Why Here, Why Then

I have long been amazed at historic events. Prior generations were not that much different from us. They were humans with similar intellect and the same set of emotions as we possess.

So what truly explains the Renaissance, the Declaration of Independence, any war, inventions, or the Dark Ages? And why do those events, among many events, take place where they did? What is it about the place that engenders a significant happening? The Ponte Vecchio, which crosses the Arno, as seen from the hills in the western parts of Florence.

This line of thinking first gripped me many years ago while walking around Florence, Italy. It’s a beautiful city on the banks of the Arno River. Obviously a well-preserved old place.

And yet here the basis for much of our “modern” thinking took place within a very tight time frame. The same could be said for ancient Athens. What triggered these sweeping ideas about government, society, and art to take root and have the local population “buy into” completely new and radical ideas? Then what caused the ideas to be accepted by subsequent generations, over and over again?

Surely in those long-ago days, the local population of Florence or Athens was no more educated than the surrounding world. The “ah-ha” moment did not die; rather it grew. From specific moments forward, every thought about governance, paintings, architecture, the heavens, the afterlife, science, religion, and all other aspects of the human condition was different from before the “ah-ha” moment.

For demonstration purposes, we don’t necessarily need to travel so far away and so far back in time. Closer to home–in fact, right at home–New Orleans itself is a break-in-the-time continuum kind of place. One of the great intellects of all time, Thomas Jefferson, saw that this place was special and unique. He went to great lengths to acquire New Orleans and then protect it.

Which brings me back to my original questions: why here and why then? From its inception as a French and Spanish outpost, New Orleans was philosophically different from the English-based country to which it was attached.Map of New Orleans, 1731. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street, Acc. No. 1974.25.18.19.

This town marched, literally, to its own drummer. We were a problem child to the young USA. We provided freedoms to women and people of color that did not set well with our neighbors to the east in Georgia, one of the thirteen original members of the Republic. We opened our arms to immigrants from every land, and our cuisine and celebrations reflected that openness.

Economically, we took strength from a great river, and that strength flowed in both directions. From Upriver, we brought many American goods to markets. From Downriver, we accepted valuables from every nation on the globe, particularly from Europe.

Our music, art, architecture, governance, lifestyle, and education reflected the great diversity that was present in our population. Our semi-tropical climate conditions meant we endured more mildness and violence from the sky than any of our surrounding neighbors.

All of this defined us, but it was in our heritage and our minds that we truly separated ourselves from our fellow Americans. Even today, Orleans Parish is an island-style lifestyle. Our adherence to ancestral habits and relative isolationism defines us.

I will assume this physical situation, which leads to the mental condition, does explain some of the reasons why ideas arose where they did and lifestyles developed differently. You don’t have to go far to appreciate or notice the differences between us and our close-by neighbors. This may be something you understand and enjoy, or it may be something you cannot tolerate. 

The situation is changing with the arrival of mass communications, superhighways, air travel, and an influx of Americans, not so much any more people from other nations.  

But New Orleans will always be different from the midstream US, will always embrace heritage, and won’t shy away from a good party. 

I still wonder, “why here?” but I respect the separation.