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Throughout this book, we talk about the mystique of New Orleans and its intoxicating, ineffable essence. But first, it’s time for some stats. The largest city in Louisiana (pop. 378,000) and one of the chief cities of the South, New Orleans is nearly 100 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River system and stretches along a strip of land 5 to 8 miles wide between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. Surrounded by a river and a lake, the city is largely under sea level. The highest natural point is in City Park, a whopping 35 feet above sea level.

New Orleans has always been known for its jazz-infused joie de vivre, a place where antebellum-meets-bohemia in a high-stepping dance of life, lived fully and out loud. Its recent history, however, is marked by two horrific, well-known events: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, and the failure of the levee system following Hurricane Katrina. But in this, the 10th anniversary year following that devastation, the city is rebounding so palpably that the air fairly prickles with its energy.

In this chapter, we briefly recount the area’s rich history, starting with today and then reaching back to its foundation, to help explain how New Orleaneans got their resilient, life-affirming “yatitude” (from “Where y’at?”—the local version of “How ya doin’?”).

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