‘City of a Million Dreams’ Review: Every Day a Parade
A bold, witty, character-driven history of New Orleans, just in time for its tricentennial.
Before Benjamin Latrobe could see New Orleans, as his passenger ship cut through dawn fog in January 1819, he heard “a sound more strange than any that is heard anywhere else in the world,” according to his journal, “a more incessant, loud and various gabble of tongues of all tones than was ever heard at Babel.” A month later, Latrobe, the architect and engineer who would design the city’s first steam-powered waterworks, documented an “incredible noise” made by drummers and a thunder, like horses trampling, from concentric rings of dancers in Congo Square, where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays.
Jason Berry’s bold, witty and deeply researched history of his native city homes in on the sound of the place.
Jerome Smith, an activist and community organizer raised in the city’s Seventh Ward, whose Tambourine and Fan Club teaches children through indigenous New Orleans cultural traditions, recalls an oak-tree-lined North Claiborne Street, before 14 blocks of the Tremé neighborhood were ripped out in the 1960s to make way for the I-10 highway. Back then, Mr. Smith told Mr. Berry, “You had the lyrical tap dancers on the street and you had the music from the vendors, the rag man, the produce man.”
Before Mr. Berry tracks back to March 1718—when the city’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, “led his team of thirty French convicts, six carpenters, and four Canadian voyageurs, hacking through canebrakes and trees, clearing the area to build where silt layers had settled in the shape of a crescent”—he quotes the hit-making pianist-composer-arranger-producer Allen Toussaint, who died in 2015. New Orleans has its own distinct hum, Toussaint told him—“B-flat all the way.”
New Orleans funerals form an essential leitmotif here. They are “caravans of memory” holding “a mirror to the society at given points in time.” Toussaint’s funeral was “doubly poignant for extending a lineage of burial marches begun as early as 1789 with the lavish memorial for Carlos III, when the city was a Spanish property.” It also coincided with stirrings of controversy over a statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1884, that culminated with the removal, in 2017, of four Confederate monuments. (A local petition to rename Lee Circle after Toussaint gathered 8,000 signatures.) Mr. Berry began writing his book long before this “clash of icons—Lee versus Toussaint”—erupted. “Now the masks were coming down, and people accustomed to the charming Southern way of complimenting the roses while ignoring the cadaver at the garden party were peering at each other, asking, ‘What is our history?’ ”
Mr. Berry’s past books include ground-breaking investigative reporting about the Catholic church, critical histories of New Orleans music, insider accounts of Southern politics and a satirical novel. His New Orleans history is a character-driven narrative that mines the tensions coursing through, if not defining, the city: between spirituality and religious institutions, European and African musical traditions, white-controlled politics and a dominant black culture. “A culture of spectacle pushed against the city of laws like tectonic plates grinding beneath the earth,” he writes.
“The tension between spectacle and law that would shape the city was written on the body of its founder,” according to Mr. Berry. He means the tattoos that covered Bienville’s body, which weren’t depicted in aristocratic portraits but inspired both admiration and fear among Native American tribes. These helped Bienville fill “his role in a culture that negotiated power through ritual dancing.” Nearly all of this history’s characters lead back to culture. Pierre Casanave, a free man of color and French Quarter furniture dealer, becomes a mortician who notably hires bands for funeral processions in the mid- 1800s. Mother Catherine Seals, a Lower Ninth Ward faith healer of the 1920s, plays trombone in bands including the likes of saxophonist Harold “Duke” Dejan, who went on the lead the Olympia Brass Band. Sister Gertrude Morgan, a painter, musician and mystic, finds an unlikely ally, art dealer Larry Borenstein, amid the early-1960s atmosphere that gave rise to Preservation Hall.
Mr. Berry tracks the city’s population—from 1740 (“about 5,000 people, of whom 3,000 were slaves”) through 2016, when the city’s 391,195 residents marked a 100,000 drop since the flood resulting from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina. He traces the city’s changing allegiances, including, in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase signaled “the rise of the third flag of nationality in three weeks.” He avoids allusions to a melting pot or, as commonly applied to New Orleans, a gumbo. His city is a collection of “map-of-the-world neighborhoods,” each with a distinct identity.
Of particular importance are African retentions. “Nowhere else in North America did African-blooded people dance publicly as a continuing reality of city life” (emphasis his). Mr. Berry is particularly adept in chronicling jazz through the legacies of popular icons such as Louis Armstrong and local heroes, including banjoist and bandleader Danny Barker. Jazz begins as both “a story of the city in churches and parades” and—here Mr. Berry’s focus is especially astute—“a performance narrative countering that of the Lost Cause,” a mythology that, in New Orleans, found aristocratic embrace through Mardi Gras balls. This nascent jazz culture met with resistance: A 1918 Times-Picayune editorial proclaimed, “We should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it.”
Mr. Berry’s story can’t not conclude with experiences surrounding the 2005 flood and its long aftermath. Though his own home was dry, he accompanied Dr. Michael White to the clarinetist’s destroyed home and surveyed its ruins: irreplaceable books, recordings and instruments, including mouthpieces from clarinetists Sidney Bechet, an essential jazz pioneer, and Raymond Burke, who composed the song whose title this book borrows. Dr. White finds renewed energy for his music. And Mr. Berry is correct: In terms of recovery, “culture prevailed as politics failed.” Sometimes, it nudged politics into succeeding, as when trumpeter Wynton Marsalis challenged then-mayor Mitch Landrieu over Confederate statues. Mr. Marsalis won the policy argument; Mr. Landrieu performed the song. His speech last year from Gallier Hall asked us to consider the monuments “from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city.”
In describing how a “city that nearly drowned on global television in 2005 in the short span of thirteen years has unveiled a new persona,” Mr. Berry acknowledges that it has “become more gentrified and segregated.” Given his brilliant exposition of how “an African American culture grew into a life force of dancing, parading and music to resist a city of laws, anchored in white supremacy for much of our history,” Mr. Berry might have dug more deeply into how this dynamic has played out in the “new” New Orleans—why community clubs took the city to federal court over jacked-up fees for Sunday second-line parades, or how the brass-band and Mardi Gras Indian cultures he rightly celebrates have faced fresh waves of police intimidation. The “resilience” Mr. Berry praises has become, for some New Orleans residents, a dirty word.
Yet Mr. Berry understands these issues as fully as anyone. His optimism, a faith of sorts, is grounded in the very story he tells—of a city still defined by “pageantries and memory rituals of its varied people” and “where people of different colors and cultures have daily interactions as they have done for generations.” His book, an indispensable history, explains both what we might take care not to lose and why it’s so easy to believe it will always be so.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.