One year ago this month, Lafayette, Louisiana was named the “happiest city in the nation,” according to a study published by The Wall Street Journal and based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, all of the top five happiest cities were in Louisiana; my hometown of Alexandria ranked fifth. At first glance, it is easy to be skeptical, even cynical, about the study. Louisiana ranks at the bottom on so many other lists: educational performance, access to health care, public corruption, and childhood obesity, among other things.
How could we possibly be so happy? “Ignorance really is bliss,” some said. Others argued, only half-jokingly, that alcohol must have played a role. But as last Thursday’s tragedy demonstrated, there is much better explanation about why the top five happiest cities in the United States are located in Louisiana and why, in particular, Lafayette is ranked first in the country. Louisianians celebrate community, and people are happier when they feel like they belong.
Louisiana has more native-born residents, per capita, than any other state; a staggering 79% of Louisianians were born here. That means our people are steeped in their culture. It means, for most of us, that it doesn’t take much effort to figure out if a stranger is, in fact, a distant cousin or a close friend of dozens of your own friends.
I first learned of the massacre from a good friend of mine, one of the 21% of Louisiana residents who are originally from somewhere else. He lives in a condominium complex directly next door to the theater, was on the scene within ten minutes, and stayed until 2AM, delivering food and supplies to our friends in the media. When my brother went to school at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he lived in the same complex.
By sheer coincidence, I had already planned on being in Lafayette for lunch the next day. Even though I grew up in Alexandria, which is a little bit more than an hour down the road, as a kid, I visited Lafayette only occasionally and briefly, usually for a concert at the Cajundome. There never seemed to be anything particularly compelling about the place to me; it was gritty, aging, and perpetually humid, much like my hometown except twice as big.
But today’s Lafayette isn’t the same as the Lafayette of my childhood. Its downtown has been largely revitalized. Its festivals, namely Festival International de Louisiane, have become hot tickets in a state littered with more festivals than you can possibly list. Its music scene has emerged. It is home to Grammy-winning musicians and bestselling authors. There are new, shimmering neighborhoods. Soon, there will be a 100-acre public park in the center of town, a park being master-planned by my third cousin Kurt (proving, again, that it’s not difficult for many of us from Louisiana to find a family member or a friend with a connection). In the dozens of times I’ve visited during the last few years, I’ve never once been taken to a chain restaurant. These, to me, are all signs of a vibrant and thriving community.
At lunch on Friday (at a locally-owned, James Beard-nominated, downtown restaurant), I finally met a friend I’d only known through Facebook. Like almost everyone else that day, she was shaken. Of the nine victims, she knew five. My friend who had camped out with the media at the scene knew three.
These, to me, are also signs of a vibrant and thriving community, a close-knit place that knows and cherishes its people and values its friends and family.
During the last three years, while I’ve been in law school in Dallas, I have been fortunate enough to become friends with dozens and dozens of people from Lafayette, the vast majority of whom I’d never known before. We’ve connected through the power of the written word and the Internet. Steve and Cherry May, the publishers of The Independent and, prior to that, The Times of Acadiana, and Leslie Turk, their editor, have treated me like family, flying me in from Dallas to work on assignments and hosting parties at their homes simply so that I could have the opportunity to meet other members of (what I consider to be) a very special community.
I never knew Mayci Breaux, the 21-year-old student who was so senselessly taken, but on Saturday, I spoke with a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives who did know her and who struggled to hold back tears in describing what an exceptional person she was and what an exceptional family she had.
And I had only briefly met Jillian Johnson, who was born only two months before I was and who seemed to embody the spirit of everything good about Louisiana. Its verve and tenacity, its entrepreneurship and creativity, its eccentricities and its generosity. I wish I had known her better. We would have had a lot to talk about. According to Facebook, we share 28 mutual friends, which is perhaps not too surprising because, again, this is Louisiana.
In coming to grips with this tragedy- this massacre, Lafayette has exemplified the strength of community. Jillian owned a t-shirt company, Parish Ink, and within hours, one of her competitors announced they would be donating the proceeds from their Love Acadiana t-shirt to the victims’s families; they sold out almost immediately. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people changed their profile pictures to the Love Acadiana image in an act of solidarity. Twelve hours after the Westboro Baptist Church declared their intentions to protest at the victims’s funerals, more than 10,000 people signed up to form a human barricade, or, put another way, nearly 10% of Lafayette’s entire population volunteered to be there. Thankfully, Westboro never showed up, and these two young women were given the dignity they deserved.
Last Thursday, we were once again reminded of the horrific failures of America’s gun control laws and of our government’s own negligence and culpability. We are a better and a smarter and a more sensible country than this.
Over the last few days, I’ve exchanged a few messages with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s campaign manager, Timmy Teepell. I may be one of Gov. Jindal’s fiercest critics, but I was proud that he was on the scene that night. That is what a governor is supposed to do. And even though I think his executive order against the Westboro Baptist Church may have been legally problematic, I was also proud that he let that hate group know, officially, they were not welcome here.
In times like these, Teepell said, Louisiana is one big family.
Amen, I wrote back. Amen.