Geographically, New Orleans is just a place; a dot on a map, a collection of streets, buildings and houses viewed from the heavens in a satellite picture.
But it's more. New Orleans has been a touchstone of American culture.
It's where the swamps meet the Mississippi; a party town like no other. Who can match New Orleans, with its Creole and Cajun personality formed out of African-American, Native American, Latin American, Spanish, French and English culture?
New Orleans was the place sinners would go on the day before Lent for one last bash known as Mardi Gras. It's where Louis Armstrong blew his horn, Fats Domino pounded his piano, and Little Richard jived and wailed.
It's where jazz, ragtime, rock and Delta blues all found their roots.
Katrina flooded New Orleans with water, destruction and death. Much of the city is gone, but the spirit and memory remain.
In the scope of such human tragedy, it may seem trivial to think about music, food and fun, but in New Orleans, when you die, they not only throw a party but also have a parade.
Tradition lives on in the Big Easy.
In the spirit of New Orleans, we asked readers and our features staff to respond with their memories and thoughts of the great city, as it starts to rebuild. The response was overwhelming, and we are only able to publish a few. Thanks to all who responded.
* * *
I have been to New Orleans close to 100 times. I fed the ducks in Audubon Park. I sat on the levy and watched the sun come up; waited on the docks in the Gulf for the shrimpers to come in and bought enough crawfish and shrimp to just kill you and took them home to boil and dump on newspaper-lined tables to dip in butter and just sit for hours talking and laughing.
I remember sitting with the tourists reading my Times-Picayune at Cafe Du Monde or talking about the local politics at the Gumbo Shop. Riding a streetcar named Desire. Taking my family to Brennan's for breakfast and meeting my friends at the river or on Bourbon Street.
If you went to New Orleans and didn't take the ride to Evangeline Country, or try to put your arms around a couple-of-hundred-years-old oak tree or sat on a second-story porch drinking an iced tea watching the barges and boats go by at eye level, then you haven't lived.
New Orleans is about jazz and blues that just goes through your bones and into your heart. It is classless and colorless and that is the greatness of New Orleans. It is our Paris and our Florence together and Americans should fight for it.
New Orleans people are something special. They rejoice in life as well as death. They love their friends and their families. Let the good times roll.
We need New Orleans. It's our soul.
* * *
My memories are vivid. The music. All night long. Just wander along Bourbon Street till you find something you like. It's there. The food. Crawfish boil. Oysters any way you want them. Real gumbo. Spicy jambalaya. Sweet pralines. The festive mood. Everybody's happy. Out to have a good time. Chip Strip times 100. The shopping. Arts and crafts. Antiques. Unique. Varied. The architecture. Balconies. Flowers. I can't wait to go back. And I know I'll be able to, because they will rebuild.
* * *
In New Orleans, everybody knew my name.
Or at least how to pronounce it.
There, they didn't try to Frenchify it up or need to have it spelled twice. N'awlins heard the name and asked, "Like the Neville brothers?"
After the first person asked if we were related, we just shrugged. "Could be," we'd say, secretly hoping it was true.
But that was only one reason we loved New Orleans. Memories:
On the way to the Sugar Bowl game in 1988 (in which Auburn drew jeers by settling for a tie with Syracuse), seeing a New Orleans motorcycle policeman in uniform scalping tickets outside the Superdome.
Strolling across Jackson Square years later to see a different police officer, also in uniform, getting a Tarot card reading while his squad car idled nearby.
The shops on Bourbon Street selling every imaginable variety of icy alcohol-rich blender drinks, to go. The slushy concoctions spun in glass-fronted machines that resembled rows of laundromat dryers.
The groups of kids pounding out rhythms on improvised drums on the sidewalk -- fast and flashy and incredibly precise.
Being warned away from the walled, mausoleum-filled graveyards by a local man. "Too dangerous," he told us, even though I wanted to risk it to see the final resting place of the legendary Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.
Eating crayfish etouffee at a jazz brunch, being breathless in the massive Aquarium of the Americas, marveling at the Garden District, reading Anne Rice and Lafcadio Hearn and mulling the haunting images E.J. Bellocq made in Storyville, learning the city's colorful and bloody history, watching fireworks over the Mississippi on New Year's Eve.
-- News Staff Reporter Anne Neville
* * *
Noo Awlins: Twilight dinner at the Cafe Degas, streetcar down St. Charles to the Columns for a Bloody Mary stirred with pickled green beans, ending the evening dancing at Tipitina's.
Hot beignets at a crowded Cafe Du Monde at three in the morning. Sitting on the levee overlooking the Mississippi, watching the sun awaken the city. Streets filled with jazz, the blues, cajun and zydeco. Stomachs filled with jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo, crawfish and muffaletta.
