New Orleans: Everything is Broken

Well, Bob Dylan is sure right for these days:

“Ain't no use jiving
Ain't no use joking
Everything is broken.”

(From “Everything is broken,” on his album, “O Mercy.”)

New Orleans was my home town for all my teen-age and college years.

It is a city I have loved and in which I found the glory of young adulthood after a long stretch of zits and braces. It was the city where I first understood the wild reach of politics and the lessons of history revealed. It was the city of my first faith, my first love, and my enduring love of poetry and art. It was also the city of my encounter with the familiar side of Mafia, anti-Castro crazies, the beginnings of the beat life and regular paid up New Orleans corruption and death.

New Orleans is where it is because something like a city had to be there. People did not for simple perversion decide to build a city below sea level with a lake and river both ready to pounce upon it. The perversion was more complex. The city was built there because the wealth of materials coming down the Mississippi River needed to get out to a world market. Transporting the materials from the river to Lake Pontchartrain and from there out into the Gulf was easier in the first years of commerce than trying to find a navigable passage through the mouth of the River. So the city was born of commercial need, and the commerce was of rough and tumble river and open sea traders.

The city began in the trust that there was money to be made and spent no matter the fact that no one in his or her right mind would actually want to build a city there. Commerce, the many varied modes of human intercourse (from gentile living to bawdy rascality) and of course the sometimes wild political, social and interpersonal requirements of the danger of such living, all merged into what in recent years has been called, “The Big Easy.”

The city has survived many things. When the passage to the Gulf was made reasonably secure the city had come far enough along to be the port of entry. Even after all the years and countless calamities due to the damn water, the politics, the slavery trade, the saints and sinners that mixed so well, the hurricanes and fires and pestilence, the city survived.

But now, everything is broken, or so it would seem.

There are those who are suggesting New Orleans now be simply allowed to be the lake it now seems to be and a new city built on “higher ground” to replace it, a new New Orleans, no longer precariously balanced between the needs of commerce and the forces of nature. This suggestion assumes the death of the old New Orleans, a victim of an old perversity, and the naming of some new place, “New Orleans” without the old perversities. This is a really bad idea, and unless the armed forces of the United States refuse reentry, people will be back – certainly to the higher grounds of the French Quarter, some parts of the city near the River, but in reality back to the whole city. The levees will be build higher and stronger, the pumps will be back at work. The city will continue.

Whatever might be proposed in its stead will not be New Orleans. New Orleans is precisely a perverse clinging to life where life is precious and worthless all at once. This city has been amazingly perverse and foolish, but also a pearl without price. It has real soul, but the body of decrepitude. It has hidden from itself and showed itself to the world all at once. If it was destined to catastrophe, at least its end would be that of a wasted city with soul. The new New Orleans would not have this soul, no matter it being safe and secure.

The matter of the dikes or levees is key, and it is a key that can be turned. If what is needed is higher sides to the bowl, then construct them. It is a practice that more and more cities are going to have to learn, for the waters are rising. But to suggest the city is finished because it is flooded is to think of cities as disposable. Is New Orleans disposable? In a consumer society, in a throw-away culture, sure. But New Orleans should never be confused with plastic plates and cups. New Orleans is old china, perhaps cracked and warn, but still real and solid. Giving it back to the water is deciding that it is without value. And I cannot see that.

Most of the essays on this blog concern the future of the Anglican Communion. Why write this note here? Because the despair in believing New Orleans a dead way of living out civic life is not unlike the despair of believing the Anglican Communion a dead way of living out Christian community and spiritual life. There are those who believe the Anglican Communion is broken beyond repair and that what is need is a new improved Anglican Communion. They too confuse the cracked and warn realities of life together for death. They confuse being left for dead with being dead indeed.

I believe we should not too soon put the bodies in the ground; perhaps they are only asleep, or in need of repair, or perhaps they are just fine, but living on the edge where the poets, thieves and saints are mostly to be found.

Everything is broken; but there is life.


  1. . . . but most of all, because out of "dead" cities, Communions, and people, comes RESURRECTION.

    (As far as NOLA goes though: surely, part of the answer---beyond higher, stronger levees---includes restored wetlands? Both around, and perhaps within the current "city limits" of the bathtub ring?)

    "the way out is through"

    Viva New Orleans!

    Viva the Anglican Communion (with ECUSA, currently, as its conscience)!


  2. Mark, as always, thoughtful and eloquent. Your affection and sense of loss over the city are breathtaking.

  3. Beautiful post.
    I'd been looking for a new one since the 19th, as I have come to relish your writing. This is surely one worth waiting for, one of your very best.
    Thanks be to God and to you.

  4. Lucinda Laird6/9/05 2:55 PM

    Mark, thank you for this. New Orleans is my home town, and I am grieving its critical state, even as I give thanks for the safety of my family and work to aid those not so fortunate. It is a lovely and unique city, and I believe it will rise again.

    We are having a prayer service tonight for the victims of Katrina, and I have asked that we end with "When the Saints Go Marching In" - which will, I am sure, leave me in tears, but also with the firm conviction that we will go marching in to a resurrected New Orleans, too.

  5. e.adcock@tcu.edu7/9/05 12:08 AM

    My written words are a trifle.

    Thank you,

    Fortunately able to help in Texas, unfortunately residing in the Diocese of Fort Worth

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    ~ The Common Anglican


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