New Orleans, sometimes beautiful, usually decaying, always close to getting flushed into the Gulf. Light poles lean at precarious angles, irregular street signs hang upside-down by single screws, streets and sidewalks are cracked and cratered. Beneath the wet gray sky, insulated by heavy air, civic pride is alive and well. "Who Dat?" signs and stickers are plastered on houses and cars, football-fanaticism blending with urban patriotism. Storm damage is everywhere, but many old buildings in Uptown and the Garden District look well kept and freshly painted. Small businesses flourish and a couple of signs brag about future high-rise condos near downtown. Money flows back into the city—in a nation composed of depressingly bland suburbs, many investors prefer character in a disaster zone to blandness in safety. When San Francisco is finally ground to powder by an earthquake, the reaction will be the same.
There are a lot of places, but not many of them offer a sense of place. Not many give you a feeling that you are walking through a world that does not exist anywhere else, an environment that has no siblings scattered across the country. New Orleans has this sense—it is the urban equivalent of an only child. The economy is in shambles and waddling tourists may have long ago transformed the French Quarter into an alcoholic's Disneyland, but it remains unmistakably, thankfully, New Orleanian.