Exploring the New New Orleans
Published: January 2013
By Thomas Beller
From Faubourg Treme to uptown, T+L discovers the eclectic characters, strange beauty, and authentic local experiences that only the Big Easy can deliver.
A crawfish is a strange-looking creature. The easiest way to describe it might be to say it’s a tiny lobster, and learning how to eat one is, it turns out, one of the subtle markers on the path to understanding, or at least enjoying, New Orleans. It took me a while, but I finally got the hang of it. Standing in the middle of a block party outside of Restaurant Patois, a fantastic place in Uptown, I transition from the realm of merely understanding into the realm of delight. In this town the boundary between competence and pleasure is one you’re encouraged to cross. It’s a kind of New Orleans bar mitzvah in which, instead of becoming a man, you become a sensualist. No one writes you a check. But you will suddenly possess a whole list of predilections and wants, and right now I want more crawfish.
At this block party everything is free. The crowd feasts on crawfish, pulled pork, hot dogs, burgers, and beer. It’s a thank-you party thrown by the producers of Treme, the HBO series that has been shooting all over New Orleans for the past couple of months, including at Patois. Supposedly we’re being thanked for tolerating the shooting in our neighborhood. But to live here is to be aware of the other meaning of “shooting in the neighborhood,” though movie sets are a common enough sight in New Orleans, which has recently been dubbed Hollywood South. Green Lantern, a big-budget action picture, is also being filmed here. They come because it’s cheap and it’s a location scout’s dream for interiors and exteriors alike. Gorgeous and cheap are excellent recommendations, whether you are making a movie or just want to feel like you’re walking through one. Then there are the high-profile figures who have moved in—most recently, Sandra Bullock; most famously, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Bullock is in a mansion in the Garden District; Brad and Angelina are on the second floor of a French Quarter walk-up. Shortly after moving in, Jolie reportedly spent two hours chatting up the patrons at the Abbey, on Decatur Street, a few steps from their place. The friend who relayed this legend describes the Abbey as “our most violent bar” in a tone of rueful fondness. Pitt has devoted a great deal of energy to the city; his Make It Right Foundation has commissioned a slew of new houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.
It’s an early spring evening. The sky is a lovely shade of pale blue, and the street is filled with people, children, dogs. Everyone is in a good mood. This sort of improvised communal happiness is something New Orleans does effortlessly. Walker Percy, one of the city’s poet laureates, wrote that New Orleans, for all its problems, including crime, is blessed with a “certain persisting non-malevolence.” It comes from the architecture, the embrace of the huge live oaks overhanging the street, and the town’s central metaphor, Mardi Gras, the multiday celebration during which the city throngs the streets to watch itself in costume and on parade.
I tell the person next to me that I’m from New York. He turns to the person across from him, a woman deeply concentrating on removing the crawfish’s tail from its body, and says, “Are you from New York?”
“Hell, no!” she says, looking up in alarm. “Do I look like I’m from New York?”
I ask my neighbors what they think about Treme. Everyone agrees they like it, but some people worry it is too New Orleans for the rest of the country. This is the ambivalence of New Orleans culture, at once proud of its unique status and lamenting that no one really understands it, or cares.
Treme is dark—in mood but also literally. Many of its scenes are lit in such a way that faces appear as apparitions, most memorably when a Mardi Gras Indian chief dresses in full regalia and does a dance outside his bar to solicit help for cleanup. What is remarkable about Treme is how faithful it is to the reality of New Orleans and its citizens in the aftermath of Katrina. The anger, despair, sadness—and the accompanying use of music as salvation, the wild bursts of joy. How unreal it all feels—and yet, how real.
Video Tour: The New New Orleans
Lolis Eric Elie is a well-dressed dude. The first time I met him, at a charity reading at the Bridge Lounge, he was wearing matching saffron shorts and shirt and looked like a chilled-out New Orleans monk. He has that innate sense of manners and charm a lot of New Orleanians seem to have, and comports himself in a low-key way, although he would have every right to be pissed off.
