We had scheduled a trip to New Orleans in August of 2005 partly because I had never been there and partly because Larry is a jazz lover. New Orleans, a mecca for jazz and the annual Mardi Gras celebration, was turned upside down by Katrina just a week before our scheduled visit. Now, eighteen months after that hurricane kept us glued to the TV as the country shared the anguish and disbelief of Katrina's destructive force, we finally got to New Orleans.
We had several people thank us for coming to their city as a tourist. Needless to say, tourism is way down. Even though the primary tourist center -the French Quarter- was not itself flooded, many businesses even there have not reopened their doors. Nevertheless, it remains a very lively and unique place.
We stayed at The Quarter House, a quaint little place conveniently located at the very edge of the French Quarter, just two blocks from Bourbon Street and one block from the Canal Street streetcar. As we walked through the tiny courtyard and then opened the door to our room, I immediately knew that this was a city unlike any other in the U.S.
The colonial French influence could be seen in the fleur-d-lies and the traditional furniture. Moreover, the party atmosphere we found on Bourbon Street overshadowed the peeling paint and the grungy corners there. Later, we visited the lovely Garden District of huge and beautiful homes and we also took a bus tour of the many areas that were flooded by Katrina. Indeed, that is why I think of New Orleans as a city of contrasts.
On our first night, we wandered along Bourbon
Street, which becomes a pedestrian-only street when the sun sets. The
neon, the noisy bars, the balconies with people throwing beads to begging
partiers down below, and the blatant sex club advertising took me aback at
first. I soon realized that this was all part of Bourbon Street's
uniqueness. This in-your-face bawdiness exists for only about eight
or ten blocks in New Orleans. With so many people obviously enjoying
themselves and the craziness all around, you can't help but share the
frivolity. With lots of police also wandering the street, there is a
special kind of silly abandonment in the air.
The French Quarter encompasses much more than just Bourbon Street. The restaurants are many and marvelous. Names like Brennen's, Cafe du Monde, and K-Paul's might be familiar to everyone, but there are also lots of other less famous places to find the area's traditional specialties. We usually stick with the moderately priced places, with an occasional splurge and perhaps a real hole-in-the-wall if it looks clean enough. I had to get my fill of oysters on the half shell, downing two and a half dozen the first three days. Jambalaya, a po-boy and red beans and rice were essential choices. The trip wouldn't be complete without a basket full of tiny crawfish, boiled with spices and eaten with fingers.
Larry quickly found the beignets, the New Orleans version of doughnuts, and one muffuletta was enough sandwich for the two of us with a quarter still left over.
Having mentioned the signature food, I guess that a mention of the signature drinks is in order. A Sazerac is a favorite among natives. It is made with rye whiskey or cognac and a collection of hints of bitters, lemon oil and anise liqueur. For tourists, the Hurricane, a tall, fruity and potent rum drink served in a curvaceous glass, is a favorite on the streets as well as in bars. The idea of walking the streets with a plastic glass of beer or daiquiri was a new twist for me. They are proud of Abita, their local microbrew, and the term daiquiri refers to any of the many flavored light rum frozen drinks. The walk-up bars on Bourbon Street serve this concoction in styrofoam cups from a wall full of dispensers!
After indulging in the frivolity of Bourbon Street, sampling food and drink, wandering through myriad shops, and checking out historical spots in the French Quarter, we joined a Katrina bus tour to see another aspect of New Orleans.
It's very hard to imagine how such vast areas of a large municipality could be flooded. When flying over the area, you apprehend somewhat how very flat the region is and how dry land blends erratically with marshland and bogs and water. The mighty Mississippi gradually created much of the land with the many changes of its flow through the years. It carried silt from upstream and deposited that as it flowed toward the ocean. That silt eventually developed into the barrier islands which act to buffer the intensity of winds that come off the ocean. However, by channeling the river and creating man-made canals, the natural buffer is dying and disappearing. With 350 miles of levees around the town, breeches in three main levees was enough to flood 80% of the town on August 29, 2005. Canals built to drain water from the city's land into Lake Pontchartrain instead let the churning lake water flow into the city. Storm surges of water created by the Category 5 hurricane over the Gulf rushed past the barrier islands to also enter the city.
We drove on the freeway past the infamous Superdome with its brand new roof and witnessed the tall Hyatt hotel with blown out windows as well as one cemetery that had been under water.
Then we got to the areas where water sat for enough days to create yellow high-water lines on the houses. In some areas that had experienced water depths up to 18 feet there were no signs of any habitation. Boathouses near the lake were in shambles with boats and businesses still where they were when the water receded.
