So last week I had the great good fortune to accompany Spouse on a business trip to New Orleans. While he spent time in conference meetings and ‘networking lunches’ I got to play tourist in a city that is like nowhere else in the U.S.
I started my explorations in the French Quarter, the oldest part of the city with stunning architecture, countless bars and restaurants, and twice as many tourists as locals. This is the part of the city that people think of when you say New Orleans: beautiful old buildings with wrought iron balconies; shops selling everything from tourist tat to lovely antiques, voodoo dolls to vampire accessories; and music everywhere, sometimes coming from inside bars and sometimes playing on the street.
I also saw more drunk people on the streets of the French Quarter than I’ve ever seen in an American city! It’s actually legal to walk down the street carrying your glass of booze (which it certainly isn’t anywhere else in the U.S.). There are even places where you can get a drive-up daiquiri. This sounds like a seriously bad idea—open alcohol in a car? But a local cheerfully told me, “It’s OK, the daiquiris are sold with lids, it’s not an open container until you stick the straw in.”
This picture is actually a person, not a statue–if you added some money to her coin box, she’d slowly ‘come alive.’
There also seemed to be a lot of homeless/rough sleepers; maybe no more than in any other city, but they seemed to be concentrated around the French Quarter, which made for some jarring contrasts between the people out partying and those just trying to survive.
The other major tourist area in New Orleans is the Garden District. A separate town called Lafayette until it was incorporated into Nola in 1852, this is the area full of big, beautiful old homes. The architecture is gorgeous, with a lot of French, Victorian, Italianate, and even Spanish/Caribbean influences.
Tour buses aren’t allowed through much of the Garden District, so everywhere you see groups of people trudging along in walking tours, gawking at the buildings. Many of these houses are used in movies and TV shows, like this one from American Horror Story: Coven.
To get to the Garden District we took a streetcar (trolley), just $3 for a 24-hour pass. Four streetcar lines operate in New Orleans and they are a fabulous throwback form of public transport—the Charles Street line that runs out to the Garden District and beyond is the oldest continually operated streetcar/trolley line in the world. (This pic is from the norta.org website.)
But as any local will be quick to tell you, the French Quarter and the Garden District are only a small part of the story of Nola. So, one day I took a guided tour on a small bus, to see the “rest” of New Orleans: like Tremé, where “free colored” families of artisans and musicians settled as far back at the 18th century, making it the oldest black neighborhood in the U.S. Or, Marigny/Bywater, with its vibrant music scene and colorful shotgun-style homes. There are still a lot of shotgun homes in New Orleans—so called because the rooms are arranged all in a line, one behind the other (you could fire a shotgun through the front door and the bullet would go straight out the back). From the street, the house looks very narrow, but they can run back quite a long way. The houses are designed to maximize cross-breezes on a hot day, by opening the front and back doors.
Our tour bus driver, a young local man, told us that growing up in a shotgun house came with its own challenges for a teenager: His room was at the back but the alarm system for the house was in the front room. So, if he wanted to sneak out at night after his parents had turned on the alarm, he had one minute to get out the back door, climb over the fence, hurry along the side of the house, back over the fence and in through the front door to deactivate the alarm before it started to sound off.
The locals are also keen to remind visitors about the physical and psychological destruction inflicted on their city by Hurricane Katrina. Some 80% of New Orleans flooded in August 2005 thanks to multiple floodwall failures. You don’t really see any evidence of this today until you go into neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward. The Upper part of the ward has mostly recovered, but there are still plenty of empty lots and abandoned properties alongside homes that clearly have been completely rebuilt. The Lower Ninth Ward has never recovered with almost 70% of its previous population now gone; either killed in the floods, moved away, or in many cases their fate unknown.
Every damaged house and vacant lot is a story of a family’s loss and grief.
The tour paused in front of this house in Tremé, which our guide called “the home of a true hero.” The man who lives here single-handedly saved many people during Katrina, finding people that the search crews missed—or just didn’t bother trying to find. Grateful locals left objects that he’s turned into the Spirit of New Orleans shrine. He also left the blue paint search team markings on the front of his house as a reminder of what happened—the searchers would mark the date a property was searched, whether anyone was alive, or whether they found bodies.
All American cities have a rich multiethnic history, but New Orleans seems to carry its diversity proudly. It wasn’t always so, of course; and it’s not a coincidence that the (wealthy, white) Garden District recovered from Katrina while the (poor, black) Lower Ninth is still decimated. But from the Tremé to the Marigny you cannot ignore the role of black Americans in shaping the city; as slaves, as “free colored,” and as civic and artistic leaders. The guide book I bought pointed out that, unlike in the rest of the south, slaves in New Orleans in the 18th and early 19th centuries were permitted to work (their ‘masters’ took most of their wages, of course, but some could save enough to buy their freedom). Many mixed-race “free colored” people who fled Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) during the anti-slavery revolution (1791-1804) ended up in New Orleans.
This is also the city where plaçage was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries—a legal contract of concubinage between a wealthy white (usually French-Creole) man and a mixed-race free-colored woman. At the quadroon balls, white men could meet mixed-race women (quadroon meaning a person who was one-quarter black, i.e., had one black grandparent; one black great-grandparent was called octoroon). Learning about all this I got the impression that the “free colored” women of early 19th century New Orleans were a formidable group of businesswomen and artists. (For a fictional account of what life may have been like for black people in New Orleans in the 19th century, I recommend the Benjamin January series of historical mysteries by Barbra Hambly, starting with A Free Man of Color; truly eye-opening.)
You can see the impact of waves of immigrants from across Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean in the street names, the architecture, and the names on tombstones in the public cemeteries: French, slaves, free colored, Irish, Italian and German communities have all left their mark on the city. People are still drawn to New Orleans today, albeit as tourists—I heard almost as many languages and accents in the shops and on the streets as you do in London. In five days of playing tourist, no-one (tourist guide, cab driver, waiter, shop person, hotel worker) asked me about my accent. They’re used to people coming from all backgrounds.
This Monument to the Immigrant stands on the bank of the Mississippi.
Which brings me to a quick comment on the weather. In the five days we were in New Orleans, the daytime temperature varied between 50 degrees and 80 (that’s 10-26 degrees Celsius). Locals told us that was normal—if you don’t like the weather right now, wait a few hours, it will change (except in July-August when it is unrelentingly hot and humid).
I took this picture from the plane as we were approaching New Orleans. Yes, the city is built on a swamp.
Finally, you can’t talk about New Orleans without mentioning the Mississippi; the whole reason the city was built. These three pictures were taken from our hotel window, showing the wide sweep of the river as it curves its way through the city. It’s still a working river, so huge barges and container ships pass to and fro all day long. One morning we woke up to find the city blanketed in a thick fog that rolled in off the river, the ships passing by sounding their fog horns as they approached the port downstream from the hotel.
The one thing I didn’t get to do on this trip was take a ride on this beauty—the Natchez, the last remaining paddle steamboat in New Orleans.
The next blog post will be about the food of New Orleans, Mardi Gras—and cemeteries!