“If you’re not from New Orleans, you probably never heard of it,” begins the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. It’s Elie talking. The statement now seems ironic; after the French Quarter and the Garden District, Treme is one of the city’s most instantly recognizable neighborhoods, but much of its heritage hasn’t been preserved. “The local government has done so much to destroy the neighborhood,” says Elie, who, along with director Dawn Logsdon, made Faubourg Treme and is now one of the writers of HBO’s Treme. His list of “ravages” inflicted on the neighborhood by the city government include “the abandonment of our architectural heritage, Armstrong Park, the overpass.”
Huge cement pillars support the I-10 overpass that cuts through Treme at precisely the point where an alley of live oaks once stood. This is where the neighborhood would gather for picnics and outdoor barbecues. To honor and acknowledge that history, elaborate paintings of trees and vines snake up the base of the cement pillars. It makes what was torn up, if not visible, then palpable. The first second-line parade after Katrina took place there, and was re-created for an episode of Treme. Neighborhood residents still commune among these painted trees, to the accompanying roar of the interstate above.
“New Orleans politicians treat New Orleans like it’s an average American city,” Elie says. “We’ve had average politicians running an extraordinary place they don’t understand.”
I moved to New Orleans from New York in the fall of 2008 to teach at Tulane University. The most important thing I packed was a strong sense of denial. It’s useful for all occasions when traveling to flood zones, war zones, anything off the continental shelf of the known world. I didn’t think New Orleans was off this shelf, exactly, but at that time it felt like America’s terra incognita. My wife, less invested in this strategy (and more nervous about hurricanes), stayed in New York for a few weeks with our baby, which proved to be prescient. Two weeks into the school year there was a mandatory evacuation. The mayor at the time, Ray Nagin, called the approaching hurricane “The Mother of All Storms.” Gustav came and went without much damage, but what lingered, in my imagination, was the picture of an evacuated city.
We moved into a place on State Street in the Uptown neighborhood near Audubon Park. Gorgeous medallions on the 14-foot ceilings; oak floors; chandeliers. The eccentricity of New Orleans is in its marrow, in its landscape and its homes. Just outside my place, on the sidewalk, are three letters painted in the same robin’s-egg blue as the house: e-l-p. I got the story from a neighbor: the rebellious son of a previous tenant had stayed through Katrina, and though the neighborhood didn’t flood, he was stranded. So he painted help on the sidewalk. I didn’t know what was more indicative of my new city—that the word help had once been scrawled on the sidewalk in front of my house, or that the landlord, recognizing that it might be a bit morbid to step over the word help every day, had gone to the trouble of scrubbing out the letter H and deemed that sufficient.
I set about exploring my immediate vicinity and came upon a truth that applies to the whole city: New Orleans is still the land of mom-and-pop stores. Magazine Street, around the corner from my house, is one long parade of the curious, the convenient, and the strange. Near where I live, on State Street, not far from the Whole Foods and the Pinkberry, you can find a specialized vinegar store, a chocolatier, a ballet school, a dry cleaner, several restaurants, three independently owned cafés, Hazelnut (an interiors shop owned by Mad Men’s Bryan Batt), and a place called Laredo Printing.
Fred Laredo is a disheveled man with silver whiskers on a soft face set in a permanent deadpan. I entered his shop one day wanting to print a digital photograph and saw that the walls were covered with old concert posters that he had printed. There were posters for Chuck Berry, Dr. John, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Buffett, and the Neville Brothers, as well as Steve Martin and Eldridge Cleaver. Each poster’s design evoked a different era. They were held up with tacks and tape and billowed slightly in the breeze from a fan. It was a museum of graphic design and music history, but when I commented on his posters, Laredo wasn’t particularly moved. A place to print things and make copies is not your usual destination when exploring a city, but Laredo Printing illustrates a point: in New Orleans a lot of the oysters have pearls.
