New Orleans, Louisiana

We love New Orleans. We’ve been there several times: three times to Mardi Gras and at least three other occasions. This includes our previous trip there, about year after Hurricane Katrina, where we toured the Lower Ninth Ward, which was still reeling from the devastation with ruined homes and even a boat that the flood deposited atop a rooftop.

Why do we love the city? How could we not? There’s the beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and character of the French Quarter, the gracious antebellum mansions and gardens of the Garden District and of course, the continual festival-like atmosphere of Bourbon Street. And this does not even begin to account for the restaurants–New Orleans is, after all, generally viewed as the third best food and restaurant city in the country (after New York and San Francisco). Then of course, there’s the music.

The city is, of course, the birthplace of Jazz, which seems to emanate from every other building in the French Quarter and every building in Faubourg Marigny. And don’t forget other musical forms, such as Blues, Gospel and Zydeco, which also have deep roots in the city.

And if the city doesn’t provide enough, there is the surrounding area. The bayous, the Acadian and Cajun heritages and, for better and for worse, the plantations.

Although most of our trips to the city lasted only a few days, this year, we decided to take a full week, where we were able to devote five days to experiencing the city and one to some of the history of the surrounding countryside, and seven evenings to food and music.

We traded our timeshare week to stay a week in the Garden District at the Avenue Plaza Resort. The place had a comfortable bed and a separate living room and galley kitchen and served its purpose. But it also had one of the smallest bathrooms we have ever seen. While it had free basic wifi, the wifi was so bad that you almost wanted to upgrade to the paid version (which we resisted). The location was good, on St Charles in the Garden District, but a 2 mile walk (or get an inexpensive multiday trolley) to Bourbon Street. There was a ipad connected to the TV but we couldn’t never figure out what it did or why it was there. Also, the air seemed to be connected with movement in the room. At night, it didn’t do as much as we were not moving. Grade: B-

Not surprisingly, we spent most of our time in and around the French Quarter, along with ventures into Faubourg Marigny, the Warehouse District and a handful of other neighborhoods.

French Quarter as Party Central

What can one say about the French Quarter? A charming, colonial-style neighborhood that, by day, is loaded with history, charm and upscale antique galleries (along with far more than its share of tourist shops). By night, the neighborhood, especially along Decatur and especially Bourbon Streets, transform into loud and joyful bacchanals in which tourists join with locals to create all-night parties, fueled by gallons of cheap drinks (which can be consumed either on premise, or on the street) and loud music (other than classical and “easy listening” genres) emanating from virtually every door and window. Then, to add to the festivities, some of the residents and patrons lucky enough to remain above the fray on beautiful, filigree-like wrought-iron balconies, recreate the Mardi Gras tradition of throwing plastic-beaded necklaces down to the crowds.

bourbon Street at night 01

The only thing missing was the frequent Mardi Gras chants of “show us your breasts” from people on the balcony to women on the street. But on the other hand, there is now little real need for such chants since a growing number of woman have adopted (and the police accept) the recent Time’s Square practice of bare-breasted women (with nipples covered by paint) roaming the streets looking for men (or occasional women) who will tip them in return for having their pictures taken with the women.

But while Bourbon Street has stayed much the same as from our previous visits, the neighborhood has undergone many changes. First, many more homes have been renovated. These changes are particularly evident in the previously run-down northern sections of the neighborhood. Two streets have also undergone particular change:

  • Decatur Street, which is becoming more and more like Bourbon Street with its bars and its clubs
  • Royal Street, where high-end antique galleries appear to be declining in favor of lower-priced art galleries.

antique shop window 02antique shop windowduck decoy 02

We certainly did our own share of partying as we walked the streets, stopping in bars with bands playing music that we particularly enjoyed. As always, we spent many happy hours drinking, enjoying music and enjoying (if not always actively participating in) the wall-to-wall partying.

Among our favorite French Quarter bar stops were two that specialize in providing some of the best Jazz in the Quarter:

  • Maison Bourbon, at which we saw our favorite group of the trip, the horn-based (sax, trumpet and tuba, along with keyboard, drums and vocalist) Shynola Jazz Band (shynolajazz@gmail.com)which plays traditional New Orleans jazz with a harmony that would make one think the musicians had played together for years, rather than the one month they have actually been together); and
  • Famous Door, which presents R&B and dance, as well as jazz bands.

