Impossible City: New Orleans

Sometimes you see a picture and you can tell that something’s missing, but you don’t know what it is.


I don’t suppose any city in North America has been parsed so thoroughly in the last dozen years as has New Orleans. Before the failed levees drowned it in brackish water and press coverage and architectural competitions, the city was largely a mystery to anyone who hadn’t been there, and to most people who had. Now we are inundated with studies and proposals, paeans and diatribes, portraits and dramatizations, Treme and NCIS. We might even imagine we have the full picture of New Orleans. But of course that’s not true.

If the emptiness were to lead you to think about what you don’t know about New Orleans, it would be a fine thing.

The New Orleans of popular imagination is loud and colorful, often crowded, in your face. Certainly Bourbon Street is, so Virginia Hanusik’s picture at sunrise is a minor revelation. The last bars have closed, at four or five, and all that’s left is the sour smell of oysters, vomit, and stale beer. Every so often, in the cool drift from an open door, there comes a sweet trace of dark liquors, breathed out from shadowed wood. Cigarette smokers splash disinfectant across the sidewalk and hose it into the gutter. Shops put out their garbage, a simmering potpourri. These smells are always there, but you notice them more in the early hours of the day, when the distractions are few, when the neon has been switched off and the bands have gone home, when almost everyone is somewhere else.

At least that’s how I remember it. I suppose I might have noted that the street is uncharacteristically empty of people and left it at that. But the emptiness here isn’t really a crowd-shaped emptiness. Some vacancies have shapes: the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle, “the distant feet of a broken arch, parenthesizing open air.” Others don’t, and you can fill them with whatever you want. I choose the smells and the noise: the music and shouting, the clattering iron-banded wheels of tourist carriages, the clippety-clop of the mules.

I could keep spinning this out. I could tell you, for instance, about the woman in the Old Absinthe House who looked at my sketchbook and said, “Wow, your writing’s just like mine. Write communion,” so I did, and she did, and sure enough it was. Or the carriage driver who told me that he prefers mules to horses, because horses are dumb. But now we’re getting farther from the picture, at least for you. Whether or not you’ve been to Bourbon Street, you know I’m telling the truth about the sound and stink; it’s too believable to require belief. But you have to take my word about communion.

Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans
Lake Pontchartrain at sunset. [Virginia Hanusik]

Sometimes you see a picture and you can tell what’s missing, because you knew the thing when it was there. Other times, you might sense something’s missing, but you don’t know what. Hanusik’s photos conjure that sense. It’s not a matter of the subject, but of the geometry. Some force — I suppose it has to do with focal length — pushes the subject back and expands the foreground and empties it out.

If the emptiness of these photos were to lead you to think about what you don’t know about New Orleans, it would be a fine thing. It’s good to be reminded of what we don’t know.

You might seek to fill the emptiness in several ways, some more advisable than others.

You might assign it a meaning: “The emptiness of Virginia Hanusik’s photos represents …” That approach has a solid pedigree but doesn’t deserve it. It’s too easy, because you could say just about anything and get away with it, and because as soon as you said it, you’d be done.

Or you could try to fill the emptiness with something you love, as I love Walker Percy’s renderings in The Moviegoer:

The street looks tremendous. People on the far side seem tiny and archaic, dwarfed by the great sky and the windy clouds like pedestrians in old prints.

But that won’t lead you to anything you don’t already know. You’ll squander the opportunity that the pictures present.

Palmetto Canal, Central City, New Orleans
Palmetto Canal, Central City. [Virginia Hanusik]

Perhaps the thing to do is ask a question and hunt for an answer to it. You might look at the picture of the Palmetto Canal and wonder where it goes. You might take the number 27 bus out Washington Avenue and walk a mile to the parish line, where Palmetto empties into the 17th Street Canal on its way to Lake Pontchartrain and, if you were getting hungry, find your way to Royal Blend on Metairie Road for lunch, where, among other things, you would learn that the women of Old Metairie buy their slacks at Talbots and uphold the integrity of some of the best salads you will ever have. Revived, you might cross the canal and become the first tourist ever to enter the grounds of Longue Vue House and Gardens on foot, the historic residence where you would learn about Edith Stern, the Sears & Roebuck heiress, whose father bankrolled upward of 4,900 black schools in the Jim Crow South, and who, with her husband, founded Dillard University and donated a Kandinsky painting now worth $25 million dollars to the Guggenheim and built the only house in New Orleans with a basement, which she could do because Metairie Ridge is a veritable mountain at twelve feet above sea level, which is why Old Metairie is old …

You’d be nuts to do it, but you could.

Tim Culvahouse and Virginia Hanusik, “Impossible City: New Orleans,” Places Journal, June 2017. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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