La Vie Bohème
“There’s a fine line between stability and stagnation, and by the time I was born, New Orleans had already crossed it,” Michael Lewis famously wrote in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. When I asked him about this recently, he said, “I have been most impressed over my lifetime with the resistance of New Orleans to change. It has a remarkable ability to stay what it is in spite of overwhelming incentives not to.”
By March of 2010, the city felt like it was on a roll. Winning the Super Bowl had certainly been a part of it. Tourism was up. A reform-minded mayor, Mitch Landrieu, had replaced the widely mocked Ray Nagin, and the city’s population had reached nearly 80 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Tulane University, long a famous party school, was attracting civic-minded students drawn to the project of rebuilding a city. Every week, it seemed, a friend of a friend sent an e-mail of introduction saying he or she was moving to New Orleans. That same month, the New York Observer ran a long article quoting various New Yorkers, media types, flocking to the city not to visit but to live. They were praising New Orleans as a kind of refuge from New York real estate, cattily carping that JetBlue’s direct flights don’t take much longer than the Hampton Jitney.
Dan Cameron, whose Prospect New Orleans 1, a giant biennial, attracted the international art scene and its audience in 2008, is now launching Prospect 1.5, a smaller exhibition focusing on local artists that opens this month. The Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods, long the city’s bohemian frontiers, are teeming with new establishments and renovations. More and more art galleries appear on St. Claude Avenue. Restaurants such as Satsuma Café and Bacchanal Wine are proliferating, along with twentysomethings on bicycles toting laptops. Just as a generation of writers and artists once flocked to Paris for its beauty, inspiration, and cheap living, it was starting to look as if New Orleans might become such a place for a generation of American writers and artists. There is no other American city with more of the requisite ingredients of affordability, beauty, and personality. And yet....
So it was that one day last spring, not long after the Treme block party, I glanced at the local paper and saw a strange photo on the front page. A fire on the water. A black plume of smoke rising into the blue sky. Small boats sending cheerful arcs of water toward the flames. Something had gone very wrong on an oil rig way out in the Gulf.
“It’s sort of a pattern,” says Bayona chef and co-owner Susan Spicer. “Just before 9/11 things were going great, but after that the tourist industry got smacked down. It took us four years to build back up. We were going great guns, and then Katrina. And we come clawing and scratching our way back. And then, again, boom.”
Boom was one of the many new words that everyone in New Orleans, and America, learned last summer, along with the comically morbid topkill. Grasping what the oil spill means for the Gulf, for the seafood industry, and for New Orleans, was unclear as the oil flowed, and remains so. I visit Spicer in her new restaurant in Lakeview, Mondo, which, true to its name, features an eclectic, globalized menu: a ceviche with fresh tortilla chips and guacamole; Thai shrimp and pork meatballs; pizza from a wood-burning oven; deviled eggs. She has a warm, sardonic presence beneath which, you can tell, lurks a fierce perfectionist. Already well-known, Spicer has seen her notoriety rise because of a class action lawsuit against BP that seeks damages resulting from the oil spill’s impact on the Gulf Coast seafood industry. “The next step is what they call ‘discovery,’ ” she says. “We’ll see what gets discovered. There’s already a huge whitewash campaign, but people need to be informed. I don’t think something of this magnitude can help but have long-term effects.” Meanwhile, the dishes at Mondo and Bayona keep coming.
Sno-Balls and Funk
A word about sno-balls: On their own, sno-balls are not remarkable—crushed ice and flavoring, sometimes with a dollop of condensed milk. But they are one of the great delicacies of New Orleans. They exist in concert with the environment. Whether you get yours at the Queen of the Ball, which at first glance seems like a wild beauty parlor crossed with a tea shop, or at Plum Street Snoballs, which is so tucked away it feels illicit, the atmosphere is part of the experience.
