Why New Orleans Matters

Why New Orleans Matters

by Tom Piazza


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Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, revisit Tom Piazza’s award-winning appraisal of a city in crisis—with a new afterword placing the story of New Orleans in the context of the ongoing threat to America’s coastal populations.

In the decade since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, Americans have learned much from the resilience of this proud, battered city. And yet, even as the city has regained some of its lost footing, other regions around the country continue to be battered by hurricanes, snow and ice storms, and massive weather events like Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the mid-Atlantic coast seven years later. 

Published just months after the storm, Why New Orleans Matters was immediately hailed as a passionate and eloquent celebration of the city as both a cultural center and a home to millions of residents from varied—and sometimes precarious—walks of life. Award-winning author Tom Piazza, a longtime New Orleans resident, evoked the sensuous rapture of the city that gave us jazz music and Creole cooking, but also examined its deep undercurrents of corruption, racism, and injustice, and explored how its people endure and transcend those conditions. Perhaps most important, he asked that we all, as Americans consider our shared responsibility to this great and neglected metropolis and all the things it has shared with the world: its grace and beauty, resilience and soul.

In the years since its first publication, Piazza has continued to explore the story of New Orleans and its people in many ways—most notably in his novel City of Refuge and as a writer for the acclaimed HBO series Treme, created by David Simon. Now, he revisits Why New Orleans Matters—and, in an all-new foreword for this edition, re-examines the story of Katrina as a cautionary tale for a nation that has too often neglected both its treasures and, far more important, its people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062414779
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Edition description: Anniversary
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 461,223
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tom Piazza is the author of the novels City of Refuge and My Cold War, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, the essay collection Devil Sent the Rain, and many other works. He was a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.

Read an Excerpt

Why New Orleans Matters

By Tom Piazza

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Tom Piazza
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061124834

Chapter One

Long before I visited New Orleans I would visit it in my imagination. I would strain to see it through the small windows of the photos in the books that I took out from the library when I was barely into my teens -- A Pictorial History of Jazz, Shining Trumpets, Jazzmen -- graying black-and-white pictures of men with musical instruments, seated for formal band portraits or playing on a bandstand somewhere, or even marching through the streets. The streets were lined with wooden frame houses, apparently unpainted, and little shops and bars whose roofs stretched out over the sidewalks and seemed to lean a little to one side, casting deep shadows, with names like Luthjen's, Big 25, Mama Lou's.

In the formal portraits the men were dressed in their band uniforms, looking proudly straight at the camera. They seemed to know that they were worth something. They often held their instruments with a little flair, at a certain angle, never as if an afterthought or an appendage, but somehow as the point of their presence there.

Often the photos were scratchy, the only copy of an image fixed near the beginning of the twentieth century -- but they contained such power. Today, of course, images are reproduced digitally ad infinitum, and we are drowning in them; they have in many ways lost their value, even become part of the problem -- a logjam, a glut of disconnected information. But these older images were powerful and unique, often showing fold marks or tears; they had been smuggled out of the past as if containing an important message that the past wanted us to know. Whoever had held onto them had wanted them to endure.

It was the same with the early recordings of New Orleans jazz. They sounded different from the other records I listened to in the sixties -- not the actual music, although that was different enough, but the sound quality. The sound was a primitive monaural, more contained, and often there was a sonic drizzle of scratchy surface noise through which the music reached out. You had to reach back to it, make an effort, to get its message, and that was part of the experience. It demanded an investment on your part; you had to, in a sense, complete the picture.

But once you had learned how to reach out and get the message, it got easier and more natural, and you began to want to spend more time over there, where the message was. The beauty and mystery and intelligence that waited for you, like an unknown continent to explore. The Louis Armstrong Hot Fives, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band -- and, later, Fats Domino, and Professor Longhair and Irma Thomas and Dr. John, and so many others.

Music was my entry point into the world of the spirit that New Orleans embodies. But there are so many other possible entry points, too -- culinary, social, historical, literary, and architectural -- all of them connected. For years, because of what I heard in the music, I wanted to visit that place. Eventually, after many visits, I ended up moving there. Today I travel a lot, and when I tell people that I live in New Orleans their expression changes slightly; something in their facial muscles relaxes, something brightens in their eyes, and they smile.

When I finally did visit for the first time, almost twenty years ago, years before I moved there, I began to see that the music I loved was just one facet of a kind of unified field of culture, of being. You sensed it as soon as you entered the city. The air smelled different; it felt different, heavier, on your arms, more like a liquid than like air. After New York City, where I lived and which I also loved, with its sharp right angles and hard surfaces and fast tempo and endless pavement and soaring vertical walls, a giant video game of the mind at the expense of the body, New Orleans was like finding yourself in some electrically charged soup. People said hello when they passed you on the street, and after a few days you started saying hello back to them. The fragrant bushes were an endless olfactory ambush in the evenings -- sweet olive and ligustrum and Confederate jasmine. You could get stunningly great food even in tiny and sometimes dingy corner bars, as well as in an endless array of neighborhood restaurants, like Domilise's, or Mandina's, or Willie Mae's, or Uglesich's, often tucked back in a residential block somewhere, each of which seemed to have its own particular culinary groove going.

