A few weeks ago, as I walked to the Mardi Gras market in the Marigny, a woman came walking my way. She was swaying and sashaying, bedecked in a plethora of alluring colors. As she passed, I realized she was singing softly and beautifully to herself. It was a fine New Orleans morning.
New Orleans is a female city. I awoke at 3 a.m. to that realization, and even in the bright light of day it seemed true. There are of course many male cities; New York immediately comes to mind. I would call Seattle a feminist city, for reasons I'll explain later. But off the top of my head, I can think of no other city in this country which I would describe as female.
NOLA is organized around female pursuits and interests — pleasure, family, food. Having and making sure others have a very good time, easily and regularly comes before the pursuit of profit here. The city and its life are fluid and flowing, defined by a river constantly seeking to overrun itself. Everywhere there are front porches and stoops and everywhere, in wealthy and poor neighborhoods alike, they are in constant use. Of course the weather makes such activity both welcome and necessary — but regardless, the custom here is literally to hang out, in public view, and to wish passersby the best of everything.
Food, beverage, music, and gossip are all happily consumed in full public view, never behind three-foot high fences. There are many "social and pleasure" clubs, peopled by both males and females. Social cohesion, being distinctly female, is the organizing principle behind them. Other cities have such clubs, but they are often bastions of private revelry and retreat. In New Orleans, the clubs fuel the city’s steady stream of public display, in life and in death. The clubs literally strut their stuff in Mardi Gras parades and, at the end of life, second lines and funeral marches. The funerals parades tend to honor male musicians, but they are held for the survivors, most of whom are women.
The day before I left New Orleans, there was a second-line parade for the beloved musician Coco Robicheaux, who had died a couple weeks earlier in his favorite club on Frenchmen Street. Coco was gone, but the assembled musicians blasted their horns for him and his four ex-wives while two wonderfully made-up “drum majorettes” led the way. The loosely organized parade included young and old, black and white, large and slim, the women resplendent in various layers of dress and undress. It is easy to explain the amount of flesh on view in New Orleans by the weather, but while that might be a necessary explanation, it is not a sufficient one. Women in New Orleans seem quite pleased to display themselves to one another and anyone else. It seems this has long been the case. Storied 19th century balls feted the beautiful quadroons, descending from unions between slaves and owners. It’s not that society, white or black, condoned that activity, but it was happy to bask in the beauty of the offspring.
Seattle is a feminist city because so much power here is in the hands of feminists (female and male), people who uphold a strongly liberal and well thought-through code of behavior they hope will deliver equality, well-being, and the fabled dream of progress. It is home to several large corporations and global institutions; NOLA is home to none. This region sells precision in one form or another — in engineering, manufacturing, design, philanthropy, and know-how, even in foodstuffs. We revere technology and tools and consider having and displaying the latest gadgetry of highest importance. This a far cry from the city’s beginnings, when he-men, certainly neither feminists nor precisionists, logged, fished, and trekked off to Alaska in search of gold. Creating global precision is still very much a male pursuit, even if many of the executives who run the operations that produce it are feminists. The primacy of technology has come to seem a given here.
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