The City that Lives Outdoors

by W. S. Harwood

When the wind is howling through the days of the mad March far up in the lands where snow and ice thick cover the earth, here in this city that lives outdoors the roses are clambering over the "galleries" and the wistaria is drooping in purplish splendor from the low branches of the trees and from the red heights of brick walls.

The yellow jonquils, too, are swelling, and the geraniums are throwing out their scarlet flame across wide stretches of greensward, while the violets are nodding at the feet of the gigantic magnolias, whose huge yellowish-gray buds will soon burst into white beauty, crowning this noblest of flower-bearing trees.

It is a strange old city, this city that lives outdoors—a city rich in romantic history, throbbing with tragedy and fascinating events, a beautiful old city, with a child by its side as beautiful as the mother. The child is the newer, more modern city, and the child, like the parent, lives out of doors.

The people seem to come into closer touch with nature than the people of most other portions of the land. The climate, the constant invitation of the earth and sky, seem to demand a life lived in the open. This city that lives outdoors is a real city, with all a city's varied life; but it is a country place as well—a city set in the country, or the country moved into town.

For at least nine months in the twelve, the people of this rare old town live out of doors nearly all the waking hours of the twenty-four. For the remaining three months of the year, December, January, and February, they delude themselves into the notion that they are having a winter, when they gather around a winter-time hearth and listen to imaginary wind-roarings in the chimney, and see through the panes fictitious and spectral snow-storms, and dream that they are housed so snug and warm. But when the day comes the sun is shining and there is no trace of white on the ground, and the grass is green and there are industrious buds breaking out of cover, and the earth is sleeping very lightly. Open-eyed, the youngsters sit by these December firesides and listen to their elders tell of the snow-storms in the long ago that came so very, very deep—ah, yes, so deep that the darkies were full of fear and would not stir from their cabins to do the work of the white people; when snowballs were flying in the streets, and the earth was white, and the "banquettes," or sidewalks, were ankle-deep in slush.

All the long years of the two centuries since this old city was born, a mighty river has been flowing by its doors, never so far forgetting its purpose to live outdoors as to freeze its yellow crest, stealing softly past by night and by day, bearing along the city's front a vast commerce on down to the blue waters of the Gulf, and enriching the city by its cargoes from the outer world and from the plantations of the upper river. Strangely enough, the great yellow river flows above the city, its surface being nearly thirty feet above the streets in time of flood. It is held in its course by vast banks of earth.


It is a cold, drear March where the north star shines high overhead; but here, where it seems suddenly to have lost its balance and to have dropped low in the brilliant night, March is like June. It is June indeed, June with its wealth of grasses, its noble avenue of magnolias, its great green spread of live-oaks—most magnificent of Southern trees; June with its soft balm, and its sweet sunshine, and its perfume-laden air. And if you have never seen the pole star in the sky of the north, where the star is almost directly over your head, you cannot realize how strange a sight it is to see it so low in the sky as it is here.

There is a large garden in this city—it is, in fact, a part of the city proper. It was once a beautiful faubourg, now known as the Garden District, where the people live outdoors in a fine old aristocratic way, and where all the beauty in nature seen in the other sections of the city seems to be outdone. Very many rare old homes are in this garden region, with its deep hedges and ample grounds, inclosed in high stone walls, and a wealth of flowers and noble courts and an abounding hospitality. But what, after all, are houses to a people that lives outdoors? Conveniences only; for such a people, better than houses are the air of the open, the scent of the roses, the blue of the Southern sky, the vast, strong sweep of the brilliant stars!

If we pause here along this street where run such every-day things as electric street-cars, we shall see on one side of the splendid avenue a smooth-paved roadway for the carriages, on the other a course for the horsemen, and in the center a noble inner avenue of trees set in a velvet-like carpet of grass; and here and there along the way, almost in touch of your hand from the open car window, appears the Spanish dagger, with its green, sharp blades and its snowy, showy plume. Not far away stands a lowly negro cabin, where the sun beats down hot and fierce upon a great straggling rose-bush, reaching up to the eaves, beating back the rays of the sun defiantly and gaining fresh strength in the struggle. On such a bush one day I counted two hundred and ninety roses.

This city which lives outdoors must play most in the open, and in its noble park, with its vast stretches of bright green, here empurpled by masses of the dainty grass-flower, there yellowing with the sheen of the buttercup, one finds the tireless golf-players leisurely strolling over the links; from yonder come the cries of the boys at ball; and in the farther distance you may see through the frame-like branches of a giant live-oak the students of a great university hard set at a game of tennis. And yet—is it the air, or the race, or the traditions?—something it is which makes the sportsmen, like the spring, seem slow to move.


