New Orleans is a city of many faces, steeped in history and traditions, wealthy in stories and legends, frustrating in politics, rife with corruption, outstanding in gastronomy and music, splendid in architecture, soaked in humidity, ablaze with festivities, and filled with contradictions. It’s a city tourists never get to see beyond the revelries of Mardi Gras parades and the freewheeling night life of the French Quarter. Even as they walk through the Vieux Carre (“Old Square” in French – the old name of the French Quarter) they only see the shabby looking exterior of buildings owners are not allowed to change, and not the splendid interiors built around courtyards in the Spanish style. You also have to be a local, and one with the right pedigree, to be invited to one of the masked balls hosted by the Krewes (each Mardi Gras’ parade has its own sponsoring organization with its own costumes and traditions) who build and man the parade floats. It’s at these private parties that the real fun is found. Even the restaurants in the tourist guide books fail to showcase the true genius of the local cuisines, as some of the best food is found at out of the way restaurants jealously guarded by the city natives, lest they’d be crowded out by the visiting hordes. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a population of a half million people, with over a million descending on the city for Mardi Gras alone.
Located along the banks of the Mississippi River before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans is one of our country’s major seaports. Located six feet below sea level, the city depends on its system of levies and pumps to keep it dry. When hurricanes overwhelm this system, its major thoroughfare, Canal Street, becomes a literal canal. When I first arrived to start my medical education, I could see the water level markings at six feet above the sidewalk along all the buildings from the prior year’s hurricane.
Taking the old street car from downtown along St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District with its stately old mansions and giant magnolias give visitors but a glimpse of what the city is about. The trees of City Park opposite Tulane University’s main campus (the medical school is located downtown) are covered with hanging moss. The large park is a popular recreation place for both students and locals. It offered my first exposure to playing tennis on red clay courts, and was also a good place for riding a bike or having a picnic.
“The Crescent City”, “The Big Easy”, “The City that Care Forgot” – all appropriate nicknames for a city that I grew to love. My move to the South was not without major culture shock. While New Orleans is a great deal more cosmopolitan than Birmingham, I was shocked to discover in 1968 that water fountains were labeled “For Whites” and “For Colored”, that the hospitals I would work in had been divided into separate sections by race, and that the New York Knicks, who came to town to play an exhibition match left when their black players were not allowed to stay at the Roosevelt Hotel with the rest of the team. Change, however, was beginning to happen. Within two years of my arrival, the signs were removed from water fountains, and hotel discrimination eased or disappeared. And for the first time in its over 150 year history, my medical school had two black students entering in my class.
The year prior to my admission, Tulane Medical School hired Dr. James A. Knight, an ethicist, theologian, and psychiatrist, to be its new Dean of Admissions with a mandate to change the character of the class from one of students almost exclusively from the South to one more inclusive of the rest of the country. Dr. Knight took his charge to heart, and the composition of my class was revolutionary for the school. We not only had our first ever black students, but we also had 10% of the class consisting of women (at a time when at most schools there were one or two), and we also had our first two Latino-American students. In a class of 128, we had representation from 37 of our 50 states, including the leader of SDS from the University of Wisconsin, who with his shoulder length hair and motorcycle definitely didn’t fit the button-down mold of the school. Our class would go on to make a lot of waves throughout our stay, but the flood gates had opened. Despite protests from the Old Guard, the school would continue to admit women and minorities, becoming the first major university in the South to accept the changes that were to spread elsewhere.
More to follow…