Is New Orleans still the city it once was, before Katrina and the oil spill? A traveler returns to one of her favorite cities to find out.
In 2005 I watched on TV as Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge washed away a chunk of the I-10 causeway that leads into New Orleans. Going over the causeway again six years later, and looking around at the post-Katrina construction that was well underway, made my stomach churn and twist. My cherished memories of blue water were replaced by images of abandoned condos with orange Xs spray-painted on the sides and houses scarred by massive holes in their walls; it was devastation that I still can’t comprehend. Years after Katrina’s waters receded, the east side of New Orleans still looks post-apocalyptic. A few miles west, though, as I pull off the highway and into downtown New Orleans, I see no sign of that same disaster. Instead, it was business as usual. And by “business” in New Orleans, I mean “fun.”
Weekdays have the same high energy as weekends in New Orleans. Whether you’re in town on a Friday or a Tuesday, you’re bound to see a billion people bustling around at a million parties. I think the line “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” must have originated in New Orleans. My adventure begins on an early Thursday morning (read: 9 a.m.): I’m standing in line at Café Du Monde, jonesin’ for a bag of their signature beignets. There’s a place around the corner that serves frozen daiquiris in to-go cups and they’re already open; I might just go there next. I’m not a heavy drinker, but when it’s 70 degrees at nine o’clock and the mercury will be rising all day, anything “frozen” sounds much more appetizing than coffee. I grab my brown-bag breakfast and hop around the corner to get a drink to wash down those beignets.
Aside from the ebb and flow of conversation and the clinking of mugs, Café Du Monde feels relatively quiet, especially when compared to the noise outside. As I head down the street to Market Café, I’m almost overwhelmed by the sounds on the street. Car engines are revving, steamboats are tooting, people are shouting out to one another and someone across the street is plucking away on a banjo. I’ve spent two summers of my life living in New York City and I can say without a doubt that somehow New Orleans is louder. Perhaps it’s the collision of musical sounds that make this city’s noise seem so intense. Just in the quick walk to the café, I pass three stores with their radios blaring out the windows. From Britney Spears to Cajun polka, it spills out of storefronts and straight into my ears. I pass another busker, too; this one is playing guitar instead of banjo. My heart aches a bit when I pass him without throwing any change into his case. I love to support local musicians, but I’d be out on the street with them if I tried to donate to every street performer I pass while in New Orleans. I do my best to offer him a smile that’s not filled with pity and then duck inside for some frozen goodness.
Market Café is a small, always-packed restaurant near the French Market that caters to tourists and locals alike with a menu that includes everything from po’boys and crawfish pies to Caesar salads and hamburgers. I’ve got my steaming bag of beignets, and don’t plan to get anything but a frozen hurricane in a to-go cup. My eyes briefly linger over the menu listing for alligator tail nuggets, though. I grew up in south Florida, where I lived down the street from a restaurant that served all sorts of weird, wild and wonderful southern fare. I remember eating alligator. It’s trite to say this, I know, but it really does taste like chicken…only a bit tougher. I remind myself to come back here for dinner, but I already know I’ll have forgotten by then. There’s always something brighter, shinier and yummier to catch your eye (or stomach) in New Orleans.
With my drink and my pastries, I wander down a side street that appears to head in the direction of the river and is far less crowded. The city of New Orleans knows how to set a scene. The long walkway that runs along the Mississippi River is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. The sidewalk is dotted with green wrought-iron benches and, instead of the typical metal railing keeping people from falling over the edge, thick, black chains linked through boat-rigging do the job. Behind me for a good portion of the walk is Woldenberg Park with its massive green hill and regular concerts—a welcoming place for locals to have their lunch and tourists to sit down and study their maps. Everything about the park’s river walk is made to be seen and appreciated, but it’s hard not to imagine, just for a second, what it must have been like the day the water rose up over the sidewalks and crashed through the doors of the nearby aquarium. The choppy Mississippi coursing by is a near-constant reminder of when New Orleans was more like the sunken city of Atlantis than the spirited tourist destination it is once again.
I settle down on one of the circular benches and dive into my breakfast while I take in the sights. As I sink my teeth into the first chewy, sweet beignet, the steam organ on the Riverboat Natchez fills the air on the riverbanks with ice-cream-truck music. Nearby laughter blends in with the sounds of the seagulls while the smell of powdered sugar mixes in my nostrils with the warm, salty breeze off the water. My breakfast, the view and the cheery music all breathe energy into me for a busy day of shopping and sightseeing.
