more to inspire my desire to travel than living in a tourist city. Over my five years of living in Orlando, I had come to resent it, considering it a sort of cultural void, a city built on a commercial idea with culture as an afterthought. It has its local boroughs and unique spots, of course, but its neon-lit tourist appeal and continual transient growth (the university there uses its status as ‘Nation’s Largest University’ as a bragging point) were hard to ignore in such a vast place that seemed to feed on an endless draw of people hungrier to experience what it offered visitors than what it offered residents.
Orlando was developed as a resort city and then boomed after Disney went up in nearby Kissimmee in the mid-’60s. From the outset, it was largely a place people went to for a good time, not to live. Before I moved to Orlando, I would visit it from my small hometown two hours south. Visiting Orlando as a tourist, it came to represent The Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, and the abstract experience of seeing a medieval dinner show. But as a resident, it became merely a place that contained those things in quantities that could be divvied out per the price of a two-day Fun Pass.
As a result of building an entire city on the premise of accommodating this offering to as many visitors as possible, developing a definitive local culture in Orlando has proven elusive. For me, living there represented something distinct from its tourist appeal, and so I delved into the venues, restaurants, and bars I could identify as non-commercial while chain restaurants and corporate franchises sprouted up constantly. Because of this, virtually everything in Orlando is new, favoring the functional over the storied. Instead of promoting the antique, Orlando tends to replace it, burying architectural and physical history as it grows.
My hope in visiting New Orleans was to see a place where culture existed in such excess as to border on commodity. The first thing I noticed about the city driving through it, though, was that it was strangely similar to Orlando in that its structure seemed accidental, as if designed haphazardly to meet the spatial needs of a rapidly expanding population (both visiting and residential). The difference is Orlando’s facilities are spaced out, illogically distributed, and vastly separate with inefficient public transportation to match; New Orleans’ streets are absurdly laced around the grid of the French Quarter, interrupted by traffic lights after drastic curves that run dangerously close to pedestrians, and even boast a five-way stop on an interstate exit.
We proceeded to make the various necessary tourist runs during our first evening there and the following afternoon: Café du Monde, a St. Louis cemetery, Port of Call, the bed and breakfast where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was filmed, Brad Pitt’s house, etcetera. Even what may have been the height of New Orleans “touristy-ness,” the tawdry French Market, replete with shoddy, stereotypical trinkets and bordering a street lined with souvenir shops, I saw as an artful work of locality. Maybe the Mardi Gras masks and creole hot sauces were imported from Taiwan, and maybe they were not, but this all seemed to me representative of a popular understanding of the culture of a place, not just a commercial thing implanted in the place.
We were in what, in my mind, was the cultural hub of the country. With its antiquity, international melding, and distinctive flavors, it was as if culture was grown in the very soil of New Orleans. Even the Spanish- and French-inspired homes, many of which seemed on the verge of physical collapse, residents held onto fervently, as if letting go of what was would be to invite something disdainfully alien. If seeing Orlando felt like watching a Michael Bay movie — polished, bursting with CGI, pyrotechnics, and thousands of camera shots — seeing New Orleans felt like reading Frank O’Hara: poetry with its process printed on the product and inseparable from it, set in a single moment.
Aside from requisite tourist spots, Erin and I generally eschew the flagrantly “touristy” in favor of the local, so we consulted our friends who had moved there to find out what the locals do. We wanted to not just look at the city, but feel it as only those who live there can. We ate at our friends’ favorite gumbo and po’boy shop, so far from the trollies surely few tourists would know it existed, had praline bacon at a restaurant that was essentially a rundown house, ate at a seasonal restaurant so hole-in-the-wall we happened across Michael Fassbender on a date, and then ate more, as seemed the custom. For drinks, Erin and I started at a French Quarter bar I’d found online on the premise that it was housed in the oldest structure used for a bar (not to be confused with the oldest bar) in America. It was on Bourbon Street but far enough away from the sex shops that we thought it would be something authentic, only to find syrupy mixed drinks, Top 40 covers, and a procession of drunken college students dancing in the street.
And yet this experience, though not what we were hoping for, I’ve come realize was still what I wanted. Separating the tourist culture or commercial sensibilities from a place is impossible in a city like New Orleans. Perhaps we hadn’t fully escaped the commercialized bar scene of much of Orlando, but to experience a city brimming with young travelers searching for their own geographical understanding is to allow for exposure to that as well, particularly being outsiders ourselves.
Afterward we made our way to Frenchman Street — where our friends told us many “real” New Orleanians barhop — for the jazz club The Spotted Cat to round off our second and final night. It may have been the suppressed tourists within us, but as we stood in the corner inside the crowded bar (also essentially just a house) sipping gin and tonics, watching a five-piece swing it to Beiderbecke, Dorsey, or whoever they were swinging it to, we felt transported, welled-up with nostalgia for not just a bygone time, but a place where that time was still relevant.
Men and women cleared a space to twirl in a room surely already surpassing legal occupancy, while more people watched from outside. As pencil-skirted women and fedora-ed men Charleston-ed in front of us, we became a part of something I wanted to believe could only exist in the place where it began, something beautiful and sincere made more beautiful and sincere by its preservation. As the band played and we watched and listened wordlessly, I found myself unexpectedly choking back tears, suggesting I’d not only found what I was looking for in this city, but that what I was looking for could even be found, even if only in my own perception.
Here were people who seemed to dance in response to a culture that built a city, not a people simply inhabiting a city searching for a culture. Here was a city that couldn’t just be seen from afar in cemeteries and novelties or found in the bottoms of Styrofoam gumbo bowls and chicory-stained coffee cups, but a city that could only be felt from inside of it, and knowing it in any lesser capacity seemed to rob it of some portion of that value. And yet to experience the city that way, to measure it and define it by what I saw only in passing, made me just another tourist identifying an entire place by what I had come there to experience.
The next day we drove back to Orlando feeling some new notion of cultural elitism, thinking we had found a place with “real” culture. It seemed impossible not to compare it to the city we were returning to, though maybe that wasn’t fair. New Orleans and Orlando both may be cities with economies built largely on tourism, but the difference, I realize only now in writing this, is the awareness of culture, not its amount. People visit cities like New Orleans because of its culture, whereas people visit cities like Orlando in spite of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
It’s hard to imagine touring a place you’ve lived in, but it’s likely that if I weren’t born in Florida I would at some point tour Orlando, and if I did, I’d do all those Orlando tourism things I grew to bastardize. For all of Orlando’s seeming lack of definitive “culture,” those attractions are what built the city, are inseparable from it, and to experience it is to experience them. It’s a different kind of beauty, but no less something beautiful.