Are You From Here?
By Christopher Ard
Click aqui para español- >¿Eres de Aquí?
When I purchased my home in New Orleans’ 8th Ward a few years ago, my neighbors came out to meet me. They were kind and very welcoming, and eager to find out the answer to their question, “Where you from, baby?”
Now, understand that I’m a born and raised New Orleanian, so, I knew exactly what they meant. However, I also have some very distinct Native American characteristics, so I understand the confusion I cause when my response is, "I’m from here." Inevitably, hearing this response leads to “Yeah, but where you really from?”, which then leads to my answer, "The Lower 9th Ward. Tupelo Street." This answer generally satisfies most New Orleanians.
You see, the from here question isn’t really about my appearance; it’s about whether I’m a New Orleanian—a REAL New Orleanian. But what is a real New Orleanian? And if you weren’t born here, can you ever become a REAL New Orleanian?
In this article, I’ll attempt to give instructions on how to become a REAL New Orleanian. This first thing to understand: NO ONE IS REALLY FROM HERE.
We are a port city, no different than New York, London, San Francisco, or Singapore. We are constantly evolving, changing, expanding and shrinking. Without the influx of new people and ideas, we would not have jazz, shotgun houses, Spanish architecture, jambalaya, or even individuals like me who embody the variety of ethnicities that have created this city.
With that said, here is my version of what you need to do to become a New Orleanian.
You must experience a life-altering event with your community.
Hurricane Katrina dispersed most New Orleanians to every state in the nation. Nearly half a million people were scattered about the country, without a home, away from family, not knowing if everyone got out...for months. Those of us who experienced this have been linked together for the rest of our lives, much like military veterans who develop camaraderie while fighting in a war zone, or like passengers who survive a plane crash. Let me be clear, I hope you never have to experience strife while living here--a flood, a hurricane, or even a shooting--but when you do, if you do, you automatically become a New Orleanian.
Forgive us our sins.
Please ignore the current New Orleanians’ sense of ownership over our town and culture. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was the largest city in the country with the largest native-born population. After the hurricane, we became extremely protective of what’s left of our city. We turned our attention to symbols that weren’t too popular like the fleur-de-lis, searching for a sense of belonging or a connection to what we lost. If you want to become a REAL New Orleanian, start by accepting current New Orleanians for who they are--attitudes, cultures, beliefs, accents...all of it.
Don’t try to change us; just add to it.
Understandably, racism, sexism, poverty, the failing school system are all things that needed to change. Everything else can always be improved upon. I grew up in the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard. My Christmas’ dinner featured gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp stew, AND Mexican tamales. You see, we didn’t choose one or the other. We had both. Don’t move here and start a Philly cheesesteak restaurant. Mix it up! Try something new. Make us the envy of the country, not a mirror image of Brooklyn or another city.
Love us, but don’t use us.
We get it. The rest of the country is just Cleveland. The United States of Generica can be boring, repeated, capitalist, copied, and the rules are out of hand. So, you found refuge here, below sea level, with the rest of us. Real New Orleans will take you in. It’ll love every inch of you, imperfections and all. It’ll sacrifice its drainage system to your refuse, its neutral grounds to your SUVs, its balcony polls to your bike chains, all with the intent of you loving her back.
Part of that love is honoring her traditions. There’s a reason for Carnival, for Mardi Gras, and for St. Joseph’s Day. And no, it’s not so you can put more glitter on and get drunk. I’m not asking you to become Catholic, but I am asking you to temper your needs to contribute to the tourism machine. You don’t need to party every day. When you do, you neglect New Orleans. You contribute to the exploitation of her culture and the demise of everything we hold dear.
If you want New Orleans to survive, you must do the work. If you want to live somewhere simply to drink and be selfish, go someplace terrible like Las Vegas. You won’t harm a thing there. So, those are my basic instructions for becoming a REAL New Orleanian.
You see, it’s not up to me, or any other person born in New Orleans to decide whether you are FROM here. I believe some people are already born with New Orleans in them. If you’re lucky, you’ll live here at some point and let your New Orleans show.
First, we are a city of historical conformity, of tradition, of family, and of love, all of which takes work. Second, we know how to take a break every now and again, don a mask and some color, and give thanks that we live here. But this is all the opinion of a guy who was born in Metairie—take it or leave it.