New York Review of Books: City of a Million Dreams

By Garry Wills | The New York Review of Books

The City That Wouldn’t Die

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, devastating an area seven times the size of Manhattan, flooding 80 percent of the city, ruining buildings, forcing a million people to flee, and stranding millions more in misery. Many of us remember this as a great failure of George W. Bush’s administration and of his appointee to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” Brown. Jason Berry, in City of a Million Dreams, a sweeping history of his native city, thinks it was something else: “the worst civil engineering disaster in American history.” (Brown does not get a single reference in the index.) The levees that were supposed to protect a city largely constructed at or below sea level were badly designed and poorly maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. The coastal forests and wetlands, which could once have absorbed a storm surge, had been built over. Local authorities were incompetent, especially the mayor, Ray Nagin (who later went to prison for tax evasion, fraud, and bribery).

Some of those who fled the city considered not going back, and Mayor Nagin seemed to encourage that, “touting a ‘market-driven recovery,’ which many people took as a dog whistle for keeping the poor from returning,” Berry writes. New Orleans was 67 percent black before Katrina. It is still 60 percent black. Black organizers encouraged people to return, reminding them especially of cultural institutions they had created. Wynton Marsalis, of the great New Orleans musician family, led an effort to restore the “talent pool,” largely focused on the city’s deep heritage of jazz music.

Berry fled at first, but then came back. He already knew that New Orleans has a trick of not dying when it ought to. The city is a cheeky insult to the natural order, a mix of incongruous elements that somehow reinforce one another while trying to tear one another down. It has been the target of hurricanes and floods throughout its history—Hurricane Betsy killed eighty-one people in 1965. Fires long rivaled floods in deadliness—the fire of 1788 destroyed 856 buildings and 80 percent of all homes; that of 1794 destroyed 212 buildings in three hours. Yellow fever, carried by the city’s huge population of mosquitoes, leveled human populations. Changes in imperial masters (first French, then Spanish, then French again) altered the choreography of power without breaking a certain continuity. Slave revolts were often threatened and sometimes occurred. Pirates were both a menace to and carriers of trade. Yet from its birth in 1718, the city kept improbably springing back.

It is appropriate that this kaleidoscopic city had a kind of shapeshifter as its founder. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was born into a privileged French colonial family in Canada. He learned about battle as a naval cadet on the French warship commanded by his older brother Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville. At seventeen, Jean-Baptiste was wounded when Iberville’s ship sank a British man-o’-war in Hudson Bay in 1697. Then the brothers started exploring French holdings in and around the mouth of the Mississippi River, looking to control entry from the Gulf of Mexico.

For a base of operations Bienville settled on a crescent-shaped ridge of comparatively hardened sludge in the soupy terrain. It was Indian-held land. With a small army of Europeans and freed black men he fought to secure it, negotiating with six Indian tribes, learning their languages, pitting some against the others, fighting in their own manner. Some Indians fought naked, to show their talismanic tattoos to the foe; so did Bienville, flaunting his snake tattoos. This flamboyant beginning gives Berry a clue to much that will follow in the history of New Orleans.

The city has what sociologist Clifford Geertz called the cohesion of a “theatre state.” In his study of rituals in nineteenth-century Bali, Geertz described “the power of grandeur to organize a world,” creating a belief system from “a lexicon of carvings, flowers, dances, melodies, gestures, chants, ornaments, temples, postures, and masks.”1 He gave another example of this when he studied the wrenching shift in England from the Catholic court of Queen Mary Tudor to the Protestant realm of Elizabeth I. The medieval calendar of rituals, feast days, fast days, guilds with patron saints, high masses, and religious processions was replaced with a Renaissance series of masques, plays, processions, emblems, and royal cults.2

Berry does not refer to Geertz, but he is undertaking something similarly ambitious when he claims that New Orleans has always had a culture of spectacle. Geertz thought the theatricality of Bali and England was a way of underlining the rulers’ authority. Spectacle in New Orleans could not only underline authority but also undermine it. Miming official rituals, it could give them a subversive twist. The love of spectacle blended Indian war drums, Congolese circle dances, sangamento (mock war) ceremonies, spiritualist invocations, exorcisms, faith healings, ecstatic worship, and imitation of Catholic high masses with fancy vestments and processions and saints’ days. The city’s many funeral customs show how multivalent such displays could be. In the early days, slave funerals were banned as possible incentives to rebellion, and so they were carried out furtively at night. The official “krewes” of Mardi Gras were followed by informal “second liners” mocking the already exaggerated “royalty” of Carnival. Jazz was brewed from such confluent rhythms and improvisations.

