Over the desk in my living room in New Orleans hangs an old map of Louisiana from my grandfather’s garage, where he seemed to reside for my entire childhood and always will in my dusky, oil-stained memory of him. He owned a distribution business of automotive and aeronautical parts, and spent decades working on the meticulous restoration and maintenance of his two prize cars, a ’29 Packard and a ’29 Cadillac. Under glass, within a heavy wood frame, the map, printed in the 1940s, is a tawny yellow. The glare from the west-facing window next to it often shears off most everything east of the Mississippi. In this war-era map, the parishes along the Gulf are complicated with bayous and laced with marshes, but remain untattered: Cameron, Vermillion, Iberia, St. Mary, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany.
My great-grandparents and grandparents used to take the train to their fishing camp down in Grand Isle, a coastal town that’s been nearly washed away on a few occasions. Sepia photographs from the 1910s and ’20s show them clowning in the waves in their voluminous bathing suits, with clumps of seaweed on their heads, or eating watermelon on the shore under a makeshift tent. That beach where they swam and fished and played has by now mostly disappeared into the Gulf, and their bodies were long ago interred in aboveground tombs meant to keep their remains dry and out of the water table for eternity, though after the levees were breached in 2005, the tombs in fact did not.
For all of our human impulse to create, we seem to be equally caught up in cycles of loss. In southeast Louisiana we have a great illustrative conundrum on our hands. Precisely because of our geography, over generations we were able to marry disparate ethnic influences and create one of the most unique cultures on the planet. Gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, northernmost capital of the Caribbean, a port city traded between the Spanish, French, and American governments in its colonial infancy but where enslaved and free people of African descent were often the majority, New Orleans, with its narrow streets and broad avenues, incubated revelations in food, music, and architecture. And precisely because of our geography, this same culture is always at risk. As a deltaic port beset by diminishing wetlands, rising water levels, intense weather systems from the Gulf, and a powerful river that wants to change course, New Orleans is increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of its own natural assets.
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