My mind is still humming from my long weekend in New Orleans. I keep telling people “it’s one of my favorite cities!” and yet, articulating why I like the city so much, against logic, has proven challenging. Maybe because it, in many spots, reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in, albeit on a much larger scale.
At face value, the city is undeniably rich in history, tradition, and culture. It is also dirty, rowdy, seedy in many parts, and often foul-smelling.
The one thing most people come to do is the one thing I care little for: drinking. I didn’t care to fill up constantly, but I indulged in a NOLA classic—the snoball. Green Goddess makes a version with bourbon, cold-brew coffee, orange liqueur, and sweetened condensed milk.
A guy chatting me up at the Country Club whined to me about how hard it is to stay in shape in the city, since everyone drinks so much. No shit.
Much of the local economy is propped up by tourism, which relies heavily on a legacy of boozy good times. Bourbon Street flashes and booms with the same low-brow thrill as an aging cruise ship. Harrah’s casino sits a few steps away, beckoning to addicts from near and far.
Strip away the gimmicky, Vegas-esque façade of the French Quarter, which is thankfully only a small section of the city, and you’ll find a hip, young, renewed city that is both established as a brand, and breaking molds.
I regularly tout my love of the juxtapose. Between rough and polished, raw and antiseptic. New Orleans is many things to many people, and that is what makes it so fascinating. It’s a visual overload, a place to eat and drink to excess, a musical epicenter. Above all, it is a place of diversity.
If you’re a fan of the architecture, the city and its neighborhoods are a paradise of awnings, shutters, balconies, and landscaping to die for. Many have…
The shotgun style of the first half of the 20th century is my favorite, followed by the creole cottage of the years prior. New Orleans also has a curious collection of mid-century modern, for which it is not famous.
We stayed at the Windsor Court Hotel downtown, a 20-story 1980s tower of dusty red with an interior almost entirely painted beige and sea green. Stuffy and very old south, it reminded me of an Ashley Judd film set.
Out toward the west, along St. Charles Avenue, is the city’s wealthiest area, chock full of mansions and gardens. Its proximate neighborhoods are middle class enclaves, and also young, academic ones, with Tulane and Loyola nearby. Coffee shops abound.
We walked along Magazine Street one day, which is a low-density commercial street serving many upscale residents. I stopped at the new Billy Reid store to chat and try on some sale items. It is a beautiful space to see, if you go. Colleen and Loren will take care and outfit you in the best Italy by way of Alabama has to offer.
On the opposite side of the Central Business District is the Bywater, which I have described in the past as the Brooklyn (or East Tampa if you’re one of my local readers) of New Orleans. It is in transition, from blue collar to hip and alternative. Its overgrown vegetation obscures street clearance, but its homes are just as beautiful, if not as large, as those in other parts of town.
We brunched at Booty’s, squarely in the Bywater at the intersection of Louisa and Dauphine. It is a block from Maurepas, a place we ate last trip, and equally satisfying.
The last day, I couldn’t stand taking taxis all over anymore, so I rented a bicycle and rode out Esplanade Avenue, under the massive Oak trees that line its frontage. It is one of the main thoroughfares in New Orleans that has a wide raised median, separating single one-directional lanes from each other.
If ever there was a majestic street, Esplanade is definitely one. Further out from the French Quarter, the pavement gains dedicated bike lanes, which were comfortable and well delineated. Despite not wearing a helmet, I didn’t feel self-conscious riding among vehicles and public buses.
I find the urban cityscape one of the more satisfying and endearing ones I’ve experienced. It is a winding grid network, aligned with the Mississippi River, so if ever there is a traffic back-up, shortcuts abound. From my urban studies class at New College, and from literature I’ve absorbed, related to my job, I know that a strong grid network also facilitates healthy neighborhoods. That bit is working very well for New Orleans.
As I’ve mentioned before, the city is also flipped in terms of orientation. In the oldest parts, expensive homes and areas face inward, toward St. Charles Avenue. “Waterfront” properties are less desirable, because they generally face a raised berm or levee. Even near Lake Ponchartrain, coastline is handled with caution. It is a city surrounded by water, but not focused on it.
In reality, New Orleans shares cues from many other cities people frequent, developed around the same points in history. Parisian density in the French Quarter, Seattle and San Francisco craftsman and bungalow houses built in the 1920s, and a downtown that on certain corners looks just like the Financial District of New York.
For me, it isn’t a perfect place. It’s hot, and ugly in its shadows. Outside city limits, it lies among the bible belt. It’s also ripe for a sucker-punch from Mother Nature that will put the final nail in its coffin. And, tourists come from all over the world and nation, to basically vomit on its streets.
On the other hand, the gentility is addictive, and the visual and culinary stimuli are endless. As someone who is affected by the built environment and a lover of good tree cover and creaky floors, I can say its streets, neighborhoods, and stately homes feel like they are meant for quiet contemplation, softly-lit dinner parties, and romance.
Each time I go, it feels like a changing city. Awash with domestic immigrants, there are more tasteful bars and stores for discerning tastes. All the while, its character seems intact. People preserve and celebrate the legacies, because they are so cool. Fixing infrastructure and redeveloping old spaces just makes the past shine through.
These are good signs.
I can’t wait to return.
For more information about the city, previous blog posts, and whatnots, visit the New Orleans City Guide. Also check Flickr for more photos.