Then there was music, which could arrive anywhere, at any time. Your car would be held up at an intersection for no apparent reason, and you would be wondering what in God's name the problem might be, and then you would hear the trumpets off in the distance, then the rest of the horns, the tubas and the drums, amid the shouts and laughter of the celebrants as they passed (or the mourners, if it was a jazz funeral), and you would pull your car over and lock it and follow the parade for as long as it took you to remember that you were supposed to be someplace twenty minutes ago.

New Orleans wasn't something I was able to brush off lightly, and I went back every chance I got. I left New York in 1991 to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and when I was finished with Iowa I decided to move to New Orleans. It was cheaper than New York, and I wanted to be writing fiction rather than scrambling just to make rent money, and I had always wanted to live there anyway. I moved to New Orleans in 1994 and soon knew that it was home, for keeps, no matter where I might travel.


Excerpted from Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza Copyright © 2006 by Tom Piazza. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Bob Dylan

PRAISE FOR MY COLD WAR:“Tom Piazza’s writing pulsates with nervous electrical tension—reveals the emotions that we can’t define.

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Why New Orleans Matters 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
JFBallenger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at the airport on my way out of New Orleans and finished it before I got home seven hours later. Funny, passionate, heartbreaking and absolutely gripping. It's beautifully evocative prose captured and helped me understand much of what I found so powerful about being in this city even for a few days. Piazza wrote the book in the month following hurricane Katrina, unsure of what, if anything, would be left of it, as an effort to "cast a kind of magic spell, to summon up for myself all the things that I found most potent about New Orleans and somehow make them live." The book is also an impassioned for rebuilding New Orleans (recall that in the weeks after the storm there were prominent public officials wondering that "made sense") from the bottom up in way that respects the diverse, vibrant cultures of the people rather than top-down profit models of corporate interests. And it is remarkably successful at both. Ultimately though, this book is the story of the twenty year love affair between the author and his adopted city. Piazza acknowledges the city's tragic flaws - the grinding poverty, the lingering racism, and the criminal and sometimes brutal political corruption -- as only a lover can. "Sooner or later," he writes, "New Orleans will test any love you bring to it." But he argues that the great things about New Orleans -- the food, the music, the joyful insouciance are hard-won, culturally deep reactions to those problems. "In the black gospel tradition which is so central to New Orleans culture, there is a saying: `No Cross, no crown'....You can't have triumph without triumphing over something."
janemarieprice on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Much of the book covers music, food, and customs of New Orleans. This would be good as a starter for someone interested in learning more about the city ¿ size and accessibility are very good. However, I left wanting something a bit deeper.
stanfordc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author's passion for his adopted hometown is clearly evident, although Piazza's lists of the restaurants and musicians he loves is unlikely to inspire the uninitiated. To his credit, Piazza doesn't romanticize New Orleans, exploring, if briefly, the complicated city's dysfunctions as well as its appeal. The book is a little uneven and repetitive (did we really need *two* anecdotes about how a stranger fixed his glasses as evidence of the city's humanity?) but there is genuine emotion here. The book ends shortly after Hurricane Katrina, so I'm curious to see what Piazza has since written about New Orleans and its recovery. A quick but important read.
cursedtea on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Everyone NEEDS to read this book!!!
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At first, I didn't think I was going to like this book. I thought the author was pretty arrogant and annoying. But then the book grew on me and I really started to get the feel for the New Orleans that he felt. It must be a great joy to love a city so much. In the end, I thought it was a very well written love story. I thought the book would focus more on Katrina, but it didn't really unil the last 60 pages or so. I thought I would be disappointed by this, but I wasn't. I thought, in the end, the book was laid out beautifully.
laytonwoman3rd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A short book, written shortly after Hurricane Katrina by a long-time resident of the City, who expresses his love for the food, culture and music, as well as his fear that the unique character of the Crescent City may be lost in the rebuilding process due to a get-rich quick mentality, lack of foresight and lack of consideration for the needs and necessity of what Barbara Bush patronizingly referred to as the "underprivileged" displaced residents.I think it would have been more powerful if I had read it closer to the event. By now, I've absorbed most of what the author was talking about, as I would assume most people with any interest in the future of New Orleans have as well. Much of the first two thirds reads almost like a laundry list of famous musicians, terrific places to eat, etc. If you want to read about the marvel that was the City of New Orleans, I would pass on this book and turn to New Orleans, Mon Amour by Andrei Codrescu for better writing and fuller treatment of the subject matter.
jferr29 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Former first lady Barbara Bush, visiting the (Houston) Astrodome, told a radio interviewer: 'So many of the peopl in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.' How could they possibly miss a place where they were, you know, underprivileged . . . How could you even say such a thing unless you assumed that the people who were - you know - underprivileged had no past, no sense of life, no memories and no feelings - in short, weren't really people at all, as we know them?" (pages 152-153
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You weren't there. This man was and I was 60 miles to the north. You weren't there.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was part of my summer reading. I disliked it completely, and wonder where his information even comes from. It is also short and not much of a read at all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found Tom Piazza's book Why New Orleans Matters to be a disappointing read. Reading it, I felt as if it was written in haste - written with the goal of being the first published post-Katrina book rather than a well thought out and stirring account of New Orleans' colorful past, devastated present and hopeful future. Key issues were either glazed over or slighted. I wanted to read about the issues and nuances that make this city worth resurrecting and not about the violent attacks and mismanagment during hurricane Katrina. The two angles are counter-productive.