A city changed? Maybe not - Justin Boron

I agreed with a lot of people in New Orleans who said it wouldn't ever happen – that a massive "hurricane would come right up the mouth of the river," as my friend from New Orleans said. Maybe, the reason I agreed with them was just denial. I had grown to love the city so much that I didn't want to fathom the idea of it being destroyed.

I wasn't really fascinated by the tourist French Quarter or the other places you see on television. And watching images of my friends' neighborhoods engulfed by Lake Pontchartrain, it wasn't the city's notoriety or even urban grit that attracted me so much to it.

What made such an impression on me was what I called the "real" New Orleans.

It was the culture of familiarity, the tightness among its citizens, the way everyone seemed to know everyone, like in a small town.

It also was the way, on numerous occasions, my friends and their families accepted me in their home and let me sit at their dinner table.

No doubt, New Orleans has an impenetrably insular culture, where locals aren't just skeptical of strangers, they can be downright mean to them. As someone from outside New Orleans, one thing I learned is that you almost have to earn the right to be there. If you haven't, then you should probably stay hidden away in the French Quarter with the other tourists.

I may have not earned my way into the parts of the city laying beyond the French Quarter. But because my roommate in college was from New Orleans, I feel like I got a special pass that got me past the guards who defend the nuance of New Orleans, the place where people live, work, breathe.

After being immersed in the real part of the city, I realized that its isolation doesn't stem from cold-hearted toughness or mean-spirited suspicion. It is more of a veil that allows locals to protect parts of the city and culture from the over-marketed, cheesy depictions that appear on television shows and commercials. It's what allows New Orleans to keep its own world distinct from the more watered-down, tourist-friendly one that it projects to the rest of the country.

While gouged tourists filled cash registers downtown, the rest the city's commerce seemed to consist of little more than traded favors. Knowing that the droves of tourists in the city would take care of the profit, it appeared the residents just took care of each other. People who worked in the courts or knew judges got speeding tickets tossed out. Police officers overlooked unruly locals while the visitors in town for Mardi Gras paid the big fines and spent nights in jail for stepping off a curb when they weren't allowed. A beer in New Orleans' Uptown district may cost $2.50. Downtown in the French Quarter it would cost $5 or $6.

Once you find a connection – or an "in" – to New Orleans, its real beauty is revealed. Anyone can walk up and down St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District and be stunned by the architecture.

But what is more startling is the open arms people have for each other.

I come from a background in which people's generosity is usually kept at an arm's length, if not for pride, than for the sake of not imposing. When I've traveled to other places in this country, that was accepted social decorum. Hosts were polite and welcoming. But they always conducted themselves with some implied distance between them.

New Orleans became a place where I didn't live but felt distinctly unlike a guest.

Every time I came into the Crescent City, whether for carnival season or just summer drinking, Bart Bacigalupi, my friend and college roommate, asked and sometimes demanded, that I move to the city.

Always, my response was that I planned to but the timing had to be right. The job needed to be there.

Well, now I regret not having done it. Right now, I feel like I would give up my job and become a waiter just to live in New Orleans. I regret not joining the city, and I've started to worry that I'll never be able to return to the same New Orleans.

I'm worried that like the holes punched in the city's levees, the storm will also open holes into the city that will pour what other cities were more than willing to welcome into their communities. I'm worried Wal-Marts and chain fast food will be rebuilt in place of the family-owned grocery stores and restaurants.

But then I remember the resiliency with which the wary-of-change people in New Orleans have managed to keep the rest of the country at arms length while simultaneously inviting them into the city. When I think of that, I know that a city like New Orleans will not lose itself because of one storm.

Justin Boron is the government reporter for the News Daily. His column appears Monday. He can be reached at (770)478-5753 or jboron@news-daily.com .