Then there is one other bar that while not offering music, does serve something that is even more potent than good music. The cozy, 200 year-old Old Absinth House, which is particularly known for its namesake drink. Offered in regular (110 proof) and premium (136 proof) varieties, the licorice-flavored drink is served in the classic manner, poured into a glass that is topped with a spoon with holes that holds a sugar cube on which ice water is dripped to dilute and sweeten the noxious liquor.

abyseth makermusic at night 02

 

Preservation Hall, meanwhile, deserves particular mention. We have usually enjoyed the performances at this venerated, albeit very barebones temple to jazz. This trip was different—totally different. The so-called Preservation Masters, led by trumpet player Leroy Jones, dumbed down the music to appeal to the lowest common denominator within the audience, playing Jazz versions of such old-time popular songs as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Baby Face and Blue Heaven. Few of the musicians (other than Jones and the drummer) had any energy and the performances were perfunctory; effectively “dialed-in”. Each, for example, followed the same format, beginning with all members (trumpet, sax, trombone, piano, a bass and drums) playing the first few bars of the song, progressing to a series of solos by each of the principle musicians, and then finishing the song together. Joyce accurately referred to it as “Musak Jazz”. It was, at least to our ears, a shameful degradation of the art of jazz. It was certainly our last visit.

Although virtually the entire quarter has been turned over to tourist attractions, one stroll through an off-the-beaten-path alley led to an unexpected surprise: the Bevelo Gas Light Museum. This craft shop specializes in producing gas lamps, from basic, thin copper home models (which require about one day’s work and cost roughly $450) to much more sturdy streetlights. One side of the shop has a series of panels that describe the history of gaslights and the other side contained a workbench at which the craftsmen work and are happy to discuss their work and pretty much anything you want to know about gas lamps. Although we questioned how large a business this can be, the coppersmith with whom we spoke explained than he was one of 50 people and that the company will finish the year by selling a total of 20,000 lamps!

Fauborg Marigny

Wanting a little diversity from the French Quarter, we spent a number of evenings a short ways away in the Fauborg Marigny neighborhood, strolling by some of the nicely restored and upgraded shotgun houses and especially along the 500 and 600 blocks of Frenchmen’s Street. This is the home to most of the city’s best jazz clubs: About a dozen overall, not including the street performers. These clubs, which run the gamut from informal to formal, and free to expensive, sometimes, specialize in different types of jazz. While Snug Harbor often has the most nationally renowned acts, we also enjoyed a number of others, such as Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, 30 degrees/90 degrees, Maison and Barboula’s. Overall, Frenchmen’s Street is a great place to spend an evening, and even an afternoon.

Frenchmen street 02Frenchmen street at night 01Frenchmen street at night- MaisonFrenchmen street musicians

French Quarter Walking Tour

We also had plenty of time for more academic pursuits, such as visiting museums, browsing art galleries and public exhibition spaces and listening to some very high-quality street performing musicians. While these are discussed in subsequent blogs, this one focuses on one of our other favorite pastimes—taking walking tours, through which we learn much about a city’s history, character and legends. We ended up taking a couple different walking tours of the French Quarter.

NOLA French Quarter Free Walking Tour. The tour generally covered the Quarter’s history within the context of how New Orleans became such a melting pot, where different nationalities and cultures actually fused to create something new, rather than self-segregating into different neighborhoods.

Our very good guide began the tour by discussing why the city was located where it was (on a bend in the river with a natural levee that was 14-feet above sea level) and then traced some of the same history, explaining how the King of France gave Scotsman John Law the right to promote and sell property in what would become New Orleans. Our guide showed us a copy of the idealized and very misleading vision of the city provided in his marketing materials, and explained the formation of a stock-based company to promote it and the bubble that formed which later collapsed around the company. But while the company did go bankrupt, it did manage to attract a base of not only French, but also German and Italian settlers.

We learned about the origins and evolution of the multi-ethnic Creole culture, including the established duel culture, where even minor slights, either real or perceived, could result in a dual challenge. While some of these (including those in which Andrew Jackson killed seven men) were fought with pistols, Creole gentlemen were more likely to resort to swords, where deaths were infrequent.

