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Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler

Essayist Chris Rose reflects on the eccentricities of New Orleans and his trepidation over proposals to redesign the Crescent City.

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    The other night at Cooter Brown's, a local bar far away from New Orleans' famed French Quarter, folks who have begun to trickle back and some who never left were doing what comes naturally to most people who make this city their home. They had a party.

    Amid the tales of survival and displacement, of despair and hope, of absurdity and tragedy, there were whispers about "the list." The list, it is murmured, sometimes with fear, sometimes with hilarity, is supposed to save this city. Officially known as the Bring-Back-New Orleans Commission, the list is 17 of the city's business, political and religious leaders, appointed by the mayor.

    They are among the city's wealthiest residents, pillars of the community, and maybe that's the problem. They are the elite. If you've been to New Orleans, you know that most of us aren't. Generally we are gaudy and garrulous, underdressed and sometimes not dressed at all.

    We don't belong to the secret carnival societies. We work for wages and tips. We smoke in bars. We talk loud even when live music is playing. We let it hang out so you can, too, for the five days you're here, without regularly scheduled closing hours. That is why you like to visit us, isn't it?

    That's why I have reservations about a committee of rich folks redesigning the concept of us. For instance, Wynton Marsalis is the only professional musician on the list, and he hasn't actually lived in New Orleans for years.

    If there's anything New Orleans never was, it's a planned community. People here plan only two things — what costume they'll wear on Fat Tuesday and which Friday they're going to take off work to go Jazz Fest. The rest pretty much works itself out.

    There are disagreements where the term "Big Easy" originated, but there is no argument why it stuck. Things just happen here. That's the charm. A parade will just happen. A band will just start playing. We'll dance even when there is no music. We sell liquor just about everywhere but church.

    No planning commission can urge the strippers back to their fire poles at Big Daddy's or crank up Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Cha's MidCity Lanes or inspire Chef Jack to make the smoked shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake at Jacques-Imo's Restaurant. Yes, there really is such a thing.

    Yes, it's true that houses and neighborhoods and schools will have to be rebuilt and businesses will need help getting back on their feet, but if New Orleans is going to be any semblance of its former self, it's not because of the mayor, archbishop or local CEO's proclaim, let the good times roll, Cheri, no, just let us be — laissez-faire literally in French — just give us hope and time and let us grow.

    As always, it will be the eccentric, over talkative, slightly cranky, hyper creative and hopelessly underpaid people who decide to say that here in the remains of this charmingly down-trodden city is where we'll plant our tattered flag. Here is where we'll make our art, our novels, our gumbo, where we'll bang our drums and pianos way too loud and too late.

    The fact that no one on the list will ever move or shake, so to speak, to our vibe, let alone drop a fiver in the tip jar, is no less incentive than the one we've always had because we're here.

    I'm Chris Rose.