“How you doin’?” is the phrase that most characterizes New Orleans for me, spoken in a real Southern drawl—even by those who don’t ordinarily have much of an accent. I can’t say how many times I heard this uttered, usually not with the intention of prompting a response but simply thrown out as a friendly acknowledgment. One thing I was most surprised by during my whirlwind NOLA visit was that Southern hospitality is not just a broad stereotype—it’s a way of being that’s interwoven into the fabric of the South. As we rode our bikes across the city, I found that porch-dwellers and sidewalk-strollers would casually offer a “how you doin’” even as we quickly cycled by. I experienced none of the averted gazes that are usually so common in urban spaces; rather, people actually make an effort to willingly speak to passing strangers. There’s something to this candor that reveals a larger truth about the New Orleans landscape, and perhaps to the South as a whole.
The truth I refer to is an overarching openhanded approach to living—a Do unto others mindset that’s deeply ingrained into the culture. There’s a true charm that accompanies this unassuming friendliness; it doesn’t feel forced or canned, but simply feels like the kind of attentive human interaction that one should have when encountering another body. It’s refreshing to be the recipient of candid, genuine greetings offered by strangers. On the West Coast folks are “friendly,” but sometimes it feels like the sort of friendliness that sits only on the surface, unwilling to plumb the depths of true concern for others. It could simply be my naiveté to Southern ways, but I’d like to think that these greetings are evidence of an overall warmth and generosity that transcends the social barriers that many of us find so difficult to overcome. I got the feeling that most of the people I passed on the streets were practically ready to invite me in for sweet tea and a chat—an invitation to which I would have happily obliged.
Beyond just the random passing stranger, shopkeepers and wait-staff in restaurants were personable and inviting. Probably to a Southerner this seems completely ordinary, but for someone coming from often too-cool Portland, I’ve experienced my fair share of pretentious baristas and shop-girls who turn up their noses, even at paying customers. Oregonians are generally known for their friendliness, but with such an influx of “outsiders” moving into the state, the people of New Orleans really blow Portlanders out of the water. Granted, there are snooty people to be found everywhere, and I’m sure the South has its own bounty—but in my case I found that the folks we encountered all over the city were nothing but gracious and hospitable. I’m still perplexed how everyone managed this consistently generous attitude even in the stifling heat and humidity, given how frazzled I felt due to the soaring temps.
Apart from salutations from strangers, the experience of simply being able to enjoy public artworks or things of beauty in the presence of unknown others reveals the kind of openness that permeates the city. I witnessed this both in the City Park sculpture garden, as well as the nearby “Singing Oak”—a gigantic Oak tree with richly toned wind-chimes that “sing” in the breeze. People were spread about under the sprawling branches, equally enjoying the spontaneous tunes of the afternoon whether alone or with friends. It seems to be an unwritten rule that the tree is meant for sharing, even though there are countless other empty, shady trees spread throughout the park. I loved observing the communal delight of such a simple pleasure as a chimes ringing in the wind. Likewise, the city squares, parks and restaurants were filled with people playing music that tourists and locals alike stopped to watch and revel in. Mundane as these activities may seem to New Orleans residents, there’s something restorative about being in a place where there is shared gratitude for the small things that make us feel alive and happy. It’s this sense of sharing in something together that counters the feelings of isolation city life so easily breeds.
The How you doin’ mindset is completely opposite of a Mind your own business culture, which is unfortunately the norm in most of American society today. Folded into my visit—alongside my awakening to what Southern hospitality really looks like—was the recognition that Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effects are still very close to the surface of much of the conversation surrounding New Orleans. It’s possible that the topic was especially fresh during my visit since the city is coming upon the ten-year anniversary of the storm, but I got the feeling that the memory never quite goes away—and who could expect it to? Reminders of the hurricane exist everywhere. There’s a sense that time is now divided for residents of the city: Before Katrina and After Katrina. This parsing of time into two distinct categories makes complete sense to me, as it would to anyone who has experienced an entirely life-altering event that changes the course of personal history. Having had my own family’s home burn down in a wildfire a number of years ago, I’ve learned what it means to have time stop and start again, beginning life anew on completely different terms. Such happenings demand a willingness to surrender the past, as well as require openness to face the future with both a fresh perspective and a renewed desire to fully live in the present.
I observed this citywide eagerness to exist presently in a number of ways, even in spite of my short exposure to New Orleans’ charms. Mostly what I sensed was an overall effort to be a supportive community, and to openly encourage and share in the various pursuits of others. There seems to be a surge of creativity especially amidst young people, and the town is embracing a whole slew of independent endeavors, from supper clubs to books shops to coffee joints to garden stores to fashion designers and so on. Fresh businesses are burgeoning—KREWE being a perfect example of a company that champions its distinctively New Orleans roots, while still aiming to surpass the limits of Louisiana’s borders. The Make It Right sustainable housing project, built in the Ninth Ward after Katrina hit, indicates a ready openness to new and innovative solutions—even if they stray from the conventional way of doing things. Somehow the city manages to support these young faces and places while still celebrating and upholding the old ways and traditions, making it a perfectly distinct and unique cultural setting; I quickly discovered it’s like no other place I've been.
While it’s obvious that New Orleans has embraced this chance to rebuild itself into something new, it’s also clear that the city is still wholly experiencing the aftermath of such a deeply dramatic and uprooting phenomenon. Homes and whole neighborhoods are still being reconstructed, roads are crumbled and potholed, and many buildings still sit empty, boarded up and condemned. The city continues to bear the scars even ten years on, but this scarring has proved fertile ground for what appears to be a more unified, collective effort to take care of one another. I came home wondering if this Southern warmth I experienced perhaps partially derives from the lingering effects of the hurricane—there’s seemingly a citywide attitude of “We’re all in it together” that makes people a bit softer, and a little more empathetic to their fellowman. I don’t mean to suggest that this authentic friendliness didn’t exist pre-Katrina, but it does seem that such an event has the ability to powerfully alter the tone of a place. When an entire community undergoes such trauma, there’s an opportunity to start from the ground up in a way that simply can’t happen without great loss. As KREWE founder Stirling Barrett said to me at some point during my visit, “New Orleans is still deciding what it’s going to be.” From the looks of all that I encountered and the generous spirits of the people I met, I’d say the city is already well on its way to being something truly extraordinary.
Photographs and words by Julie Pointer