Elsewhere, signs of life could be seen intermittently in neighborhoods that are still mostly vacant. "Katrina trailers" were outside some homes but more often they were congregated side by side in a trailer park.
Some rebuilding is indeed happening. It remains a risky venture because it is happening so sporadically. Future insurance rates and house values are uncertain as well as basic infrastructure and safety. Piles of debris can be seen in front of some houses as they are just now being cleaned out after eighteen months. Habitat for Humanity has completed a street full of new houses, but that was the only concentrated area of rebuilding that we saw. Harry Connick, Jr., Branford and Ellis Marsalis partnered with Habitat to build that Musicians' Village of 70 houses in the Upper 9th Ward. This seems to be the most likely low-income area to come back. It is hard to imagine that New Orleans' previous population of about 450,000 is now around 150,000. We saw lots of black waiters and restaurant workers, but we were surprised at how few black musicians and how little jazz we actually heard in the city. We were told that the Habitat project was having trouble qualifying recipients partly because of an inability to verify previous income.
After the "KatrinaTour," it was time to reaffirm our optimism for New Orleans, so we jumped onto the free ferry to cross the Mississippi over to the suburb of Algiers. This area was untouched by the flooding and houses Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World among very modest houses that have stood the test of time since the turn of the century. Kern's company produces the majority of the floats for the many Mardi Gras parades held each year as well as providing similar pieces for other parades and displays throughout the nation. The assortment of huge, imaginative props was fun to see and the explanation of technique was intriguing. I had not realized the origin of the Mardi Gras parades before and the thought of actually partaking in this huge celebration started making me wish for yet another visit near Fat Tuesday.
The ferry trip also allowed us to catch a good glimpse of the New Orleans skyline. I had not really realized that the New Orleans seaport is our nation's ninth busiest and the fifth largest cruise ship operation in the U.S.
Back on shore, we explored the very nice Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and watched two Imax showings next door. One show was a 3D shark adventure and the other was a well done feature about Katrina's effect on the habitat. I highly recommend the latter.
We can't visit a city without also visiting its art museums, so we hopped onto a streetcar and headed for the Museum of Art located in the vast City Park next to the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately for us, a new and very popular show was just opening and the Art Museum was packed. That, plus the fact that we had to make a stop to eat, meant that it would then be too late to visit the museum or the Gardens. Nevertheless, the streetcar ride offered a look at the neighborhood and a pleasant stop at a local sidewalk cafe. The streetcars now being used are the older green ones that had previously been mothballed and replaced by cheerful red ones. However, the newer ones were damaged in the flood and now you only see the old green ones. Some of the routes have been replaced with bus service since some tracks also still need to be repaired. The streetcars don't run as often as we would like, perhaps due to decreased volume of ridership demand, but they certainly add a quaint touch for tourists.
Not to be outdone by our search for art, we took off for the warehouse district during their monthly art walk night. Popping into several art galleries along Julia Street resulted in finding one piece that Larry decided he couldn't do without. We also discovered the location of the Visual Arts Center in that same area. That demanded a return visit on the next day and we were delighted by not only the wonderful collection of contemporary art, but also by the excellent reincarnation of the building itself. I sneaked a picture of the inside of this old- warehouse-converted-to museum out of admiration of the architect's achievement.
We had seen lots of art in the French Quarter galleries primarily along Royal Street as well as from local vendors displaying their work around Jackson Square, but contemporary work seems to be finding an outlet in the transitional warehouse district. Yet another district of this many faceted city is the Garden District, known for its large, old, well maintained homes. This is where we really felt that we were in the South. Rambling through tree lined streets, we saw where the privileged New Orleans live. Once again, this was part of the early settlement areas of New Orleans and, once again, this was an area which was minimally affected by Katrina. The lovely homes recall a long history of gracious Southern charm and the huge Live Oak trees and dates listed in the local cemetery attest to that long history dating back to the 18th century, before Seattle was even settled.
Our visit came to an end, but the memory of New Orleans will linger in our memory, beckoning us back to explore once again its many faces. It will be interesting to see how this city evolves in the future. The four-sides of their street light posts are embossed respectively with "French Domination 1719-1789", "Spanish Domination 1789-1803", "Confederate Domination 1861-1865", and "American Domination 1803-1861 and 1865 to present". Through it all, New Orleans has taken something from each era and melded into a truly unique city. We had more that a few locals thank us for coming to their city. I thank them for their tenacity through the years and particularly through the ravishes of Katrina's period of domination and I look forward to visiting again. It was truly our pleasure to add a few tourist dollars to their reviving economy.
We encourage others to do the same.