Because I am still faithful to my book buying ban I get other people to buy books for me. This one was bought by my dear mum, she brought it with her when we went for vacation in March, so its technically hers and I just borrowed it. Within a month this was a second book that was a portrait of a city, the first being Ben Judah ‘This is London: Life and Death in the World City‘. They were very, very different takes on the topic.
I never had a clear picture of New Orleans in my head, the way I have of New York, something that I instantly imagine when someone mentions the name of the city. I only had some vague unconnected feelings, so I thought this book would help me form a more coherent picture, but it didn’t it makes it even more disjointed, but ever more interesting. In the preface to the second English edition Baum describes New Orleans this way: ‘in the context of the techno-driven, profit-crazy, hyper-efficient self-image of the United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.’
Dan Baum paints the picture of the city through the stories of nine people. He starts in 1965 with the aftermath of hurricane Betsy and finishes with the aftermath of Katrina, forty years later. The nine people that tell their stories come from completely different environments, showing us the city from many aspects, how the stories and different ways of living intertwine or sometimes never meet. How New Orleans is not one city but a multitude of different cities all cohabiting the same space, not always peacefully. It is a city of rich people and a city of the extremely poor. A city of people who do the right thing and people who lead a life of crime, but most of all a city of people who try to make the best of it. Baum manages to show us the extremes but also the great space between them, he definitely avoids the one sided account that Ben Judah gave of London. This book has many layers, many nuances that can only be captured by careful listening to a number of stories, by trying to understand them and give them time to evolve. I think there is a fundamental difference in attitude towards the subject between Baum and Judah: Judah wrote his book to understand the city he lives in, he did it for himself; Baum moved to New Orleans to understand it and he wrote the book to give people space to tell their stories, he did it more for the city and people he talked to and this makes all the difference in reading. It is a lot easier to relate to Baum’s book, even though I’ve never been to New Orleans, than it was to Judah’s, despite me living in London.
New Orleans in Baum’s book is a cruel city, full of violence, but also a city of communities, of people coming together, as well as city of people who are out to hurt others. It’s a city described with love by its inhabitants.