Why Can’t More Cities Be More Like New Orleans?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

After a bumpy ride through water damaged roads and partially boarded up houses, our taxi deposited us in a crowded and lively Jackson Square, the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Jazz, the heartbeat of this area, poured out of storefront speakers, screamed from portable CD players, and blended mercilessly with live combos on every street corner. To use an old phrase: the place was hopping.

The settlers of New Orleans knew what they were doing when they built their original city on high ground. The French Quarter survived the floods of Katrina with little damage to the historic streets and buildings, but did sustain major damage to the tourist industry. A visit to the city today shows that whatever damage to the French Quarter that occurred, that is now all in the past.

On one side of the plaza the famous Cafe Du Monde was three deep with people waiting for a table and a chance to try their famous coffee and beignets. Street artists lined themselves around the small central park, hanging their pictures on the old, wrought-iron fence and propping them against any available tree, easel or wall. Wild caricatures of vibrantly painted jazz musicians vied with delicate water color depictions of the plaza and the venerable old streets, while soulful abstract works added to the eclectic mix.

The sounds of clapping and cheering from the far side of the park drew us to a large group gathered on the waterfront that were enamored by an enthusiastic performance of dancers and acrobats. We eventually wandered away from the noise and found the small park in the center of all this activity to be an unexpected oasis of quiet and charm. Tree-lined paths and secluded benches gave the weary visitor a place to sit and relax.

Since we were only in New Orleans for a day, there was little rest for the weary. We set off — torn-out pages of our guidebook in hand — to discover the old city. We left the largest crowds behind as we spent the afternoon tracing the French Quarter’s history, from the golden statue of St. Joan, to an old monastery, to the blacksmith-shop-turned-bar headquarters of the pirate Jean Lafitte, to, finally, the home-turned-bookstore of William Faulkner.

The lace-like iron balconies were as beautiful as expected, but it was the musicians on every corner of the cobbled streets that were the most memorable. The heavyset old woman with the sweetly delicate voice still haunts me, as does the unique jazz sound of a violin and guitar duet playing on a nearby corner. We resisted the temptation to join the other onlookers who had spontaneously broke out into dance in the street, and instead looked for somewhere to grab a drink. This was the French Quarter after all.

Without realizing we were stepping into a major landmark, we wandered into Pat O’Brien’s on St. Peter Street. The entrance was shadowy, as were the two small bars on either side of the long entry hall, but it opened up to a large, sunny and boisterously noisy patio crowded with people contentedly sipping the tall, pink and hugely famous concoction known as The Hurricane — a drink the bar lays claim to inventing back in the 1940’s. And as I soon discovered, after a long day exploring the city: One large glass + two straws = very happy patrons.

Next door to O’Brien’s is the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Club that was founded in 1961 to “protect and honor New Orleans Jazz.” The old building didn’t open until the evening, but we were able to peer through the iron gate at the entry hall walls covered with memorabilia. Dusty old black and white photos, colorful posters and tattered playbills themselves told a story of the musical history of the city.

Deciding where to have dinner in a place so well-known for cuisine could have been challenging, but we opted for the Oceana Grill on a quieter side street. Once again, as seemed to be the French Quarter norm — and perhaps a reflection of what the steamy city was like in pre-air-conditioning days — the entry and front rooms were dark and less than inviting, but the patio out back with its waterfall and whimsical art was a delight. For appetizers we snacked on “Jazzy” crab cakes swimming in a crawfish cream sauce, and ordered the Tuna La Boheme for entrees, a perfectly-grilled tuna served smothered with a barbecued shrimp sauce.

Contentedly stuffed, we emerged onto a noisy Bourbon Street. The music now truly blared from every door and corner, while street performers — jugglers, pantomimists as well as musicians — worked the crowded streets. The evening revelers, drinks in hand, surged rather than strolled the cobbled streets and the whole feel of The Quarter took on a party atmosphere. This was the New Orleans of legend. Loud, happy and colorful; it was literally throbbing with enthusiasm. If it had faltered for a while, it didn’t show: the French Quarter we saw was inviting, exciting and most definitely back.

By Elaine Stabile


About the Author

Elaine is a freelance writer based out of Worcester, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to the Audio Journal, and is an active member of the burgeoning central Massachusetts literary scene.

[Images via the author]

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