Have you ever woken up to the sound of an Aretha Franklin song? That’s the best way I can describe this place.
I grew up in New Jersey. Sort of the “In Your Face” and “Leave Me Alone” capital of the country. New Orleans is the opposite of that. An open hand to my closed book. Maybe it’s what I need.
The first thing I do when I arrive is ride the streetcars. This is what it must of been like in the early 20th century in most U.S. cities. Luckily, New Orleans kept a few of their routes. I head to City Park. Larger than Central Park and even housing an amusement park, I find the New Orleans Museum of Art and discover Ralston Crawford, painter, photographer of everything New Orleans jazz, and all around artist. On the other end of the city and a few days later, I dig through the jazz archives at Tulane University and learn more about him. Methodical, analytic, and distant. But also an understated sentimentality. Sometimes understatement says enough.
I visit a few neighborhoods several people tell me to avoid. Central City, home of many local musicians and the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, is a short walk from the St. Charles street car. There are abandoned buildings and empty lots, but also lots of rehabs in progress.
I take the #11 bus along Magazine Street. There’s a Whole Foods housed in an old trolley barn and tons of local shops spanning miles. Further down the road, there’s Audobon Park. Double Gallery style rowhomes line the eastern side of the park. Some kids park their bikes out front without locking them and wave hello to me. I begin noticing how many bikes are left either unlocked, or locked with flimsy combination wires. Having lived in Baltimore for 4 years, this makes me itchy, but maybe cyclists here have a bit more peace of mind than we do.
Eventually, I tour the French Quarter, Canal Street and Esplanade Ave. The first thing I notice is how a little infrastructure can build a lot of character. Decorative lamp poles and medians with mature trees completely change the feel of a street. Even rougher streets like Rampart maintain a certain dignity with a combination of medians, tear drop lamp poles, and ornate cast aluminum balcony railings. These little things make a statement. A city that refuses to be defined by poverty and natural disasters. Even in the face of hardship, there’s still time and space for the good things in life.
I rent a bike on my third day in town to expand my range. I decide to head east. The St. Claude Ave. bridge is harrowing – I have a choice between an incomplete, 3′ wide walkway, or a 13′ traffic lane with sharrows and 55mph traffic. I choose the latter and hope for the best. Honesty, I’ve biked on all kinds of roads, and this takes the cake in the “risking your life” category. I can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment after I cross the bridge.
On a bike tour of the Lower 9th Ward, I stumble on the House of Dance & Feathers on Tupelo Street. Set up in the home of author Ronald Lewis, the collection spans Mardi Gras Indian culture and media records of Katrina and the city’s recovery. Mr. Lewis retired from the Regional Transit Authority in 2002 and has spent the last 10 years dedicating his life to rebuilding his neighborhood.
Mr. Lewis is kind enough to speak with me for an hour about New Orleans. I mention that even on the roughest, most deserted streets, I never feel unsafe – at least during the day. Neighborhoods were clean and there’s a sense of community. He says New Orleans has a long history of neighborhood ownership, which helps. Residents know they’re all in it together and everyone has to pull their weight. This is a source of pride passed down through generations.
After my visit, I ride deeper into the Lower 9th, through the local streets. There are abandoned lots and vacant homes, especially north of Claiborne, but colorful, recently renovated bungalows dot the landscape, too. Mr. Lewis recommends a visit to the Steamboat Houses in the Holy Cross neighborhood. I laugh at the majestic Japanese architecture in a place already saturated with so many cultural influences. I walk my bike up the Mississippi River Levee. I’m standing on top of the very structure holding back the Mississippi and look out over the water. Over the city. I get the sense that I’ve been here before.
I still have time left. More days to go. I’ll see what else I find.