I grew up in New Orleans in the 1960s, and I left in 1990. As I write this, it occurs to me that I have spent almost as much time away from the city as I did in it. I miss it, sometimes painfully, and I’ve been thinking recently that I don’t know enough about it, that I don’t understand my city as I should. It was my home, but such was my childhood that I couldn’t wait to leave. And one day I did.
City of a Million Dreams (UNC Press) by Jason Berry, is about people who had the opposite view. I dreamed of leaving, and they couldn’t wait to get there. To be there. To live there. And it’s through their eyes that Berry tells the story of the city’s 300-year history.
Berry has lived a life fascinated by jazz funerals, and in fact the first word of his book is “funerals.” He says they’re an artform, and he’s right. They’re celebrations, laced with music and dancing in the streets and tears of joy as well as sadness. One way or another, jazz funerals are what Berry says they are: pageants. Much like Mardi Gras, there’s real pageantry in the color, the sound, the movement — hell, the life of the thing. I daresay death has no place at a jazz funeral.
City of a Million Dreams is a work of history, but it’s not a history book. Instead, it’s a powerful narrative about the making of a place, against all odds. When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded New Orleans in 1718, it seemed Mother Nature herself didn’t much care for the idea. She tossed every manner of inconvenience his way: smallpox, tribal wars, oppressive heat, hurricanes, mosquitoes. Fires decimated the fledgling town, and of course, in 2005, a catastrophic flood. We all know about that.
With encyclopedic knowledge that ranges from what happened to where people went and what they did, from their clothing to their thoughts, and later to the mistakes — and the food — and the music — they made, Berry knows, it seems, everything. Every thing. And his writing, which sometimes seems almost overwhelmed by the story he’s telling, like a child in relentless surf, is as beautiful as it is insightful and intelligent. He connects the ancient topography of la Nouvelle Orléans to today’s New Orleans, embarrassing white supremacist rants to more recent, sensible pleas for inclusion and togetherness, the city’s odd street names to the people and places that inspired them.
Maybe it’s that I’m one of its native sons, but the story held me, tantalized me, enthralled me, entertained me. Berry chronicles history and life and death and funerals, throughout. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and someone was talking about dying and death. He said that the dying are still alive, they’re not dead yet. They’re still people, he said. Death is something else. A moment. A portal. A gorgeous thing that defines the life that led up to it. As he spoke, I thought of New Orleans. In 2005, she almost died at the windy, watery hands of Katrina. But she didn’t die, and she didn’t just survive either. She thrived, and the movers and shakers who rebuilt her had a mission: not to remake her as she was, but to remake her as she always should have been. Like the men and women in Jason Berry’s magnificent book, they too saw New Orleans as the city of a million dreams. In my own ways, all of them new, so do I. ◊