By Ed Conroy | Houston Chronicle
In his poem “Gulf Music,” former poet laureate Robert Pinsky writes, “The past is not decent or orderly. It is made up and devious. The man was correct when he said it’s not even past.”
While Pinsky was writing in part about the 1900 hurricane that leveled Galveston, he was writing about New Orleans, too.
It’s entirely appropriate, then, that Jason Berry should quote Pinksy — and pay indirect homage to William Faulkner — at the outset of his fascinating, expertly researched and masterfully written history of the city that care forgot.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when some pundits made bold to suggest there was no point to rebuilding the town because of climate change, no doubt many New Orleans natives thought there were far too many people who had forgotten to care about their city at all. Berry, who has been living in and writing about the people, music and politics of the Crescent City for much of his adult life, was by no means among those naysayers. Through his research and reporting, he already knew its pivotal importance as a crucible for the evolution of American culture.
He distinguished himself with his 1986 history of New Orleans music, “Up From the Cradle of Jazz,” as well as through his groundbreaking 1992 book, “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” which uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse of minors in rural Louisiana. His 2011 book, “Render Unto Rome,” won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Award.
With “City of a Million Dreams,” Berry has turned his considerable reporting prowess toward profiling the city he loves like no other with an abundantly evident, ardent passion.
He begins this extraordinary book with an emotionally moving recounting of famed New Orleans songwriter and performer Allen Toussaint’s funeral on Nov. 20, 2015, when 1,600 people packed the Orpheum Theatre. Numerous musicians and civic leaders saluted Toussaint and his music before the Preservation Hall Jazz Band marched everyone out to the street to send his casket off in a white hearse for what, Berry notes, Jelly Roll Morton once called “the end of a perfect death.”
Poetry, death and transformation, music, dancing and marching are very much at the heart of Berry’s “City of a Million Dreams,” which takes its title, fittingly, from the jazz song by Johnny Wiggs and Raymond Burke.
The result of over a quarter century of Berry’s indefatigable research, this 332-page, extensively footnoted and annotated work captures the reader’s attention with a cavalcade of astoundingly detailed accounts of the exploits and adventures of a cornucopia of outstanding people who have left an enduring mark on New Orleans and the conflicts that have forged its distinctive urban culture.
To Berry, all of New Orleans’ colorful people and their culture have roots in a place once known as Congo Square, named, ironically, for the executioner.
As he puts it, “There was a time, deep in the city’s past, when the reach of African memory cradled a large field that lay behind the rampart of the town. Today, a wedge of that space occupies a corner of Louis Armstrong Park within the Rampart Street wall. The evolution of that land and its African rituals carried a quaking drama of memory and resistance. A culture of spectacle pushed against the city of laws like tectonic plates beneath the earth.”
Perhaps Berry’s greatest achievement in writing this book is to create a seamless, holographic tapestry out of the many disparate threads in New Orleans’ history, tying together stories from its Spanish, French, American, Confederate, Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods, during which it reinvented itself in line with the mythology of what 19th-century white supremacists called the Lost Cause — through the civil rights movement and desegregation all the way to Katrina and the city’s rebirth.
Berry pulls no punches in describing the New Orleans of the past as a place where vice was long plentiful and profitable, where police were easily bribed, where political gangs of Irish and Italians clashed with upper-class whites, where city government was a vassal to the governor and state legislature and where school desegregation in the 1960s was fought by many locals, tooth and nail.
At the same time, though, Berry twists his literary kaleidoscope little by little as the book progresses to help the reader see how the culture of jazz, elaborate funeral parades and second lines with their brass bands, indigenous Afrian-American spirituality and the gloriously surreal pageantry of Carnival, with its exotic krewes and their parades, all evolved from the very slave dances through which the people who built the early city expressed their hope for a better future — in this world, and the next.
But Berry also sees New Orleans as a city redeemed by its own art, culture and spirituality. As he puts it, “Music and dancing coursed across the racial divide like a current of electricity charging both cultures.”
He sees that current moving now to inspire its leaders to fully confront the legacy of racism and white supremacy. He eloquently recounts how former mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city council removed the statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes from places of glory, at considerable personal risk.
“City of a Million Dreams” is an inspiring response to those who would have left New Orleans to decay away in the wake of Katrina, a tale of resilience and progress in the face of great odds.
Toward the end of the book, Berry describes the colorful 2014 funeral of Black Indian Big Chief Larry Bannock of the Golden Starhunters, where his fellow Indians paraded in their beaded and feathered finery. A man watching the parade yelled, as the hearse rolled by, “Big Chief don’t never bow down!”
Berry convincingly makes the case that, thanks to the collective energy, over three centuries, of all the people whom he has chronicled and celebrated, and many more, neither will New Orleans.
Ed Conroy is a writer in San Antonio