New Orleans: jambalaya of a city. Its hybrid culture a mix of French, black, Caribbean

In New Orleans, the median strips dividing the city's wide boulevards are called ``neutral grounds.'' It is a vestige of the period more than a century ago when the wide center expanse of present-day Canal Street was the neutral ground for business between the city's very distinct Creole and American sectors. Today modern electric buses ply Canal Street's neutral ground, and one crosses easily from the steel-and-glass central business district, on the west side, to the French Quarter, all yellowed lace and shutters and saxophones, on the east.

Yet this city, which is preparing to host the Republican National Convention next week, is still a place of distinct cultures and social strata, of entrenched aristocracies and slaves' descendants whose lineage in this swampy place can date back 200 years or more. In a time when American cities are known for their sprawling middle-class suburbs, New Orleans is a city with less middle economic ground than most, with a style and temperament that continue to be influenced as much by European and African-Caribbean roots as by American ways.

It is this jambalaya of cultures that has made New Orleans a unique American city. But some here say it is those social and economic divisions, even though fading, that have robbed the city of the growth and prominence enjoyed by Southern cities such as Atlanta, Houston, or Miami. Unlike those cities, New Orleans failed to develop broad entrepreneurial and middle-management classes.

``We were eclipsed by cities to our east and our west,'' says former Mayor Ernest (Dutch) Morial, ``because while they worked on education and economic development and community improvement, we were having too much fun with Mardi Gras.

``There is an inordinate preoccupation with social status and activities,'' continues Mr. Morial, who in 1977 became the city's first black mayor. ``I think things are changing; we're seeing an infusion of community spirit, and some of that is the result of changes in the business community. It's just not happening overnight.''

That this below-sea-level city is hemmed in by the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and swamps is part of the reason it hasn't developed like other major Southern cities. But the city's mind-set and makeup outweigh geographical factors.

``New Orleans has a particular set of shortcomings that have kept it out of the Atlanta-Dallas race,'' says Ken Boudreaux, an economist at Tulane University. ``It's really a bi-modal population, with a large lower class, and a decent-sized wealthy population. But it's really quite thin in the middle-level executive corps,'' he adds, ``and those are the people who tend to be the the real doers, community conscious and cohesive.''

The long French presence here may be partly responsible for a certain Latin element in the city's ambivalence toward American entrepreneurship and ``progress.'' Arnold Hirsch, a historian at the University of New Orleans, says a heated controversy in the 1960s over plans for a riverfront expressway reflected that old-world-new-world rift: Business interests wanted it, French Quarter preservationists did not. The expressway was never built.

The same spirit that pushed the expressway was behind the 1984 World's Fair on the city's riverfront. Envisioned as a means of sparking major tourist and commercial development, the fair never attracted the anticipated crowds and is generally considered a debacle.

Yet in its food, music, and spirituality - perhaps the factors that define this city best - New Orleans is more African and Caribbean than French.

For much of its history, New Orleans has been a majority-black city. It has been deeply marked by those fields where blacks were traditionally allowed to develop their creativity. Lacking both money and education, blacks turned to music halls and restaurant kitchens both to make a living and to express themselves.

``Used to be we wasn't allowed in the quarters, so blacks spent their money with the blacks, and that's what kept a lot of little places like this humming along,'' says Austin Leslie, owner and cook at Chez Helene, a neighborhood black restaurant now increasingly frequented by tourists. ``You know, integration really messed things up for black business,'' he adds.

Mr. Leslie, whose restaurant serves as the basis for the television series ``Frank's Place,'' is a perfect example of how this city's divisions have ended up leading to a cultural gumbo. After working in his aunt's restaurant as a child, Leslie went to work as a chef's assistant downtown.

``That's where I learned the white side of it,'' he says. ``I was fixin' the oysters Rockefeller, Bienville, the sauces. My aunt had never heard of all that, she had the meatballs, the read beans, the smothered chicken livers. We put the two together, and came up with Chez Helene.''

Leslie says that being a ``compact town'' probably had more to do with making New Orleans the hybrid city it is than anything else. ``No matter how segregated they might try to be, they still ended up bumpin' and mixin'.''

Yet even if New Orleans succeeds, through improved education and economic opportunity for more of its citizens, to develop the entrepreneurship and community spirit former mayor Morial and others say it needs, there is little fear here that the city will lose the spirit that makes it unique.

``This is still a town where the biggest news is when a chef moves from one restaurant to another,'' says Professor Hirsch. ``That's unlikely to change any time soon.''

Chef Leslie says that even if the city did change, many New Orleanians would probably approach that ``the way they do when someone passes.'' They'd celebrate.

``This is a good town, but for a long time people weren't motivated, they thought they could sit back easy and we'd be No. 1,'' he says. ``Now people got to work together more,'' he says, enhancing the city the way his hybrid cooking has.

``But no matter what, we'll still be a fun town where you eat and party,'' says Leslie. ``That ain't goin' nowhere.''

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