Sunday, October 24, 2010

Culture clash in New Orleans

When worlds collide...
I've lived in New Orleans since June 9th this year.  That makes four and a half months.  I can't say anyone has been anything but gracious and welcoming.  I can't say anything but that I find New Orleans the most wonderful city I have ever lived in.  To recap my history, I have called the following places home:

    1.  Ridgefield, CT.  Not a city, but a town of about 25,000 people located a 45 minute train ride from the city to which I compare all others: New York.  Though I never lived in New York, I have spent many days there over the years and it is the place that shaped my first expectations of what an urban environment promises.

     2.  Tacoma, WA.   I lived in Tacoma and worked in Seattle.  Both are larger cities than any found in Connecticut, both in area and population.  I was less than impressed but I wasn't turned off to the idea that a city is the best place in which a person can live up to his fullest potential.  Part of the reason was that I didn't know how to channel that potential.

     3.  I joined the Navy and spent some time in Chicago.  I wasn't impressed by the Windy City though I enjoyed taking the El.  Much of Chicago seemed to less dense than I expected a major city to be compared to Manhattan.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed some good times in the brief time I was in residence.

     4.  I joined the Navy to see the world, so where did I end up?  Newport, RI, where I lived for four years.  During that time I enjoyed the benefits of a small, densely packed city with roughly the same population as the town I grew up in.  I enjoyed how antique everything is in Newport, a colonial city that never suffered the devastation of fire.

     5.  Frankfurt-am-Main in the German state of Hesse.  The financial capitol of Europe, called Main-hattan by the locals, Frankfurt offered me a lesson both in sophistication and the marriage of Old World sophistication with the glamor of high finance.  I lived near the red light district and the people who befriended me opened my eyes to what it is like to make a living if you don't participate in the city's common theme.  A city is an organism of many organs, high and low.

     6.  Naples, in the Italian state of Campagna.  A city of three million founded by Greeks before there was a Roman Empire, Naples (Neapolis in Greek) had an unemployment rate of 30%.  Despite its Italian veneer, it was like living in an entrenched Third World country.  Ancient mingled with new and everything was beautiful because the people give this city its life even when nothing works as designed.  Days enjoyable go on, one after the other, because people enjoy interacting with each other, eating well, and playing their part.  I gained twenty pound in three years during meals that can last three hours.

     7.  New London, CT.  I made myself home in this tiny city of 26,000 people packed into five square miles of riverfront land.  I learned firsthand how a city can pin its destiny on one industry (whaling) and see its fortunes deteriorate when that industry goes bust.  I saw how a once-important city can become an afterthought and a punchline, a place where its already-built infrastructure becomes a warehouse for the indigent and unskilled, where institutional decay becomes a way of life despite natural advantages.  I also learned, and was part of, the quixotic process of rejuvenating a seemingly moribund, stumblebum of a city.  My happiest and most productive years until now were spent over a decade in New London.

     8.  Boston, MA.  The largest city in New England has an enviable reputation as a hub of learning and innovation.  Boston hums but it is a city of students, of academics, of scientists, and of researchers.  As a native New Englander, I had high hopes when I moved to Boston.  I didn't find the hustle and bustle I expected after a lifetime of comparing Boston to New York.  There is no comparison.  New York is America's financial and cultural capitol.  Boston is a city in which great technical strides are being made and are changing the world.  For the man on the street, for a simple painter and writer, Boston has little to offer the adventurous.  It is a buttoned down city, quick to scold and quick to quash any innovation that may disturb its curfew.  Boston and I were not a good fit.

I have written enough for one day on this topic and the illustration above.  I apologize that I haven't explained it but I choose not to test your patience.  Tune in tomorrow for City #9, New Orleans.  It is a place that has more in common with New York and Naples and Newport and New London than it does with anywhere else I lived, though there are traces of those other cities as well.  New Orleans is like nowhere else on earth.  It embodies the best and contains some of the worst of other places, and it mixes it all into a flavorful stew than cannot be supped at any other table.  


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