My first stop is a place called Kitchen Witch Cookbooks (www.kwcookbooks.com). I actually scouted it out by accident while searching online for New Orleans record stores. Of all the places that seemed interesting, Kitchen Witch became a must-see as soon as I read about it. From 1999-2003, Philipe LaMancusa ran Kitchen Witch from a different, less popular location. After Hurricane Katrina, many store owners packed up and bailed out of town. This enabled Mr. LaMancusa to find his way into a much better location at a much lower cost. Since the previous resident was a music store that lost almost its entire stock when Katrina hit, it only made sense for Kitchen Witch to try to keep the building’s regulars happy. Even though the store shelves are filled with cookbooks—including an extensive local-foods section—record bins still line the back wall for nostalgia’s sake.
Aside from records and cookbooks, the small store is filled with a varied collection of, well, everything. Aprons, pots and pans, chili pepper lights, posters and pictures all litter the walls of Kitchen Witch. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to know if something is actually for sale or just in the store because the owners, Mr. LaMancusa and Debbie Lindsey, just happen to like all the trinkets. Life is “Big Easy” friendly here: As I riffle through a stack of postcards with New Orleans-style recipes on them, Ms. Lindsey tells a regular customer that he’s welcome to just borrow a book. Along with my postcards and a cookbook on Creole slow-cooking, I purchase a bottle of Kitchen Witch’s custom seasoning blend. When Ms. Lindsey rings me up, she asks where I’m from and if I’m in town on this April weekend for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I admit that I am not and tell her I’m an aspiring writer. As a writer herself for New Orleans’ free newspaper, “Where Y’at,” Ms. Lindsey understands my overwhelming curiosity to know as much about New Orleans as possible. She loads me up with free newspapers and recommends that I watch the HBO show, “Treme,” which she says was mostly shot on location and is a perfect portrayal of her city. When she learns I love music, she recommends a visit to the Louisiana Music Factory. It sounds ideal to me, so the Music Factory becomes my next stop.
Walking up one street and across a few more lands me in the middle of the Garden District, a neighborhood that is far more residential than the one I was just exploring. When I look up for a street or store sign, I see that the sidewalk is flanked by wrought-iron balconies painted in various neutral hues. Some are still decorated with beads from Mardi Gras, which wrapped up only a few weeks ago. Other balconies have long planters filled with pink, purple, white or red flowers that spill over the brim and run the length of their railings. It makes me wonder if everyone in New Orleans has very green thumbs. The view is lovely, but I hustle my way down the very crowded Decatur Street to the front door of Louisiana Music Factory.
A peek inside has me feeling like I’m late getting there. The store is full of people, mostly middle-aged men, flipping through bins of music that sit on long lines of tables. I squeeze along the aisles and survey the collection of vintage music T-shirts hanging on the walls and browse the cases of DVDs. I sort through a few bins of local music, hoping to find a zydeco or jazz album to bring back home with me. When none of the names look familiar, though, I settle with browsing through pop/rock CDs.
The place is packed, but it is, after all, the weekend of the city’s Jazz & Heritage Festival. I knew this when I rented my car and headed south from Cincinnati. What I didn’t know, though, was just how big of a deal this festival is. I completely underestimated its popularity. With more than 500 musical acts performing on 12 stages, the event routinely draws as many as 400,000 folks to New Orleans. (What was I thinking?)
For lunch I grab a burger at Royal Street Deli, and sit at the deli’s bar, sipping on my Coke (in a glass bottle!), chowing down on some of the best fries I’ve ever had, and listening as the waitress chats with the few other people who make their way in off the busy street. Everybody else in here seems to be in town for the Jazz Fest. Suddenly, instead of hating the idea of standing around in dirt and 90-degree afternoon heat, I’m very jealous of these music fans. I’m having a hard time keeping myself from rearranging my entire schedule so that I, too, can partake in the musical awesomeness that is Jazz Fest, but I’ve only got one day to spend in New Orleans, and my itinerary is filling fast.
The temperature is steadily ticking up, too—and it’s only April! I’ve decided it takes a special kind of person to deal with New Orleans heat and, as I’ve come to find out, those special people tend to be folks who have already spent their entire lives in or near the Crescent City, acclimating themselves to the heat. In general, the city’s natives rule around here. Unlike New York or London, where the bartending, waitressing and trendy store-keeping jobs all go to people from “somewhere else,” New Orleans’ jobs tend to be filled with people from nearby. It’s pretty appealing, actually, to see people who love their city so much. Even after being run out of their homes and businesses by storm surges and broken levees, most natives eventually return back to their beloved New Orleans.
After lunch at the Royal Street Deli, I’m on a mission to get to the French Market. I keep getting distracted, though. There’s a store called Voluptuous Vixen filled with sassy, sexy clothes for women who wear sizes 12 to 28; I’ve got to stop there. Across the street is Trashy Diva, an amazing shoe boutique filled with all sorts of heels I want but would never buy due to my inability to walk without falling, even in flats. Just a skip down the street, I discover Kulture Vulture, a place that appeals to my inner rock star. It’s loaded down with band tees, record totes and Ziggy Stardust bobby pins. As a bonus, there’s a cute guy working behind the counter. I find a really great Johnny Cash shirt under a sign that reads, “Cash for Chicks,” and a cassette-tape change purse—total damage, $33. I don’t even feel guilty when I immediately go into the store next door, Kulture Vulture Kids, and contemplate handing over $20 for a niece-sized Rolling Stones shirt. Instead, I hang it up and scoot on down the street.
