I first discovered New Orleans at seventeen, in the summer of 1951. I had been fired from my job with the Smith, Brown, and Root Construction Company (now a subsidiary of Halliburton) after only two weeks of lugging railroad ties between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, because I was too young to work overtime. I was probably lucky.
So I did what any Jesuit prep-school graduate would do; I wired home for money. Then I took a Trailways bus across country. In the South, I saw my first COLORED drinking fountains, heard a fellow passenger blurt, “I ain’t sittin’ next to no nigger,” and, in New Orleans searched out the Court of Two Sisters, a famous garden restaurant my mother had told me about.
When I returned to New Orleans in 1986 as a journalism professor at Loyola University, the city was legally integrated, but much of the white middle class had relocated to Metairie, Jefferson Parish, a vast suburb that stretches west from the city to the airport. For the next ten years, my immediate world was the Garden District. Its lovely antebellum homes figure in the novels of Walker Percy and Anne Rice; Jefferson Davis was born there; and both Loyola and Tulane universities snuggle side by side on St. Charles Avenue.
I explored the city on long runs along the levees and on bike rides north to Lake Pontchartrain and southeast along the Mississippi to Chalmette, where...