To understand my viewpoint, I am going to provide my background as a portal through which one may gaze.
I was born in the city limits of New Orleans, and it was there that lived for the first ten years of my life. Those first ten years were spent in a non-descript (by New Orleans standards), middle class neighborhood of turn-of-the-century to craftsman style houses. I lived in the very house that my grandfather had grown up in (but the house had been in the family well before he was born). The houses were close and everything we needed was right around the corner. As time passed though, the neighbors we knew moved away, the neighborhood fell into decline, and nearby areas became downright dangerous. Wanting me to grow up in a safer area, my parents’ eyes lit up when casting a glance at the ‘burbs.
We moved to River Ridge, a “Census Designated Place (CDP) in unincorporated Jefferson Parish, LA” as I finished the fourth grade. River Ridge is a sea of residential blocks pushed up against the Mississippi River, just 10 minutes outside of the city, but a world away in charm and attitude. Bound between the small cities of Harahan and Kenner, the only area that wasn’t purely residential was along the major highway that ran parallel to the river, as if it were the spine of the area. 1960’s ranch houses with 30+ foot setbacks stretched out much further than my 10-year old self dared to walk or ride his bike; it wasn’t as if there was anything other than a Taco Bell, a Blockbuster Video, and a drugstore to go to, though. It has all of the charm that one would expect from the moniker of a “Census Designated Place.”
So was my youth completely sheltered from anyplace not a 10 minute drive to a city center? Absolutely not! But, my experience outside the city wasn’t down a dirt road to a farm just outside of small-town-sville. It was instead down a long straight state highway extending to what was, as far as I could tell, the edge of the world – Cocodrie, LA. Cocodrie is a land an occasionally dry place where only a few types venture, Oilmen, recreational fishermen, and Oyster Fishermen. It wasn’t always Cocodrie, but the handful of other places (Ysclocskey, Point a La Hache, Bayou Dularge, and Delacroix were all equally likely destinations) were almost indistinguishable. These are places where a heavy Croation accent is 50 time more likely to be heard than a Southern Drawl. There are few trees, mostly just a strip of asphalt extending out into some marsh grass surrounded by open water. It was a definitively “non-city” experience that involved parking in shell lots and sons taking over their father’s trade, sometimes before High School graduation. It was not “country” though. But maybe this was just because often Louisiana isn’t exactly like the rest of the South… or anywhere.
High School would see me to the city every day, and College would return to it my residence (at least during the school year). For college I wasn’t in the same part of the city that my previous experiences were, instead, I was now living Uptown. I grew to truly appreciate and enjoy uptown, while I was in college; I found an apartment, that I hoped would see me through grad school – there wasn’t any place I would prefer to be. That was late in the summer of 2005; Mother Nature saw to it, that the lease had become void by the beginning of September.
We had a saying in Baton Rouge after Katrina, “New Orleans is the largest city in Baton Rouge.” Baton Rouge, where I sought refuge after Katrina – and stayed for a master’s degree, had already become too big for its britches prior to the 100,000+ evacuated New Orleanians taking up residence within the metro-area. With the metro-area population then (temporarily, Thank God) pushing a million people, Baton Rouge resembled the men’s room in tiger stadium during halftime of the LSU-Bama game. Even prior to the influx of New Orleanian refugees, Baton Rouge had never realized when, somewhere along the line, it ceased to be a small town and be a big city. Once most of the evacuees returned to the New Orleans area, and I moved closer to LSU’s campus, the headache subsided a good bit, and I got to notice those small town elements that lingered in Baton Rouge; some were continued headache (city streets laid out like country roads with no curbs or sidewalks… or room for cars), some confusing (moving from a city with 1 country music radio station to a city with 3 country music TV channels), but others were endearing (meeting a 5’2” girl barely topping 100lbs who drove a Silverado 2500 with mud tires). I made friends that found it inconceivable that I couldn’t name four different country music songs. I saw a guy wearing jeans and camouflage get down on one knee before a girl in jeans and camouflage and propose in the middle of a football game.
In those days after Katrina, we were spread out. Everyone I knew was putting hundreds of miles on his odometer each week. I was all over Southern Louisiana and Mississippi, but by far, my most frequent drive was from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and back. I could drive this stretch of I-10 in my sleep. I think I did a couple of times. With all of this driving, the main roads got very boring, and I decided that the back roads might provide a welcome change of scenery. The fastest route between the two cities that didn’t involve getting on the interstate highways systems was down Airline Highway, AKA US-61. This didn’t really provide for any extra charm or scenery, but did add 45 minutes to the hour long drive. The other option was The Great River Road, a winding meandering drive that follows the Mississippi River past refineries, small river towns, and plantations. The romance is breathtaking; it’s mind-blowing if you make the drive while listening to Benjy Davis Project’s “Sweet Southern Moon.” I would have been very happy if I had truly believed I would end up spending my days out there on River Road.
Graduate School is a fun ride, but it only lasts so long. The next thing you know, you are working as a peon for a large company, getting married and living in a starter home in the “burbs.” One night while driving back to the suburbs, my wife and I decided that it was time to move back to the city. Once we had purchased a house in the City, I recall a coworker asking why we chose to go in town rather than the suburbs, implying that we had made a poor choice. My response surprised me. I told him that I wanted to be in the city, and if I couldn’t do that, then I wasn’t going to stop at the suburbs; I would drive up River Road, and build a house on a large piece of land with no view of my neighbors. I knew, I didn’t want my residence, my lifestyle, or anything about me to quit halfway. Building a house overlooking the Mississippi was very appealing, but ultimately I came to accept how quixotic the notion was, so Uptown New Orleans, once again, became my home.
I identify with the Urban South, but I’ve had my love affair with the Rural South. Both of these faces give the South its defining character. Each has its charming side, but in the end I had to choose, and there really wasn’t a choice to be made.
This series will be continued in part 3 where a discussion of what isn't Southern arises to reveal exactly what is.