Plunging into the unfamiliar
New Orleans, I was thrown into the midst of this enigmatic town in the late seventies. Seventy-nine to be exact.
I was a young, curious, designer and partner in a growing, national, commercial interior architectural design firm in Chicago. A client and dear friend thought we should head South and meet a real estate developer friend of his who needed our services, as he was developing three major buildings right across the street from the Superdome.
I immediately said yes. New Orleans loomed large for me. I’d never been there but it sounded like the real deal. A city that summoned up mysterious charm and owned coveted mojo on some of the things that I love the most, music, food, history, art.
And so off we flew. In one day we agreed to open an office and I became its Partner In Charge. It turned out to be a very successful enterprise. Jumping in with both feet indeed. Over a few years we designed the headquarters of major petroleum corporation’s, service companies, dining clubs and the like.
But, more than my business endeavors, it was the sprit of the place, the essence, the soul of New Orelans that took hold of me and remains to this day.
There’s an elusive, churning ethos there. Sensual, exciting, it feels like it’s always trying to rebuild, pulling itself up out of the transgressions and disasters of the past, while staying rooted in its heritage.
As soon as I could, I went to see the Neville Brothers at Tipitinas. An un-air-conditioned (back then) music shrine. The Neville’s were the mighty uptown rulers. Having grown up a few blocks away on Valance Street.
The sight of Aaron gripping a drumstick and big ass cowbell with a feathered earring hanging from one ear and prison tattoos on his face, his voice like an angel, is forever etched in my memory. By the end of the night sweat was dripping off of me and the walls.
No posing, faking, theatrics here. The music was tied to their ancestors and aimed at today. The ghosts of Big Chief Jolly, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair and Jimi Hendrix were summoned up. You could see it in their eyes. I was transported, taken out of that musty, steamy bar and thrown back in time while being driven deep into the holy funk that is this place. At once I knew that New Orelans had a grip on me.
“In New Orleans…..You can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other…until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one funky gumbo.” — Dr. John
I ended up living in a two hundred year old converted slave quarters in the French Quarter for several years.
I was spellbound, transported. I learned the rhythm and stories of those streets, in a quiet part of the Quarter away from the tourists and t shirt shops. Amongst people that had lived there for years, who quietly hosed down the sidewalks in the morning, said hello when you passed by, called me “Jim-may.”
The cracked streets of this city felt like the streets of my hometown, New York. The whole place smelled like food — the sign of a great city. Something’s cooking everywhere, all day and night.
Living there, I got a real immersion, soaking in the full picture of the place. Hanging out at local clubs, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, second-line parades, stopping time and simply being there.
“Through pestilence, hurricanes, and conflagrations the people continued to sing. They sang through the long oppressive years of conquering the swampland and fortifying the town against the ever threatening Mississippi. They are singing today. An irrepressible joie de vivre maintains the unbroken thread of music through the air. Yet, on occasion, if you ask an overburdened citizen why he is singing so gaily, he will give the time-honored reason, “Why to keep from crying, of course!” — Lura Robinson, 1948
I got deep into the details of what went on, the subtle patterns of people as they go about their day, the tone of their voices, the smells coming from their kitchens. The dissonance of sights, sounds, experiences.
Soaking up the reality of the place has had a lasting influence. It reminds me to continue to jump in, immerse, go deep for soul, beliefs, go (safely) into what’s unfamiliar, step back and relish what’s been learned. The value is immense.
Thank you New Orleans!