A vivid evocation of the Big Easy, whose nickname sidesteps three centuries of uneasy history.
Writer and documentary film producer Berry (Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, 2012, etc.) opens with a juxtaposition of two important moments in the recent history of New Orleans: the 2015 funeral of musical legend Allen Toussaint, which “resembled an affair of state,” and the fiery debate over removing Confederate statues from the city’s public places. This “clash of icons” speaks to the significant question of what the city’s history really is: Is New Orleans a space where transformative works of art and music have been born or a place where some of the worst angels of our nature have been let loose? The answer, of course, is both. Borrowing the thought from novelist Walker Percy that the people of New Orleans are “happiest when making money, caring for the dead, or ‘putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are,’ ” Berry explores key moments in the clash of cultures and powers. Carved out of the scrubby Mississippi River lowlands as an entrepôt and anchor for France’s inland empire, New Orleans was, by its 10th year, “a black majority town with slave labor.” Indians were enslaved, too, even as the French concluded treaties with faraway Indian nations. The city was affected by both the Reign of Terror in Paris and the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, both of which indirectly led to the acquisition of New Orleans as part of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase—said the seller, a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte, “I renounce it with the greatest regret….I require money.” Confederate center, strategically important port, birthplace of jazz, setting of tragedy and disaster, and now a site of gentrification: Berry nimbly covers New Orleans in all its aspects over 300 years, “a map of the world in miniature, a blue city floating against the odds of sea rise and climate convulsions, blue forever in its long sweet song.”
Every major city should have such a guide to its past.