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A strong, soulful, wicked, frail city

Times Staff Writer

In the opening scene of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche DuBois arrives at the New Orleans tenement home of her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski in a state of anxious uncertainty. “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields,” Blanche confides to a neighbor.

Williams’ metaphor, with its evocation of sexual yearning and intimations of mortality, echoes through this essential American drama, set in what may be America’s most singular metropolis. And in the wake of the devastation wrought, and the many questions raised, by Hurricane Katrina last week, some of the themes Williams touched on in “Streetcar” -- specifically about whether a fabulous invalid like Blanche and a shabby-genteel place like New Orleans could withstand the rigors of the modern world -- seem more relevant than ever.

For a city of only half a million people, New Orleans looms as large in our cultural imagination as L.A. or Chicago. Playwrights, novelists, poets, film directors, painters, chefs, dive-bar raconteurs and especially musicians all have drunk deeply of the city’s heady brew of flamboyance and decadence, joie de vivre and fatalism, the sexy and the sinister.

From its prissy French Quarter architecture to its brawny riverfront, to the shotgun houses of the traditionally black and Creole 7th, 8th and 9th wards, it is a place whose swirling eddies of French, African American, Caribbean and Roman Catholic influence have proven irresistible to those with brooding souls and hungry hearts. As much as the tourists who flock there to cavort in weeklong bacchanals, artists have long been drawn to New Orleans. Like Blanche, the city has always depended on the kindness of strangers.

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Even people who’ve never set foot in Jackson Square may feel as if they know the Crescent City from poring over Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” or John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” or by glimpsing the Southern Gothic underworld of Anne Rice’s vampire novels. Others may be transported there just by listening to a few bars of Jelly Roll Morton or the Marsalis brothers, Harry Connick Jr. or Dr. John, Buckwheat Zydeco or Master P.

Even the devastating fallout from Katrina won’t be enough to keep them from coming back, some artists promise. After all, the city’s air of defiant bravado in the face of impending disaster has always been part of its allure. “The culture survives,” says Quint Davis, producer and director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “It’s survived slavery. It’s survived everything so far.... I don’t think you can stop the dance. I don’t think you can drown the dance. We dance at funerals, and now we have to dance at our own funeral.”

Others fear that the soulful old city of homey cafes serving warm beignets, and crammed like a giant curiosity shop with faded relics of the world the slaves made, will be swept aside by new development. That fear seems particularly acute among African Americans, who make up the overwhelming majority of the city.

“My grandmother lived on Conti Street in an old, falling-down neighborhood, and I’m worried that they are going to gentrify it, that they not only are going to rebuild New Orleans but they are going to reinvent New Orleans,” says Jervey Tervalon, an L.A. writer who set two of his novels in his native city.

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Chuck Taggart, a DJ and music programmer who grew up in New Orleans and hosts a radio show at Cal State Northridge, says he doesn’t want New Orleans culture in the future “to exist solely as a diaspora.” “All of this is so soul-crushing,” he says. “I can’t bear to watch it; I can’t bear not to. I still feel like I have lost a family member. I’m in mourning.” Overnight, it seems, the national anthem has become Louis Armstrong, the city’s most famous son, crooning: “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans / And miss it each night and day?”

Yet other artists and culture mavens say that the city has always swayed to its own meandering rhythm and will somehow find a way to keep following its riffing, improvisational instincts. “To get to New Orleans you don’t pass through anywhere else. That geographical location, being aloof, lets it hold onto the ritual of its own pace more than other places that have to keep up with the progress,” says Allen Toussaint, 67, a songwriter, producer and performer behind such pop hits as LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.”

Although the human losses in New Orleans are incalculable, at least a few of the city’s key cultural outposts apparently have weathered the assault. The local newspaper the Times-Picayune reported that the New Orleans Museum of Art had survived Katrina with its collections intact. Some pieces from the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden also were saved, though a tall modernist sculpture by Kenneth Snelson “was reduced to a twisted mess in the lagoon.”

Radio station WWOZ-FM, which broadcasts mostly New Orleans music and is an essential part of community life, is back streaming on the Internet. But the fate of many of the city’s other cultural institutions remains uncertain.

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An item on the website ArtsJournal.com said that members of the Louisiana Philharmonic, displaced by the hurricane, will be seeking temporary employment with other orchestras. Some of the city’s culinary meccas also are in shambles, including Antoine’s, where a wall collapsed, and Commander’s Palace, where Katrina swept away half the facade.

Historically, New Orleans’ cultural richness and cosmopolitanism resulted from two primary factors: its openness through trade and commerce to Europe, the Caribbean and other parts of the world; and its relative isolation from the rest of the American South, which was steeped in racial separatism and centuries of economic backwardness.

The city’s water fountains may have been marked “whites only,” but racial mixing in bedrooms and brothels set New Orleans apart from the rest of the Jim Crow South. Sexual intrigue has long been the spice in the city’s cultural soup, especially interracial sex, which until at least the 1960s was regarded as Original Sin in most areas below the Mason-Dixon Line.

