America’s best party cities

mardi-gras

Photo: Larry Johnson

LAST WEEKEND, I WENT TO Vegas with my wife and friends. I’ve been to Vegas a bunch of times now, and I’ve realized that I’m never going to like it. I’ve been told a million times, “The house always wins,” to which my response is, “Then why on earth would I play?”

Vegas has tried hard to get me to like it. It’s shown me Cirque du Soleil shows that have legitimately blown my mind. It has paraded beautiful women in front of me. On one press trip, I was even brought to a legal brothel in nearby Pahrump. It offers free drinks and mind-boggling dancing water fountains. It offers incredible food from chefs I love. It tells me, “You could be like George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven! You could beat the house and look sexy while doing it!”

And yet, I can’t help despising Vegas. I can’t help but see how they import their culture from other places to try and draw people through their casinos. I can’t help but notice the homeless people crowding the walkways of the strip while people just through those doors are either totally throwing away their money, or are spending it on frivolous nonsense. I can’t help but see the fakery in every inch of it, from the New York, New York that is way too clean to ever be mistaken for an honest facsimile of New York, to the Trump-like confusion of “classy” with “cartoonish excess,” to the rigid, practiced smiles of overworked and underpaid cocktail waitresses.

The Cities of Sin

Las Vegas is nothing more than a citywide act of misdirection — “Look at the shiny things while we empty your wallet!” When I look at the visitors at the casinos, I’m reminded of what Hunter S. Thompson said in his classic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

“Now off the escalator into the casino, big crowds still tight around the crap tables. Who are these people? These faces! Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used-car dealers from Dallas. But they’re real. And, sweet Jesus, there are a hell of a lot of them — still screaming around these desert-city crap tables at four-thirty on a Sunday morning. Still humping the American dream, that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino.

A week after my trip to Vegas, still feeling a little sick from the boozing, still adjusting back from the dry desert air to the thick coastal swamp with hacking, bronchial coughs, still a little sad from witnessing the inhumane spectacle of a citywide con-job, I headed south to the city of New Orleans for a bachelor party. This was the week before Mardi Gras, the weekend of the NBA All Star Game, and I expected the sleaze to be something similar to what I’d just experienced in Vegas.

It’s not an unfair assumption. New Orleans is our Singapore. It’s another town founded on sin, a port city that was home to pirates, smugglers, and slavers, which built its economy around the basest of human activities. The only other town in the United States that truly compares is Las Vegas, founded by gangsters who needed an inconspicuous and remote desert town to host their activities of dubious legality.

I was wrong. New Orleans, while very similar to Vegas in some ways, is possibly the best city in the country, while Vegas is quite possibly the worst.

What makes a city great?

When we hit the streets of New Orleans for our bachelor party, I felt nothing like the discomfort I felt in Vegas. Yeah, when we got to Bourbon Street, there were still homeless people, there were still trashy t-shirt shops, there were still dingy bars selling tall, radioactive, neon-green drinks, and there were still people trying to use the promise of sex to get as much of our money as possible. New Orleans is dirtier than Las Vegas — last night’s urine and vomit have not always been washed out of the gutters by the next morning. New Orleans also has had a much rougher history than Vegas. Slavery, storms, racism, poverty, predatory development, incompetent government, and persistent crime have all done their level best to grind the city down. In Las Vegas, it’s really hot sometimes.

But anyone who has been to both cities will tell you — they do not compare. New Orleans is the better city. Why? Why is one place a clean, affluent, gleaming, drain on the soul of its country, while the other is a grimy, impoverished miasma that has never stopped giving back to the world?

The answer is simple: Culture.

Culture keeps a city alive

The first hungover morning in New Orleans, my friends and I stumbled into an old diner. We ordered strong coffee and plates of chicken and waffles, po’ boys, and bowls of gumbo. Just outside the diner’s open doors, ukulele players performed, and day drinkers had their first beer. Over the diner’s speakers, a brass band cover of “Sexual Healing” came on.

Just as I was about to turn to him to say the same, my buddy turned to me and said, “This city might be my spirit animal.”

Later that night, we went to a parade called Chewbacchus, which is basically a Mardi Gras parade for nerds. There was a Deadmau5 Death Star, legions of Mr. Meeseeks from Rick and Morty, and more Sexy Slave Leia’s than you could count.

Deadmau5 deathstar

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In New Orleans, it feels like everyone is hustling. But the people almost never treat you like a mark. They treat you like a human. They joke with you, even after you’ve promised to give them nothing. And the street performers, the bands, and the artists, are trying to make money off of you, sure, but they’re also doing what they’re doing because they love doing it. They all believe they live in the best place on earth. This is not something the locals tell you in Vegas.

New Orleans is a city that has been ground into the dirt by some of the most colossal forces in history, and which has decided to fight back with the intangibles — with food, with music, with art.

This is the difference with Vegas, where food, music, and art are just commodities that get you into the casino. In Vegas, you’ve got to pay to be treated like a human being with dignity. In the long run of history, even if oceans rise and New Orleans is flooded for good, people will remember what came out of it — jazz, blues, cajun food, second line bands — far more fondly than they’ll remember the eternal sterile city out in the desert. New Orleans wins, even when it loses.