Magazine article The Spectator

It May Be Hell, but It's Home

Magazine article The Spectator

It May Be Hell, but It's Home

Article excerpt

Greenville, Mississippi

It was bound to happen -- in fact it already had. In 1719, one year after Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, established New Orleans as the capital of the French colony of Louisiana, a hurricane destroyed the handful of palmetto huts that made up the city. He refused to budge, and rebuilt four city blocks, whereupon another hurricane arrived to wipe them out as well. It is little wonder then, that when they finally figured out that things made of brick might last a bit longer, the first commercial establishment to open was a wine shop.

Bienville's insanely stubborn choice of location -- five inches below sea level, between an often uncontrollable river and an enormous lake -- has meant that in the almost three centuries since, New Orleans has cheerfully endured what most people would describe as relentless hell, ranging from devastating floods and outbreaks of yellow fever (the latter killed 8,000 people in 1853 alone) to Hurricane Betsy, which killed 75 people in 1965.

More than any other people in America, New Orleanians have a close relationship with death. We bury people in gleaming, highly visible above-ground 'cities of the dead' (the water table is so high that bodies buried below ground simply pop back up). Likewise, violent crime is not neatly confined to ghettoes out of sight of most of the populace. New Orleans is a fluid place in more ways than one -- 'bad' neighbourhoods abut 'good' ones throughout the city. The week after my husband and I moved into our almost-renovated Garden District house, a body was found, shot to death and dumped on the kerb, a mere two blocks away.

But rampant crime is hardly the only thing cutting into the life-expectancy rate, which was, last time I checked, on a par with that of North Korea and Uzbekistan. Since the 1930s, cancer surveys have consistently ranked New Orleans at number one in the country, and though Mississippi is home to the most fat people statewide, New Orleans wins the city prize. A lot can be blamed on poverty and crime levels, of course, but there is also the fact that a highly popular item on the menu at Jacques-Imo's, one of my favourite restaurants, is a battered and deepfried roast beef sandwich with brown gravy, and that Friday lunches across the city routinely last into the evening. (My own record at Galatoire's, the great Creole institution where the weaving 'walk of shame' to the door is a familiar one to many locals, was just under eight hours. …

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