William Faulkner recognized New Orleans’ taboo-shaking symbolism in his novel “Absalom, Absalom!” when he envisioned the young plantation heir Henry Sutpen journeying there with his mixed-race half-brother (and possible lover), Charles Bon. In Alan Parker’s 1987 film “Angel Heart,” a detective played by Mickey Rourke gets sucked into a miasma of miscegenation and literally loses his soul when he hooks up with Lisa Bonet’s voodoo priestess in 1950s New Orleans.

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In pop-culture depictions, sex has often served as a partner in crime to New Orleans’ notorious corruption. “Look out for the gator baby!” yells Dennis Quaid as he dives with his stuffed-toy alligator into a steamy coupling with Ellen Barkin in “The Big Easy.” The 1987 romantic thriller, in which Quaid plays a raffish detective who has become blind to his own compromised ethics, helped spark a temporary pop-culture craze for all things Creole. “Hey, I’m not defending anything,” Quaid’s Remy McSwain declares with disarming good ol’ boy candor. “This is New Orleans, darlin’. Folks have a certain way of doin’ things down here.”

Hollywood’s view of the Crescent City has come a long way since Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy minced their way through a storybook colonial New Orleans in the 1935 MGM musical “Naughty Marietta.” These days, Snoop Dogg has commandeered the camera to shoot sorority sisters flashing Bourbon Street in “Girls Gone Wild: Doggy Style.”

But it is music, more than any other art form, that has put New Orleans on the world culture map. The early blues of New Orleans were fashioned from mournful Negro spirituals, the passionate verve of Spanish flamenco, the compression of African polyrhythms into a steady beat and other exotic musical ingredients brought by sailors from Cuba, South America and Europe.

“And then the West Africans were allowed to play their music in Congo Square. That happened nowhere else in the United States. That was the true key ingredient,” says musician and composer Wynton Marsalis, of the jazz family dynasty. “The music and all the traditions and the sense of self-worth that comes with being able to have your own art form and customs and traditions, that was a part of the Afro American that lived in New Orleans.”

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After the Civil War, black musicians began picking up and playing brass instruments left over from military bands, and deconstructing French quadrilles, leading to the formations of jazz. The list of jazz men and women with New Orleans ties reads like a history of the art form: Morton, Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver, Ma Rainey, Lizzie Miles, Pete Fountain, Connick.

A city afloat on its own

Water is, and may always be, the city’s most powerful reference point. Like a riverboat gambler, it deals out both fortune and failure, renewal and oblivion. “Louisiana, Louisiana / They’re tryin’ to wash us away,” Randy Newman wails about the 1927 flood that devastated the region. In “Tangled Up in Blue,” Bob Dylan sings of how he “drifted down to New Orleans” and started life over on a fishing boat.

Culturally, New Orleans seems to float apart from the rest of the Lower 48. It is in America but not entirely of it. The city’s frayed-at-the-edge appearance has betrayed its steady physical and economic decline in recent generations. The ravages of crime, termites and poverty have put New Orleans on the edge. But until last week it had kept from tipping over, while still basking in its perverse charms. “When America became homogenized, in the entertainment industry, in radio station playlists, fast food, you had New Orleans with this superior cuisine culture and with this superior musical culture that stayed somewhat isolated and retained its traditions,” the jazz festival’s Davis says. New Orleans is a Catholic town of rowdy bars and quiet parish churches, where the rituals of binging and purging, sin and penitence, seemingly follow each other every Saturday night, not just on Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. When the saints go marching in, the devils come marching out -- and vice versa. The river brought traders and gamblers, who brought prostitution, and the city learned to accept and even embrace its moral contrasts. “You had the good-time people right next to a lot of real church people,” says Marsalis.

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Like the morally ambiguous stories of the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, the city implicitly challenges the Baptist certitude that human beings can ever truly be “saved.” From a cultural standpoint, New Orleans has never asked for, or expected, salvation.

But can such a city survive catastrophe?

In “Streetcar,” Williams depicted New Orleans as a kind of spiritual and artistic battlefield where Stanley’s brutalism squared off with Blanche’s borderline-crazy romanticism. “I don’t want realism,” Blanche exclaims, nearing a breakdown. “I want magic!” In the end, it’s no contest.

But deep down, most of us are Blanche DuBois, still wanting to believe there are a few magical places left in America.

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“I think that once everything kind of settles down, in the next four or five years, there’s going to be a lot of artistic reflection,” says Mark Broyard, a composer and musician who lives in L.A. but revisits his hometown often. “I think we’ll gain something, actually. A brand-new type of blues is going to come out of this. A modern form of blues. It is the stuff that great art is born from.”

Marsalis strikes a similar note. “I’m confident that New Orleans will make it through, but this is a gut-check time for our nation,” he says. “The type of expertise and wealth that we have in the United States is unparalleled in the world. I’m sure if we focus that type of technical and scientific expertise, if we match that with a soul equation that equals that, we’ll set an example for the entire world. If we don’t, we will let ourselves down once again.”

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Times staff writers Richard Cromelin, Lynell George and Chris Lee and correspondent Steve Hochman contributed to this report.

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