New Orleans, the city where I was born and grew up in, turned 300 years old last year, rather old by American standards. Founded by the French, managed for a time by the Spanish, incorporated into the United States with the Louisiana Purchase, then a part of the Confederacy before it was dragged back into the Union with Reconstruction, the city has a history that’s colorful, turbulent, diverse, and still being lived.
These days, I usually approach books and articles about New Orleans with doubts. How much of what I read will be ideological? How much does political correctness seep in? Will I recognize my hometown in what I’m reading, or will it come across as some alien place, unrelated to anything I know?
City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300 by Jason Berry captures a considerable amount of the city’s color and turbulence. It’s an account of a city that’s includes usually forgotten elements and people but also manages to avoid the traps of ideology. In short, I recognize my city in this story of its history. The problem I have is that I don’t recognize enough of it.
Berry is an investigative reporter who lives in New Orleans and who’s written some 10 books, including on subjects as diverse as the Catholic Church crisis, the power of money in the Catholic church, a history of New Orleans music, a novel about Louisiana politics, and others. He is a producing City of a Million Dreams as a documentary film, expected to be released this year.
The book begins at the beginning, with the founding by the French in 1718, specifically by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the man known for his snake-tattooed body that always impressed the native tribes. Berry tells a good story of Louisiana’s first 100 years, covering the French, Spanish, and early American periods, along with the powerful influences on the city by the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, slave rebellions in the West Indies, yellow fever, and French national and colonial politics.
It was during the discussion of the period leading up to and including the Civil War and Reconstruction eras that I began to see the book’s strong point – the emphasis on the city’s musical history – was also its weak point. The emphasis on music allows an enhanced discussion of the history of the city’s African-American people, including both slaves and “free people of color.” But it also means that other elements are crowded out. The reader gets an extended discussion of specific musicians and a funeral home operator, but not a single reference to John McDonough, the philanthropist who shaped the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through the public schools, and few references to the importance played by city’s position as a leading seaport.
Aside from the discussion of colonial history, the book does provide solid background on how the city’s neighborhoods developed, where Congo Square came from, the original of "second-lining" funerals, and how New Orleans’ musicians, like Louis Armstrong, became part of the city’s musical diaspora across the United States and into Europe. But you will find very little on the city’s contribution to World War II and the space program, and the role of businesses and industry, including cotton.
City of a Million Dreams is uneven, and its emphasis on music likely reflects the author’s previous work in that area. The music is a fascinating and important aspect of the city’s history. But other aspects are important as well, and Berry could have his excellent storytelling style to those as well.
Top photograph by Robson Hatsukami Morgan via Unsplash. Used with permission