What do you know about the birthplace of jazz; the birthplace of Truman Capote; the birthplace of William Faulkner’s first book? What do you know about New Orleans? Melissa Lee Smith takes on the task of chronicling the history of this great city through a collection of photos, simply titled Historic Photos of New Orleans, which spans 100 years of New Orleans history. Not only does she provide an answer to those who hear New Orleans and can do little more than conjure up images of Mardi Gras and the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina; but she also appeals to the soul that refuses to abandon the term “K&B.” She masterfully blends the history, spirituality, pride and scandal that makes New Orleans the most unique of American cities.
The most notable thing that Ms. Smith subtly points out, is how well preserved it is. There were times when my mouth was literally agape, as I saw pictures that had been taken in the 1800s, that could have just as easily been taken in 2004. The book puts on display the city’s respect for tradition. New Orleans is home to the nation’s oldest yacht club (Southern Yacht Club), and open air market (The French Market), as well as the oldest cathedral in North America (St. Louis Cathedral). And of course, she pays homage to probably the most world renowned tradition, Mardi Gras. Notably mentioned in the book is how even in the 1800s, the port of New Orleans was still a powerhouse in the import/export business.
New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods are also showcased: the French Quarter, visited by tourists worldwide and lauded for its unique architecture; the Garden District, created for those who preferred not to live among the French Creoles in the Quarter, also a tourist attraction in its own right for its ornate landscaping; and Treme, the nation’s oldest African American community. You will also receive a taste of the arts and entertainment that the city has to offer, including the notorious Storyville.
I applaud Ms. Smith for not ignoring how African-Americans struggled to carve out their own place in the Antebellum South. The majority of black adults were relegated to work as laborers or domestic servants. The educational needs of black children were egregiously disregarded. Unfortunately, it would seem the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In viewing these photos, it makes me think the city that survived the Civil War, the battle that killed the British notion of occupying American soil, and the nations first disaster to exceed a billion dollars (Hurricane Betsy – again, the more things change. . .), can certainly regroup of the losses sustained by Hurricane Katrina.
I can only hope that a city so steeped in tradition will come to the realization that the tradition of neglect should not be repeated.