New Orleans and Salt Lake City

I’m writing this on Sunday night, flying from New Orleans to Madison, WI, on a precisely northward path across Middle America. I was in New Orleans to give a keynote luncheon address at the International Conference on Civic Education Research. Nine days ago I gave a similar speech at the International Conference on Service-Learning Research in Salt Lake City. I keep thinking about the contrast of these venues. Salt Lake City in November is cold, dry, thousands of feet above sea level, rimmed by snowcapped peaks. It seems a place of stark contrasts, with no gradations between the city and the wilderness, the lake and the desert, the Mormons and the non-Mormons, the prosperous clean-cut business people and the few homeless men with their prophet beards and wild eyes. Large banks and hotels (Victorian or modernist) stand foursquare between straight wide avenues and barren lots. The huge moon and streetlights make the night as light as day. Almost everyone I saw was white.

Whereas New Orleans is low and lush, hot, humid; pools of still water lie under highway overpasses and the river is higher than the streets. Even at noon, it’s dark under the porticoes and along the narrow streets of the French Quarter. It?s a tawdry city, decrepit, violent, poor, and fun, at least for visitors. Everything mixes and shades into everything else: streets into bayous; restaurants into strip-clubs; legitimate museums into freak-shows; graveyards into living streets; tourist districts into ghettoes; trash into antiques; Africa and the Caribbean into the Bible Belt; Catholicism into Hoodoo; English into Cajun French; the legal into the illicit; the Disneyfied, desegregated present into the cruel past of slavery, Jim Crow, and yellow fever. On Sunday morning, I watched Vietnamese waiters serve chicory coffee under the dank neoclassical canopy of the Caf? du Monde, as if in Saigon under the French, but to the tune of a mournful blues saxophone.

In Salt Lake City, many residents won’t drink coffee, let alone alcohol, whereas in New Orleans, you can legally sway down the street with 20 of your buddies holding open cups of beer. In Salt Lake City, you stand docilely on empty street corners until an electronic buzz informs you (and you alone) that it’s time to cross. In New Orleans, bands stop and play right in the middle of intersections. Yet both cities seem profoundly American, as if our usual mixture can be analyzed and its components exhibited separately for clearer investigation.