-- Ed Jesella, Lewiston
* * *
We visited the cemeteries, the plantations and the swamps with the alligators. We saw St. Charles Street from a trolley, looking at all the lovely homes. We loved the French Quarter in the morning, when no one else was around. The locals were washing the streets and preparing for the day. We ate breakfast in a small hole in the wall one morning with local people; it wasn't a tourist place. They were surprised when we came back the next day.
New Orleans is a state of mind and I'm sure everyone sees and feels it a little differently, but it certainly is one of a few unique places in the world.
Town of Tonawanda
* * *
People who think they know about these things readily agree that there are a few real "food cities" in the United States. It's deciding which cities they are that causes arguments.
Two cities, however, always made the cut. One is Manhattan. Of course -- no discussion needed there. And the other? New Orleans.
It's not that the food served in the Big Easy is so wonderful, it's that it is unique. New Orleans has always been the quintessential place for regional cuisine in this country. No other city comes close.
With its fascinating Spanish, French and frontier histories; with its hint of Italian, and strong African and Caribbean roots, the city has its own bill of fare, featuring spice and rice and okra and seafood and game, all indigenous products.
And it serves with flair, largesse and just plain fun. There is nothing like a meal or a snack or a drink in the Big Easy. Restaurants all over the country have tried to copy these things -- usually failing miserably.
Because the best New Orleans food really has to be eaten on site. I have many personal memories of the meals I've eaten through the years.
Like breakfast at touristy Cafe Du Monde with chicory coffee and the world's best beignets wafting powdered sugar everywhere; don't wear black. (First reports indicate that Cafe Du Monde is said to be OK structurally.)
Or eating pecan waffles in the Camellia Grill at the end of the streetcar line. Or breakfast at Brennan's for about $75 per. (The best Eggs Benedict and Bananas Foster on the planet.)
At one point, the Brennan's staff was said to be sleeping on air mattresses in the restaurant itself, raiding the larder to help feed the police in the French Quarter.
Then there was standing in line for dinner at K-Paul's, where soft-spoken Paul Prudhomme holds court. (He's rumored to be in Elmwood, La., cooking in a parking lot.) And elegant dinners at Commander's Palace (reportedly half the facade is gone). And fabulous meals at Galatoire's and garlicky meals at a roadhouse called Mosca's, a l-o-n-g taxi ride out of town. And fun meals at Emeril's and Nola's. And superb meals at Brigtsen's.
I also remember one crazy day when we set out to find the best po'boy in town. Up and down we zipped in a rented limo, in and out of the Quarter. And when we had tried them all we gave our prize to Uglesich's, a dumpy place that had closed even before Katrina hit.
I will never forget those oysters.
Then there are the drinks. Like the fruity rum Hurricanes (some joke!) at Pat O'Brien's next to Preservation Hall. The kind of drink I've always hated but love when I am in the place.
Like I said, you have to be there.
And maybe you will be someday. I am of two minds as I write this piece: devastated for the victims of Katrina that it bothers me to take the "lighter" route and talk about restaurants, but taking heart in the fact that it's these culinary high jinks that may save the city in the end. That fabulous culinary spirit can restore it as a tourist destination and feed the city's coffers.
In other words, Les Bon Temps will roll again someday. I know it.
-- News Food Editor Janice Okun
* * *
I stayed in the French Quarter. I ate beignets and cafe au lait in the Cafe Du Monde. I drank a hurricane in Pat O'Brien's. I sat on a high stool in a jazz bar on Bourbon Street. Being in New Orleans is like being in another, wonderful world.
Mary Jane Klaes
* * *
My husband and I have celebrated three special occasions in New Orleans: our honeymoon, his 30th birthday and our 10th anniversary (with kids in tow).
Despite the Big Easy's boozy, sometimes sleazy reputation, we've always focused on its positive qualities, such as beautiful architecture, scrumptious food and toe-tapping music. Despite its devastating losses and its current state of ruin, the city's spirit will prevail.
* * *
In November 1989, my then-fiance John was going to New Orleans on business. We had both been married before and wanted a small personal wedding. Under a beautiful blue November New Orleans sky, near the monument in Jackson Square of Andrew Jackson with the engraved words, "This Union must and shall be preserved," we took our vows.
New Orleans opened its arms to us. One of the many impromptu bands in the Quarter began playing the wedding song when they saw us, and we danced in front of a large crowd of tourists. Our wedding dinner was aboard the Creole Queen and the waitress, realizing we had gotten married that day, treated our small party like royalty.
The city is an overwhelming vision of beauty, wonderful food and rich music, but the spirit, kindness and gracious loving people are the true jewels of the Big Easy. Those are the memories that will stay with these two Yankees from Buffalo all of our lives.
John and Joyce Albert
* * *
New Orleans always bragged it was full of ghosts. Now, I'm starting to think it's true.