One of my favorite memories from the last time I was in New Orleans was spending hours wandering around the French Market. From hot-sauce stands to fruit markets to anti-BP signs (reminders of another, more recent tragedy for New Orleans—the oil spill), the French Market has absolutely anything you could need and millions of things you never thought you’d want. The first thing I do is buy a massive ear of grilled corn to munch on—hey, I was hungry again, OK?—while I’m wandering around. It may be stifling outside but I find a spot in the shade that’s not too bad. Plus, can you ever go wrong with corn on the cob? It’s impossible not to walk down the packed aisles of the French Market without being accidentally groped by a lost child, brushed against by a tan stranger and stopped short on the heels of another gawking tourist. Add to that all the pretty bags, used vinyl and tiny silver charms that you just have to pick up and admire, and the French Market becomes the best sort of sensory overload.
I recommend making your way through the market more than once. It’s only about three or four blocks long, but there are oodles of goodies crammed into that small, skinny space. My first time through, I eat my corn and watch in silence with my other hand tucked in my back pocket. My second time through is when my wallet comes out and my money starts to disappear. By the time I make it back to the entrance, I’ve acquired beignet mix for my mother, “f*cking hot” hot sauce for my father, two silver charms (a banjo and a guitar) and a can of orange soda. I cross the street and hit the two other shops that aren’t really part of the French Market, but are under the same sort of roof to make them feel like they’re in on the action. My favorite of the two is Mother Africa, where I find beautiful handmade satchels, wooden bracelets, brightly colored beaded necklaces and an assortment of drums and tambourines. My inner hippy emerges when I see the tambourines and I spend 15 minutes fiddling with the wooden and plastic noisemakers before finally deciding to buy a yellow plastic one.
By now the sun is almost setting and I’m getting texts from somewhere across town. I came to the city alone, but I have a couple friends who are here for work, and we’re meeting for dinner. Now that they are done with their day’s work, they’re ready for drinks and laughs. I try to convince them to go to Stella. It’s an insanely expensive restaurant featuring “global modern cuisine” that has been influenced by Chef Scott Boswell’s Louisiana roots. The glazed tenderloin and seared Japanese yam on the menu sound tempting to me. More important, though, it’s the restaurant where Nicholas Cage was recently described by a witness to a local newspaper as walking like “a drunken Sasquatch.” That’s history, people! However, my friends disagree. (Which is probably fine, because I really can’t afford $38 for something called “duck five ways.”)
Instead, we meet up at a place called Carrollton Station Grill. One of my friends read that it has good food, live music and stays open late. Since none of us are partiers, this seems like the perfect escape from the Bourbon Street madness. The restaurant’s exterior looks slightly rundown, which makes me leery as I stroll into the dark interior, but it turns out well. My British friend is tempted by what sounds like a taste of home with the meat pie, while another friend orders the half-pound burger confidently. I opt for a dish dubbed “Mama’s Meatloaf.” During the 13-hour drive to get here the day before, all I ate was McDonald’s. Something that has the word “mama” in it is exactly what I want. Our table full of red meat-eaters was 100 percent satisfied with the food, the music and the beer selection.
Afterward, my friends walk me back to my hotel. I was on a pretty tight budget for this trip and was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay anywhere nice, but I scored an amazingly sweet deal on Priceline.com. At the front desk of the charmingly old Whitney Wyndam, I retrieve my room key from a smiling woman who spoke in broken English. She points to the clock and asks me, “Too much fun, already?” It’s just barely midnight and already my eyes are drooping. Did I have the sort of all-night fun many people have when they come to New Orleans? Maybe not. But did I have enough fun to put me out cold on the hotel’s down pillows at the night’s end? Yes, and fun of any kind, any flavor, is all that matters when you’re in New Orleans.
As I drift off to sleep, my stomach still digesting dinner, I think again about the east side of New Orleans, and how it might never look fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina’s fierce flooding. Everywhere you go around this city, if you listen hard enough, you’ll hear harrowing stories of friends who survived or family members who didn’t. But nothing can squelch what New Orleans always will be. “The Big Easy,” in all its laid-back glory, is still alive and well. It’s a city full of friendly folks who play their good music on sidewalks, take their punches in stride and keep working toward their 5 o’clock threshold, when they can grab their frozen hurricane in a to-go cup and party with the tourists. That’s good enough for me.