- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

The Disneyfication of America continues apace with the news that New Orleans' city fathers, mothers and nannies in general have decided to clean up the French Quarter. No doubt preparatory to doing something about the Augean Stables.

Yep, New Orleens-Land-of-Dreams is going to be redone as a nice Midwestern suburb something on the order of Covington, where Walker Percy chose to reside specifically because of its normality. The writer wanted to be just far enough from New Orleans to do his own fantasizing, rather than have it imposed on him day and night. Much like the vacationer who, even when on his way to some exotic resort, prefers to stop at a motel with No Surprises.

These plans to clean up the Quarter bring to mind the kind of sweeps the Soviets used to stage whenever Moscow hosted a summit meeting. All the buildings and monuments were scrubbed, at least those that might show on television, and the streets were swept clean of every beggar, gypsy, speculator in rubles-for-dollars, man or lady of the evening, dissident, religious believer and anybody else who might embarrass the regime. It's no coincidence that the term Potemkin Village is Russian in origin.

You could perform that kind of urban facelift in Moscow when communism still reigned, but how you gonna clear the French Quarter of panhandlers, mimes, strippers, sidewalk artists, fortune-tellers, little kids tap dancing, tipsy tourists carrying their own paper cups down Bourbon Street, and some of the sweetest jazz trombonists ever heard? The cafe au lait with beignets at the Cafe du Monde wouldn't be the same without 'em. Any of 'em.

Not so, say civic-betterment types who seem to have confused New Orleans with Peoria. "Upscale and downscale co-exist here," explains one la-dee-da gallery owner in the Quarter, apparently meaning rich and poor, "and that's fine. But sleaze and dirt and litter and hustling are not part of New Orleans."

He could have fooled me. Not that the carriage crowd doesn't have its four-star restaurants and galleries in the Quarter, but sleaze and dirt and litter and hustling have been part of the city ever since it was a city.

What else could one expect of a settlement carefully situated in the most miasmic bend of the River? It's as if those who chose this watery grave of a city wanted to ensure that it would be vulnerable to the river and the lake and hurricanes off the Gulf. No wonder voodoo flourished.

New Orleans is a Mediterranean city, for goshsakes, else why do they call that suburb across the river Algiers? Heck, A.J. Liebling called Louisiana our only Mediterranean state, a sure sign he never got north of Alec.

Can our art dealer friend down in the Quarter ever have read any local history? Does he think Jean Laffite was a kind of president of the local chamber of commerce? Or that the Longs and Anti-Longs conducted their campaigns for Louisiana's soul and ballot boxes by the same Marquess of Queensbury rules that govern politics in, say, Minnesota?

Heck, the good-government types don't have to consult history to learn the facts of Louisiana life. Why don't they just pick up a Times-Picayune and read the latest prison interview with Edwin Edwards, who remains the most popular politician in New Orleans and points far beyond? It wouldn't be surprising if the rascal were pardoned by popular demand.

This oh-so-respectable art dealer quoted by the AP sounds in need of a Hurricane, the signature drink at Pat O'Brien's, to clear his mind and restore his sense of the past, which is where the real New Orleans exists. What'll these reformers propose next, cleaning the mold off the walls? Taking the chicory out of the coffee? Burying folks under ground? Turning the St. Charles streetcar line into a subway? Mon dieu.

To quote a fortune teller in Jackson Square who was interviewed for this AP story: "New Orleans is New Orleans. It ain't Orlando." That guy's got more than his geography right.

Just writing this has made me hungry even for that overrated breakfast at Brennan's, followed by lunch at Galatoire's and dinner at the Court of Two Sisters. Or just ready to float down there, visit a family grave or two along the levee, and notice the not quite noticeable changing of the seasons against the murmur of the River .

Clean up New Orleans? It would be like draining Venice.

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