I went there many times, and the city's spirit comes back to me with almost supernatural force. I hear it before I see it. Harry Connick Jr. playing "The Sunny Side of the Street" in an unbelievably slow, languorous stride piano. Guitarist Snooks Eaglin singing "Mailman Passed" in the Rock 'n' Bowl, an out-of-the-way hangout that's surely underwater now. Those careless New Orleans blues: "Basin Street... is the street... where the black and the white folks meet, in New Orleans, land of dreams..."
Voices drift back. "Y'all got a cigarette?" "Slow down. You Yankees walk too fast." The city, in my memory, has a peculiar, welcoming warmth.
Years ago, a bunch of us spent a glorious week in New Orleans, staying in a beautiful townhouse on a wealthy street called the Esplanade. One day, all my friends drifted off by themselves. I'm not much of a lone tourist, so I wasn't sure what to do, but I decided to walk to Jelly Roll Morton's house. I had researched the address.
But first I stopped for coffee. And I met an older guy, maybe in his 50s, who was a drummer.
When I asked directions to the street I was looking for, he said, "I better go with you." I soon saw why: The place was in a poor neighborhood. My new friend shot hoops with kids on the corner as I enjoyed a nostalgic moment with the house.
The rest of the day passed in a soft haze. We went to a dive he knew about, ate po' boys and played the jukebox. It started to rain, and it was so warm that I just took off my sandals and walked barefoot. Where we went, exactly, I'm not sure. But I was the last person to get home that night.
I also think of New Orleans schoolgirls, black and white, crowding onto the St. Charles streetcar in their plaid Catholic school uniforms. Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. And that kind, chivalrous man who squired me around town. I wonder where he is now.
-- News Classical Music Critic Mary Kunz Goldman
* * *
One of my favorite New Orleans memories is an evening at the Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, a combination bowling alley and concert hall. We attended a Zydeco Thursday Night featuring Roy Carrier and the Night Rockers. They played for a private party before the doors opened to the public, and continued to play for two hours after we arrived.
When they finally did take a break, instead of heading outside or to the bar, the band members all hit the dance floor with their friends, family and other locals.
William Van Slyke
* * *
Once in my life I wore yellow sunglasses trimmed with purple and green feathers and felt perfectly comfortable, if perhaps a bit touristy.
Once in my life, I ate crayfish, with the help of a man who could see that we were being polite northerners. He gave us a quick lesson on how to pick them up and suck the sweet, succulent meat out of the shells.
Once in my life, I walked down streets where I couldn't get away from music -- drifting out of bars, soaring from tents at the Jazz Festival, coming from an old saxophone player on a street corner, willing to play anything a person requested.
Once in my life, I ate in a city where you planned lunch while you were having breakfast and you planned dinner while you were eating lunch.
Once in my life, I was in a rainstorm where streets and roads and parking ramps filled much more quickly than anywhere else I've ever experienced.
Once in my life, I sat at a church service, at St. Stephen's Full Gospel Baptist Church, where a choir of women in white dresses, suits and hats rocked the rafters for more than two hours.
Once in my life I was in a city like no other.
Once in my life, thank God, I visited New Orleans.
-- News Staff Reporter Paula Voell
* * *
After several delightful evenings of feasting on Cajun food in New Orleans restaurants, my conventioneer husband and I sought a change to simpler food for light supper.
Close to our hotel was a restaurant advertising Persian Kosher food. Curious about this unusual fusion cuisine, we read the posted menu outside the restaurant when another tourist joined us to speculate about whether the jambalaya would contain ham and shrimp. Friendly chatter ensued. He asked where we were from. I explained that I had just relocated to Williamsville near Buffalo. "No kidding! I'm from Williamsville too," he said. My wife and I visit New Orleans often to feast on this fabulous food.
* * *
The words "New Orleans" bring joy to my heart. We lived there as newlyweds for four years in the late '60s, early '70s while my husband was a graduate student at Tulane. Our apartment, shared with many a cockroach, cost $90 a month, including utilities. The first of our four daughters was born at Baptist Hospital, a blessing beyond words from a city so amazingly special.
* * *
Our most vivid memory of New Orleans will forever be the people. With all the talk of poverty in this city, we found that the people are its greatest resource. They are rich in the things that truly matter.
* * *
I first visited New Orleans 30 years ago. To my young children, New Orleans was a Disney World without rides. For my husband and me, it was a European vacation without a passport. The city was never stale, always presenting something new for all of us to enjoy: flying kites on a levee; riding a paddle wheel or simply eating (ice cream) on Ursuline Street.
A few months ago, I was in a used bookstore and found "New Orleans -- A Picture Book to Remember Her By." I bought it as a lark to share with my grandchildren and to remind my children of that magical place. Today, I treasure that book as a reminder of what once was, and can never be again.
Carol T. Nowicki
* * *
The world is embraced with (New Orleans') beautiful and magical spirit. It's easy to love New Orleans when it loves you right back.