Live oaks unfurl their ivy-cloaked branches over the sidewalks and push their roots through the pavement. The oaks' stature and age rival the prowess of the white-columned mansions leering at us behind rusted iron gates on either side of the road. The sky is gray and bulky with rain clouds, but the path is dry as we meander through the Garden District. The wealth is stunning here; many of these houses were built over a hundred years ago (maybe more) when the cotton and sugar industries were the prominent source of moneymaking in New Orleans. As the houses stand today, with fresh coats of paint and new cars in the driveway, it's difficult to imagine who could possibly live in these monstrous buildings now.
in the face of decay
Our tour through the Garden District and Uptown sections of New Orleans gave us a distinct look at the history of its economy over the years. The Garden District was home to many wealthy Americans who came from the north after the Civil War, as well as those previous planters whose wealth resided in the plantations. Further by the river, the houses become more simplistic in design and show the history of the European immigrants who worked the shipyards in that part of town. The disparity of wealth as defined by certain city blocks is a common theme today with modern cities, and it's interesting to see how far back boundary lines may go in historical terms.
We looked at these locations through the eyes of Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces and Binx Bolling of The Moviegoer - both significantly cynical and eccentric characters meandering through the wealth around them as outsiders. My perspective of the Garden District and its specific streets shifted to one that could accept that people did, in fact, live here at some point in time, that these houses weren't just amusement park facades or movie sets.
My perspective was also informed by the more sobering history of slavery. Days earlier, we visited the Whitney Plantation, where an informative tour gave us an inside look into the daily lives of slaves living on sugar plantations hundreds of years ago. Our tour guide, Ali, gave us a candid view of the life of a slave, and by outlining the roles of each person on a plantation - from slave to overseer to plantation owner - he provided a new perspective on the brutalities these slaves faced in everyday life and stressed the importance of learning this history so later generations may not be doomed to repeat it.
The houses in the Garden District are drenched in this cruel history. Many of them were built with money gained from the exploitation of millions of lives condemned to slavery by the color of their skin. Many of the beautiful galleries, brightly-colored verandas, and shining window panes wouldn't have been here if not for the slaves undergoing the brutal process of harvesting, processing, and packaging sugarcane for the plantations nearby.
I'm sure the residents of these splendid houses today don't condone slavery as previous tenants did. These houses are now owned by celebrities, such as Peyton Manning's family and Sandra Bullock; they are even rented out as sets for movies and TV shows, such as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (movie, 2009) and "American Horror Story: Coven" (TV, 2013-14). The wealth is still outrageous, but time has changed the atmosphere around these historic buildings. However, it is important to remember that behind every mansion lies a history of slavery, and the countless stories that are just beginning to be revealed by tours such as on the Whitney Plantation will continue to inform an unassuming public about the foundations of this city.
Celebrity and wealth aside, New Orleans remains a center for art and for living a life of pleasure regardless of socio-economic status. A number of authors - William Faulkner, John Kennedy Toole, Walker Percy, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, and Ernest Hemingway to name a few - lived in this city and experienced the intoxicating atmosphere of free expression and artistic aestheticism that later contributed to some of their greatest works of literature. Learning about how William Faulkner as a young man used to shoot his BB gun at passers-by in Pirate's Alley off of Jackson Square, and reading Walt Whitman's poem about live oaks that he wrote while he lived here for a time, has been incredibly inspiring and has brought the city to life for me in a whole new way.
Whether you live in a hundred-year-old mansion on Prytania or a one-bedroom apartment outside of town, New Orleans has an incredible energy fueled by its history that makes it one of the most unique, eclectic places to live in.