Another theme explored by Berry is the strong but heterodox spiritualities of New Orleans. He shows how the voodoo cult of famous dead leaders resembled the Catholic cult of saints. The city has a way of enacting its beliefs. There is no better personification of this than the Capuchin monk Antonio de Sedella, red-haired, sandaled, bearded, and charismatic. A secret agent of the Spanish Inquisition, he arrived in Spanish-held New Orleans in 1781 to sniff out heresy. The local Spanish governor did not want secret agents encroaching on his authority, so he sent the monk back to Spain in 1790.

But in 1795 Sedella returned to New Orleans, where he became a wildly populist leader of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His popular power grew as the Spanish lost control to the French in 1800 and President Thomas Jefferson bought the territory from Napoleon in 1803. When the Marquis de Lafayette came to America for his famous return tour in 1825, he was officially welcomed by Sedella, who was so beloved by the French population that Padre Antonio had long been known as Père Antoine. When Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, to whom the Vatican had given authority over the territory, ordered him to surrender the New Orleans cathedral to its rightful bishop in 1806, a mob prevented the bishop from ousting Père Antoine. The populace again thwarted Catholic Church authority in 1815, when a bishop (as required by canon law) was sent to take over the cathedral. A mob drove the bishop chosen by the pope out of town and reinstalled Père Antoine as the churchman chosen by the people. He reigned in the cathedral for the rest of his life.

The man who first came to New Orleans to enforce Church orthodoxy ended up usurping Church authority in order to baptize, marry, and bury ecclesiastically prohibited people—slaves, Masons, creoles of all sorts, even Jews and Protestants in “mixed marriages” with Catholic partners. Père Antoine was as inclusive as the multiracial New Orleans populace, and when he died in 1829 he was buried under the floor of his usurped cathedral after lying in state there while the community mourned him. He became the spirit of New Orleans, appearing after death as a ghost or dream visitor to spiritualists.

Berry knows that the city’s spiritual life could not be contained within even the most tolerant boundaries of a folk-hero monk. Holiness preachers of amazing theatrical spectacles have commanded rapt attention in New Orleans. Utah Smith (1906–1965) sang his sermons while playing an electric guitar and flying on wires wearing two huge white wings (representing the Old Testament and New Testament) that would carry him to heaven. Berry’s own favorite spiritual leaders are women who created their own rituals, evangelists like Cora Williams or Margaret Parker. Mother Leafy Anderson (1887–1927) was a medium whose services called up the spirit of Black Hawk, the Native American warrior, as a guide and protector of black people. She also held parties on the roof of her church, at which jazz musicians played.

Berry gives special attention to Mother Catherine Seals (1887–1930) and Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980). Mother Catherine created a mission for abused, homeless, and pregnant women called the Manger, since Christ was being reborn there every time a woman gave birth or carried her baby into the two-block compound. As the novelist and amateur anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote after staying at the Manger for two weeks in 1928, “Mother Catherine’s concept of the divinity of Christ is that Joseph was his foster father as all men are foster fathers, in that all children are of God and all fathers merely the means.”

Hurston wondered at the collection of animals in the Manger’s compound and at the chapel (“a place of barbaric splendor, of banners, of embroideries, or images bought and created by mother Catherine”). There were snake images on the walls and on Mother Catherine’s self-designed vestments, honoring the “rebirth” of serpents when they shed their skin. In the tent services, from a stage with a piano, young jazz musicians found their first audiences. Mother Catherine, a social force in the city, created a line of female bishops from her followers and drew crowds to her faith healings.

