A horse draws a carriage along Bourbon Street
That was then: Bourbon Street beats as the heart of New Orleans's French Quarter.
Joe Raedle - Getty Images

An Icon Imperiled

A man offers beads to women crowded on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras festivities.
Debauchery, New Orleans-style: The annual festival of beads and booze called Mardi Gras. (Mario Tama - Getty Images)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

New Orleans finally met a guest it didn't like.

That's always been the thing about New Orleans, the founding principle behind its eternal bon temps mood: Everybody's welcome. Anything goes in New Orleans, and all are invited, even -- especially? -- rascals, scamps and those generally well short on their Eagle badge requirements. Ne'er-do-wells are just more spice for the stockpot, a little more filé in the city's long simmering gumbo of Old South manners, New Wave funk and occasional freaky mayhem. Ask anybody who's been there: New Orleans is the most welcoming city in the world.

Not even hurricanes were shunned, to be honest. Rather than flee them, New Orleanians have been taunting them for years. From its legendary hurricane parties to its crosshairs location in the sump of the Mississippi River, they all but dared those gulf blows to come on in and liven up the celebration. In spite of warnings about the Big One over the years, disaster prep in much of the French Quarter could have been summed up as an abiding faith in Pat O'Brien's to cheer up even a tropical depression.

Until now. Thank God most people took Katrina more seriously than they did earlier storms, or the death count would be even higher. As it is, we still don't know exactly how bad it is, what will be left when the waters drain away and how much will ever return. New Orleans may come back, but it will never be quite the same.

This tragedy is not about travel, not yet. The shocking catastrophe unfolding in the city's more deeply flooded neighborhoods has properly overshadowed reports from the tourists' favorite French Quarter. With refugees still in stadium purgatory and loved ones still missing and a million lives wracked with grief and loss, specific questions about New Orleans's future as a playground for tourists are questions for another day.

But tourism is elemental to New Orleans's being -- both economic and spiritual -- and a little early reflection by travelers on the place's iconic status doesn't have to equal a premature obituary. Does it? It's just impossible for memories not to pour out of a heart that cracks wide open at every new shot of a submerged streetcar or a crumbled fountain or a street where good-timing and joy have been swamped by silence and sorrow.

They say the wall at Antoine's Restaurant came down and I think of all the courtyards -- so coy and secret and still -- bare to the roaring world. Did Cafe Du Monde make it? The Acme Oyster House? Tipitina's? The Maple Leaf? The Audubon Zoo?

The restaurant on Canal Street where my wife -- a Tulane grad and a deep, deep lover of the city -- and I had our engagement party was on the second floor, but does that matter? Could the fairgrounds really be gone, where we and so many thousands reconvened for Jazz Fest year after year? And, oh my Lord, when will there be another Mardi Gras?

There is too much to love in New Orleans, too much to lose.

That's why tourists, in particular, need to help New Orleans find a way back. Not for the good times we hope to let roll there in the future, but for all the big and easy pleasure -- all that fine swamp cooking, all those jumping tunes -- that New Orleans has given us since the first Creole merrymaker put his feet up on a wrought iron rail and said, "Let's just set and enjoy ourselves for a bit."

It's everyone's favorite city. Telling someone you're from New Orleans is like telling them you're from San Francisco or Honolulu. "Oooooh," is what they say. " Love that town." Imagine everybody loving your home as much as you do.

What other city draws such raves from such a miscellaneous audience, from the buzz-cut stiffs in for the Homeland Security conference at the Hilton to the blue-hairs pumping quarters at Harrah's to the bookish literati basking in the dark, damp moodiness of old streets shadowed in Spanish moss?

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company