Why Life Is So Good on Mobile Bay
Though it bears some striking similarities to New Orleans, Mobile dances to its own beat, which is just the way Mobilians like it
By Winston Groom
Mobile is no “Hog Butcher for the World” like Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, but it was once the second-greatest cotton exporter in the nation. Neither is it “a poem, a stink” like John Steinbeck’s Monterey, but it came close enough in the old days when the paper mill was out. What Mobile almost always has been, though, is the poor stepchild of New Orleans—and sick and tired of it, too.
I say “almost” always because in fact Mobile was here first. By the time Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, got around to founding New Orleans in 1718, Mobile (named for local Native Americans) had already been established for sixteen years as the capital of French Louisiana. Not only that, we started the first Mardi Gras in North America, too.
I say “we” because I am a Mobilian (Mo-beel-ien), even though I now live across the bay on what is called the Eastern Shore. I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., and in New York, but I was a Mobilian then, too. It’s hard to shake when you’re raised in one of the old Southern coastal cities—like New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, or Charleston—that had been thriving for a hundred years while the rest of the state wasn’t much other than woods and wild Indians.
Mobile has everything going for it except New Orleans’ music, food, population, writers, crime, art, and tourists. Oh, the tourists! Unless you’re approximately eighteen, encountering Bourbon Street on a Saturday night might have you catching the first Greyhound bus to Mobile and being damn glad to get there. But though Mobile is smaller (by about one-half), it shares the same French-Spanish heritage as New Orleans, having been a French colony for the first sixty-one years, then a British colony beginning in 1763 (as a result of Great Britain’s winning the French and Indian War), then captured by the Spanish while the British were dealing with the American Revolution. It was finally seized by the Americans during the War of 1812 and has stayed American ever since, save for a brief spell of four years under the Confederate Stars and Bars.