I love New Orleans. I just got back from my third visit, and man, that is one cool town. The French Quarter is my favorite part, but it’s not the only draw. There’s also the Garden District, and then there’s mile after mile of crippling, depressing poverty. That last part is not my favorite.
This most recent trip allowed me the chance to revisit some of my favorite places and find a few new ones. Our hotel was half an hour from downtown, which sucked, but it did allow me to see new parts of the city. For instance, there’s a street called Dickery. I am not making that up. Well, OK, maybe a little, it’s actually Dickory, but it’s pronounced the same way and my way is funnier.
For the rest of the country, Katrina was something that happened almost ten years ago and reminded us that George W. Bush was douchebag. You hear stories, then you kind of forget about them. But for the people of New Orleans, Katrina could have happened last winter. They still have decrepit, abandoned buildings. There are still reminders and memorials all over town. But the remarkable thing, at least to me, is not how much of the damage is still evident. It’s how much that city has bootstrapped itself back together and rebuilt. There are new tenement apartments to replace the condemned projects, new houses, and even a whole museum devoted to the incident to remind tourists that just because we don’t think about Katrina any more, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Mostly, though, New Orleans is close to looking like it did before the storm up and kicked the whole city in the pecker. The French Quarter and the Garden District are particularly well-recovered, but that may have something to do with the fact that the Quarter is one of the few parts of town that’s actually above sea level, so it didn’t flood too badly. And the Garden District is where the rich people live. You’ll find almost everything you found before the storm – the street performers, the art, the music, the food and the healthy disregard for societal mores regarding modesty or decency.
We met a street performer named James who serenaded my daughter with a song about missing New Orleans (which was kind of funny, because we were IN New Orleans). We saw pandhandlers with signs announcing that they were too ugly to prostitute (this was very true). We watched an entertaining street magician and had a human statue in silver face-paint try to startle us (which is not that effective, and in some cases, could be a little dangerous).
New Orleans is a town known for a bit of a lawless air, especially the French Quarter, where I am pretty sure it would be fairly easy to find a hooker (though I have never tried). We did accidentally wander into a gay bar – but in my defense, I thought ‘Corner Pocket’ meant it was a pool hall. We walked up Bourbon Street at night, and I have to admit that I have a soft spot for any place so thoroughly dedicated to outright decadence and moral turpitude. You can even gamble there, which makes me wonder why people would bother with Vegas at all. We also stopped an assault and broke up a mugging, which was the highlight of our trip.
If you’re thinking of visiting New Orleans, there are a few places you should check out. I recommend the museum in the Cabildo – the history of New Orleans is incredible, and it’s awesome to see all the artifacts that have survived the 300 or so years the place has been around. The art sale in Jackson Square is a feast for the eyes. If you feel like spending some coin on lunch, Muriel’s has a very tasty shrimp & andouille omelette. The above-ground graveyard just west of Armstrong park is remarkable. Just don’t bother with Cafe Du Monde – it’s this huge tourist destination, but unless you want to stand in line for half an hour just to drink burned coffee and eat a couple French pastries, spend the time in the incredible shops around the Quarter.
I also highly recommend at least a drive up St. Charles. The Garden District is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Trees grow over the road, and the houses are palatial. The streets are full of life, with the cable car running right down the middle of the road and people out enjoying the shade and beauty of the area all day long.
If you want to see some gritty, real life, though, I say take a trip outside the tourist areas. Drive through the Ninth Ward, and see the areas still suffering from America’s short memory. That’s not the only area that has suffered – you can go anywhere outside the tourist areas and see that New Orleans is going to take a long time to get well.
New Orleans is not the ideal vacation spot for everybody, of course – if you’re at all prudish, you definitely want to avoid Bourbon Street, and there’s a sort of dangerous air to the whole city – but I feel confident I’ll be back. A city that full of life is hard to avoid for very long. Sooner or later, I’m going to get another hankering for honest music and shady street vendors, and I’m going to make sure my wallet is in my front pocket while I take another stroll through one of America’s most lawlessly beautiful towns.