NEW ORLEANS — A friendly voice greeted me as pushed open the door to this dark, musty bookstore in the heart of the French Quarter, but I didn't see a face — only books stacked from floor to ceiling. After navigating the cramped corners, I peered over a pile of jazz classics to find its owner: Steve, who loves Mozart and classical radio stations. After a chat, he sold me a commentary on Sherlock Holmes and wished me luck in my travels. I grew up next to a bookstore like this and immediately felt at home. Nothing beats that old book smell.
I spent a week in New Orleans for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference. At one point I found myself in a bar on Bourbon Street playing an environmentally-themed game of Settlers of Catan with fellow nerds, and it was absolute heaven.
I also had the privilege of touring the Nola.com/The Times-Picayune newsroom, where Mark Lorando, director of metro content, and Ted Jackson, Pulitzer-prize winning photographer, explained how news operations changed after Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans media group is now considered ahead of the curve with its innovative approach to digital news, but Lorando said they "had to get through the bullshit" first.
The digital approach not only created an exciting place to be for journalists. A fired up and passionate Lorando said that giving readers the news they wanted the way they wanted it saved the newspaper.
My trip to News Orleans ended as it started: on a literary note. During the conference I picked up a collection of essays on the city's historical geography. Here are a few excerpts from "Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans":
"Colossal decisions — involving evacuating, relocating, hunkering down, giving up, resisting, conceding, fighting, accepting — confront citizens of New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana, oftentimes to the exasperated and impatient disbelief of Americans elsewhere. Should we remain in eroding marshes and continue centuries of tradition, or end our way of life and move inland so that aggressive coastal restoration may commence? Should we maintain all low-lying, far-flung neighborhoods and trust that levees will protect us? Or should we concede these areas to nature and build only on higher ground? Should we try to save everyone, at the risk of losing everyone? Or should we ask some to sacrifice everything so that others may maintain something? Shall we strive toward the probable survival of half the society, or the possible survival of the entire society?
Ask an informed American citizen today to ruminate on Dallas or Atlanta or Phoenix, and you will probably get small talk, lukewarm pleasantries, and a brief conversation. Ask them what they think about New Orleans, and you are in for not only an opinionated retort, but a sentimental smile, a scolding finger or a treasured memory, a shaking head, or an exasperated shrug over the course of a conversation spanning the spectrum of the human experience. This enigmatic capacity to rile and inspire, to scandalize and charm, to liberate and fascinate, helps explain why thousands of people have rejected the amenities and opportunities of the lukewarm Dallases and Atlantas and Phoenixes of the world, and chosen instead to cast their lot with this troubled old port — embracing all its splendors and dilemmas, all its booms and busts, all its joys and tragedies."