Sister Gertrude Morgan not only preached with music (she played the guitar) but with the visual arts, painting biblico-cosmic scenes with her own system of symbols. She claimed she heard a voice telling her she was the Bride of Christ, sent to save souls with sounds and sights. She became a famous folk artist after a hustling gallery owner named Larry Borenstein began collecting and selling her paintings in the 1960s. Borenstein, a Jew from Milwaukee who was married in a Buddhist temple, was not only a collector of pre-Columbian art along with Sister Gertrude’s paintings, but also a jazz fancier who let mixed-race bands play in his gallery’s patio while segregation was still being enforced in more open venues. Borenstein moved his gallery next door and left his original site to be developed, first as the Slow Drag Hangout and then, after its sale to Allan Jaffe (1935–1987), a tuba-playing jazz musician, as Preservation Hall.

Borenstein exemplifies how New Orleans traditions not only jostled alongside one another but crisscrossed back and forth. Another symbol of this was the Bourbon House tavern, which had two entrances on different streets, one for gays and one for straights; Tennessee Williams often preferred the straight side for its better jukebox music. What is one to make of a city where the Bride of Christ played the guitar, where an Inquisitor-monk became a welcomer of dissent, and where the aristocratic founder was a tattooed warrior?

Berry not only traces these overlaps of sound and spectacle; he uses overlapping narratives. We first meet a character in one scene without any forecast of the future until that character pops up in later circumstances. For instance, a slave boy named Jordan Noble, with his master’s permission, was a military drummer at the Battle of New Orleans, won by Andrew Jackson with the help of black militiamen, pirates, and Choctaw Indians. Jordan was freed after many celebrations of the battle he had served in; he turns up later in Berry’s book defending his state in the Civil War (and trying to preserve his freedom by showing his loyalty in case the South won).

Henry Latrobe was a young architect in New Orleans directing 150 slaves in building a defensive barrier during the War of 1812, before he died of yellow fever, the ancient New Orleans curse. Only later in the book does his father, the more famous architect Benjamin Latrobe, come to New Orleans to complete his dead son’s waterworks and undertake new projects (such as a tower for Père Antoine’s cathedral) before dying of yellow fever himself. The elder Latrobe was not only America’s first professional architect, appointed by President Jefferson to oversee construction of the Capitol in Washington; his journal is among the most perceptive of his time. He gives one of the best descriptions of the African “circle dances” in New Orleans’s Congo Square. Latrobe also reveals the sadistic racism of the city: he left the boarding house he first stayed at when the woman running it had a mulatto servant tied naked and whipped for not making a bed.

The same overlapping narrative technique has us first meet the noble Sieur Bienville fighting against England for control of Hudson Bay and later fighting with and against Indian tribes. Or we learn of Padre Antonio as an enforcer of the Spanish Inquisition, before he comes back as a populist churchman, Père Antoine, leading the people in an ecumenical spirit.

And then there is the jazz clarinetist Michael White. Before Katrina, Berry had collaborated with White for a documentary on the musical funerals in New Orleans. White was both a jazz performer with his own Original Liberty Jazz Band, which toured in America and China, and a scholar who earned his doctorate in Spanish from Tulane University and teaches musicology from an endowed chair at Xavier University.

After Katrina, we get a second look at White as Berry reconnects with him, going for the first time to his drenched and moldering home in the Gentilly neighborhood, where it had been inundated by nine feet of water. There they saw that four thousand of White’s books, along with musical scores, records, photos, and jazz memorabilia, were sluiced off walls and shelves onto the floor in a mush-mound of irrecoverable scholarship. Then we follow White as he resumes his irrepressible jazz band, makes new recordings, collaborates with Wynton Marsalis, and continues teaching music at Xavier. That is, we see New Orleans, after another of its near-death experiences, still stubbornly not knowing how to die when it ought to.

  1. Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 102–104.  
  1. Clifford Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,” in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (Basic Books, 1983).