And here even the palms grow outdoors in the city yards. And should you go past the city's limits, and yet within seeing distance of its blue-tiled housetops, you will find the palms growing rank in the great swamps, which you must search if you care to hunt for the languid alligators—palms growing so thick and rank that it is quite like looking into some vast conservatory, with the blue dome of the sky for glass. And here grow the magnolias in their wild, barbaric splendor of bloom, and the live-oaks, mighty of girth and spread, draped in somber gray moss as if for the funeral of some god of the deep green wood. At the fringe of the swamp, tempting you until near to jumping into the morass after them, are the huge fleurs-de-lis, each gorgeous blossom fully seven inches across its purple top.

To the north, somewhat apart from the reach of the treacherous river, lie the health-giving piny woods, and along the big, sullen stream the sugar plantations, some of them still the home of a lavish hospitality, some of them transformed into mere places of trade, where thrift and push have elbowed out all that fine gallantry and ease and ample hospitality of an earlier day—that hospitality which will ever remain a leading characteristic of the people. To be a Southern man or a Southern woman and to be inhospitable—that is not possible in the nature of things.


It is, when all is said and done, on the gallery that this city lives most of its life—on the gallery even more than on the evening-thronged banquette, which is the sidewalk of the North, or the boulevards, or even the fragrant parks, where life flows in a fair, placid stream. Some there must be who toil by day in shop, or at counter, or in dim accounting-rooms, or on the floors of the marts where fortunes are made and lost in sugar or cotton or rice. For such the gallery is a haven of rest. If they must pass the earlier day indoors, for them the gallery during the long, late afternoon, and the ghost of a twilight, and the long evenings far into the starry night. The ghost of a twilight indeed—the South knows no other. Sometimes I have watched the long, splendid twilight come down over the wild Canadian forest—slowly delaying; creeping up the low mountains; halting from hour to hour in the glades below; shade after shade in the glorious sky of the west gradually merging into the dimness of the oncoming dusk; the moments passing so slowly, the day fading so elusively, until, at last, when even the low moon has hung out its silver sign in the west and the stars are pricking through, it is still twilight along the lower earth. And still farther to the north, around the globe in the far upper Europe, with the polar circle below you, it is like living on a planet of eternal day to sit through the northern light and feel about you the all-pervasive twilight of the land of the midnight sun. But the night is so hasty here, and the day is swift; and between them runs but a slender, dim thread.



The gallery is a feature of every house in this city that lives outdoors, be it big or little, humble or grand, or lowly or mean. It is on the first floor or the second, or even the third, though the third it seldom reaches, for few people care for houses of great height. Indeed, there are hundreds of homes of but one story, full of the costliest tokens of the taste of an artistic people. And the soil below is so like a morass that ample space must be left between floor and earth; while as for cellars, I have heard of but two in all the great city. The gallery may run around the entire house, flanked and set off by splendid pillars with capitals rich and ornate; it may run across one end of the residence and be a marvel of rich ironwork, as fine as art and handicraft can make it, with, mayhap, the figures of its field outlined in some bit of color, as gold or green; it may be but a single cheap wooden affair, paintless, dingy, dilapidated, weather-worn, and stained with neglect; but a gallery it is still, an important social feature of this outdoor life.

Over the gallery grow the roses; out near at hand a bignonia-vine lifts its yellow flare aloft and throws down a fluttering shower of bell-like blooms, and all the air is heavy with the scents of the South. So through the long evening the people sit upon the gallery and chat or read or sing or doze or plan or discuss their family affairs. By day the galleries are protected with gay-colored awnings or those filmy woven sheets of reeds which keep out the glare and let through the light and the fragrant breeze. Children make of the gallery a play-house; young people here entertain their friends; the elders discuss the affairs of a nation or dwell on that wonderful past through which this ancient Southern city has come tumultuously down through the lines of Castilian and Saxon and Gaul.


If you should take your map of the United States and run your finger far down its surface until it rested upon the largest city in all the beautiful South, and the metropolis of a vast inner empire which holds two civilizations, one French-Spanish, one American, both slowly, very slowly, merging through the centuries; or, better still, if you should stroll along the streets on a sweet March day, peering into its curious quarters, watching the beautiful little children and the dark-eyed men and the gaily dressed women and all the throngs of people, city people who can never long remain away from the green fields and the noble old trees and the scent of the roses—then you could not fail to hit upon this charming old place, New Orleans—in many ways the most interesting of all the cities in America, the beautiful city that lives outdoors.