We then trekked to Jackson Square, where our guide explained its history as the city’s public execution site and, in the mid-19th century, where Baronness Pontalba (see below) designed and paid for the construction of the park. We also leaned about the history of the square’s landmark buildings:

  • St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic Cathedral in the country;
  • The Cabildo, the original administrative center of the city and now a history museum;
  • The Presbytere, the city’s former religious residences and offices and now a museum that, as discussed below, currently houses exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and the city’s Mardi Gras culture;
  • The Pontalba building and the identical 1850 House that frame the sides of the square. The first of these was built in 1850 as the home of Baronness Pontalba. The first floors of both are now occupied by retail stores and the upper floors by apartments, although the original does have a museum with stories of the Baronness

St Louis cathedral 01Louisiana state museumPontalba building

We learned how the city was spared the destruction of General Sherman’s March to the Sea by being captured early in the war. It did, however, suffer through the subsequent Reconstruction, where locals chafed under what our guide claimed was the relatively magnanimous governance of the Northerner, Andrew Butler.

Then, as we began moving into residential streets, we learned that wood emerged as the primary building material not just due to the large supply of cypress in the surrounding swamps, but also due to the wood that was used to construct the flatboats that were piloted down the Mississippi, but could not be piloted back up against the current. This changed in the early 19th-century when steamboats, which could travel both down and up the river, took over from flatboats. By this time, the city was beginning to become become an important port for the Europe trade, which mandated the construction of more and more warehouses by the port. Bricks, meanwhile, came primarily from local mud that was mixed with straw and laid in the sun to dry.

wood buildings 01brick and wood building

The majority of those Spanish-style houses in the upper quarter, have storefronts on street level, low-ceiling second floors (used as storerooms) and residential quarters for extended families above. Upper-scale homes had carriage entrances that led behind the house to large courtyards that housed gardens as well as carriage garages.

As we walked from the center of the Quarter toward Ramparts Street (which used to be a city wall) and City cemetery Number 1, we went through the center of a section that was known as Storyville, a neighborhood filled with bars and bordellos that was closed during World War I (to insulate soldiers post at the port from temptation). The bars, albeit not most of the bordellos, were reopened after the war.  New Orleans continues the bar tradition with its 1960 law that made it legal to carry open alcohol containers on the street.

The city, under France, never had a formal cemetery. People were buried in squares within the city. This changed as the population grew and the Spanish rulers moved these graves to a new cemetery built just outside what were the Rampart Street walls to its new St. Louis Cemetery Number One. The walls and most of the graves are constructed with soft mud-based bricks, covered by a layer of plaster and finished with oil-based paint. Some of the graves have marble plaques. This was originally a Catholic cemetery (although a Protestant section has since been added) with the same type of above-ground tombs required in all areas with water tables of less than six feet. As is the case with underground cemeteries, families buy spaces and construct their own tombs. Although most vaults are only large enough to accommodate a single casket, multiple family members and generations can still be buried in the same vault. The reason: after being interred for only one year and one day, the heat will have totally decomposed the body and casket. At that point, if another family member dies, the vault is reopened, the casket removed and the remains are dropped down into a lower compartment that can contain those of many individuals. And what happens if another family member dies before the 366 days? No problem. The city owns a large number of wall vaults that can be rented for exactly this purpose.

The cemetery also contains a number of “society tombs”, whereby individuals such as Italian and Portuguese craftspeople pay monthly fees in return for the right to be buried in their organization’s tomb.

The most visited tomb in the cemetery (and according to our guide, the second most visited in the country, after Elvis) is that of Marie Leveaux, a popular voodoo practitioner with a multi-cultural following. Her tomb is regularly marked with X’s (part of a practice thought helpful in getting wishes granted) and flowers. Among the other celebrity tombs are those of Nicholas Cage who is still very much alive, and in ownership of the tomb (since while the federal government could seize his houses to pay back taxes, but they can’t seize cemetery plots). Other famous residents include Bernard de Marigny (a French Creole nobleman, Louisiana Senate president and notorious gambler) and Homer Plessy, a cobbler who was party to the landmark 1856 Supreme Court decision that authorized discrimination under the doctrine of “separate but equal”, a doctrine that remained the law of the land until it was finally overturned in 1954 by Brown v Board of Education.

Almost as important as the people who are buried in the cemetery are those who played in it—especially the LSD-addled characters played by Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 film, “Easy Rider”.

Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 08Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 07Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 02Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 04Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 06Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 10

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