To its credit, Showtime’s Your Honor, a “limited series” set in New Orleans, doesn’t showcase much jazz, or even the French Quarter. It must have been hard to resist, though—few American places are more storied in such scenic ways, whether visually or aurally. Your Honor, with its ten taut episodes, generously takes the viewer into the town. We wander through the Garden District, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the Orleans Parish District Court, some shotgun houses, a marina on the Mississippi, and coffee houses, restaurants, and barber shops. The standard images of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras gain context. The city becomes even more storied.
Stories are a draw. I was with a group of scholars in Recife, Brazil—another storied city—when one of them told me that the American city in which he most wanted to spend time—months of it—was New Orleans. When our youngest son turned sixteen, it was New Orleans that he chose to visit for a birthday trip. He now sports a hat and jersey of the Pelicans (the city’s professional basketball team). On a shelf in his room sits the framed program of the jazz festival he attended. Louis Armstrong’s likeness brightens the program; the late jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, another native son, performed at the festival that day.
What does it take for a place to become a destination? When we lived in the heart of Pennsylvania’s most famous Amish settlement, my favorite bumper sticker read, “Welcome to Lancaster County. Now go home.” But destinations so easily lure us away from home. Why?
Destinations are places that over time become symbols of whatever we mean by human flourishing. More, they are also instantiations of that which the symbol represents: embodiments of the ideal. Go there, whispers a winsome voice, and you’ll taste it: life as it can be, as it should be, as you long for it to be.
And of course we go, if we can. We would be fools not to.
One key characteristic of human flourishing is, paradoxically, its distinct and indelible variety. It would not signal human flourishing if the destination looked and felt and tasted just like it does here—or anywhere else, for that matter. We treasure the idea of Paris precisely because it’s not Rome. And somehow the really distinct Paris makes us love Rome better. A flourishing human life is a varied human life, one that gives necessary expression to the distinction each of us knows to be central to our own deepest truth. Yet it is the kind of distinction that also, mysteriously, knits us into a whole, a solid whole, intricately woven into textured patterns of difference that belong undeniably together, imparting the strength that enables us to become one.
What is more dispiriting than driving from state to state and finding the same strip-malled, big-boxed, mercilessly homogenized landscape surrounding each city? What is more satisfying than discovering those distinct parts of a city that really are the city, so beautifully itself?
In the case of New Orleans, there is more to its distinction than meets the traveler’s eye. The city’s inner story gives insight into the long, costly, and fraught process by which a destination comes into being.
New Orleans didn’t become a destination because it aimed to be one. That may be the Disney way, but Disney, needless to say, is no New Orleans. Becoming a destination begins with a shared moral vision—a vision that moves people to make, or remake, the world within its reach.
In the case of New Orleans, the nature of its vision is suggested by the life and language of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century activist Eugene Baricasse. Born in Cuba in 1867 but raised in New Orleans, Baricasse came from a Creole family active in the movement for Cuban independence. He would take the republican ideals of his own inheritance and seek to put them more fully into motion in his family’s new home. At first through the Populist Party and later through an array of union movements and other civic coalitions, Baricasse helped lead efforts to diminish, as he in 1897 put it, the “unnatural human miseries and social anxieties” rife in the city. Over time their persistent work bore fruit. To cite one salient example: By 1915, New Orleans had invested $27.5 million for new water, sewer, and rain systems, thanks in part to the very public presence and pressure of Baricasse and his companions.
Baricasse’s is just one story historian Anne Gessler tells in her recent book Cooperatives in New Orleans: Collective Action and Urban Development, where we glimpse the story behind stock images of the city. Baricasse’s life and work represent what Gessler calls “a confluence of cooperative ideals” that has come powerfully together in New Orleans from century to century. Striving to realize what Gessler calls “ethical economic growth,” these communities of activists experimented with cooperative grocery stores, consumers’ unions, credit unions, the reform of medical care, initiatives to improve housing, educational institutions, cooperative insurance companies, artist collectives, civil rights coalitions, the reform of local food economies, and more, as the book ably reveals.
So the city that gave us jazz gives us something deeper still. Jazz turns out to be the musical expression of a way of being. The art is born of a lively, vital sensibility that delights in harmonic convergence, desires mutual belonging, and demands just arrangements. In one bounded place, with an utterly unique and extraordinarily tangled history, a longing for human flourishing led, among other things, to one of the world’s most treasured musical traditions.
If we’re fools for not hitting the road in quest of such destinations, we’re even bigger fools if we fail to live in a way that could turn our own places into true destinations, even if only at the local or regional level—a favorite spot in the county, a sweet space on a city block.
This, truly, is how we “make culture.” For the past century we’ve had the idea that local forms of human flourishing are simply one option among others for how a culture can be made, and we have mainly assumed that the dominant way—macro-scaled and big-boxed—is the inevitable future. But the reality is that the only cultures that move us are the bounded ones founded on ideals that caring souls turn into distinct human creations, block by block, town by town, region by region.
There’s one other thing Anne Gessler makes clear: For all of the energy New Orleanians devoted to local activism, the activists themselves were inspired by visions of justice and mutuality that were being voiced and acted upon around the globe. She refers to “the globally influenced communal culture that reshaped New Orleans,” and, page by page, shows the fruitful effects of that influence.
This is yet more good news. In the precarity of our ecological and political moment, our faux visions of culture are being massively exposed. We need all of the inspiration we can get, from both near and far, for alternate ways.
Ben Ehrenreich, delineating the mayhem caused by capitalist “progress,” notes that “Rejecting the idolatry of growth means tilting the organization of our societies toward other social goods—health, for instance, and the freedom to exist on a planet that is not on fire. This,” he concludes, “should not be unimaginable.”
It is not. And we have places like New Orleans to thank for that.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.
This essay is dedicated to Bradshaw Frey.