A couple of blocks away, the atmosphere is also part of the experience at the Oak Street Café, the place I go when I need to recalibrate my New Orleans compass. It looks innocuous enough—picture windows; green walls cluttered with framed artifacts and photographs; paintings—all askance, and each checked tablecloth adorned with salt and pepper and the ubiquitous and addictive Crystal hot sauce. Behind the piano in a corner sits Charles Farmer singing “The Sunny Side of the Street” or some other song you might not recognize. You can’t claim the Oak Street Café has the best music, and its cuisine is rudimentary: breakfast and lunch, a good omelette, decent gumbo. But it has a certain something, a sense of improvised grace and style, old green-and-white tiles on the floor and the feeling of time pooling. It’s a great spot to recover from a hangover, even if you don’t have one.
Farmer is a very skinny man with hair flying out from the periphery of his head. He almost always wears a suit, which gives him a weathered kind of elegance that goes well with the café. Originally from Oklahoma, Farmer lived in New Orleans from 1974 to 1986, then moved to Europe for 20 years before returning to New Orleans in 2006. “It doesn’t make much sense to move to a disaster area,” he said, “but there is something about New Orleans. It’s the only place I haven’t felt out of place. It’s my spiritual home. Funk is out on the street.”
Off the Grid
There are buildings in New Orleans, mere cottages even, that take your breath away simply by the juxtaposition of green shutters against an ocher background. It’s an artist’s dream, and this sense of innate style permeates up and down Oak Street, from the myriad colors of the Queen of the Ball up to the blackness of Z’otz, a labyrinthine goth coffee shop open until all hours that also serves an excellent cappuccino first thing in the morning.
Grover Mouton, who runs the Regional Urban Design Center in the School of Architecture at Tulane, sometimes gives me guided tours of New Orleans. On our walks and drives, he explains that the city’s grids are based on the boundaries of the old plantations and, as he puts it gleefully, “The grids collide. If you study the grid you know where you are. But if you don’t, you never know where you are, which is wonderful.”
I study the grid but most of the time I don’t know where I am. I like to spend afternoons cruising the streets in my car or, even better, on my Vespa, taking in the amazing sequence of houses. A single pink cottage done up with ornate brackets is pretty, but after you have seen houses of a variety of shapes and colors run into one another they become hypnotic. A vintage blue pickup truck stands in front of a pink house; a looming willow drapes itself over an austere structure built in the 1930’s. Next to the pink house is a large blue house, abandoned and covered with the frightening post-Katrina iconography of marks and slashes indicating that the house had been inspected; the gas turned off; whether any bodies were found. The austere Deco structure with the willow is the Alvar Branch Library, once frequented by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Ideally, I’m happy to be lost. All intuition as to where you are is constantly foiled, and that is fine, because most of the time wherever you are is striking. Even the Central Business District, a horror of isolated skyscrapers and empty parking lots, has a kind of Modernist dazzle; if you turn up Poydras Street in the early evening you will see the edge of the Superdome off in the distance, its curve against the setting sun almost sexy, like a woman’s hip.
New Orleans surprises you with exquisite detail, as piercing as a single trumpet note, and it overwhelms you with beauty unspooling for blocks and blocks and blocks. The architectural flow is its own kind of music, an ensemble piece. The landscape is one long confusion of gorgeous imperfection, exquisite dilapidation. In the French Quarter, the Garden District, and Uptown the houses are grand, but even there or in my favorite neighborhoods—the Marigny, Bywater, Mid-City—the handsome, the sublime, and the ruined intermingle.
“New Orleans does not develop, it accretes,” Michael Lewis had told me. “Layers and layers of patina.”
One night at Coquette, a restaurant on Magazine Street, I see John Berendt, who has been in town for months, possibly looking for his next story. It makes perfect sense—his last two books were about Savannah and Venice, a southern town with secrets and an architectural treasure half underwater; New Orleans combines the two.
On one of our drives, Mouton and I come to a stop in the Lower Ninth Ward. Off in the distance is a gray cement wall that looks a bit like the Berlin Wall before graffiti—the new levee. This is the epicenter of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which commissioned sustainable housing from cutting-edge architects. The houses are futuristic, faintly Californian, and raised on concrete pillars. They sit in mostly empty fields.
“There was a lot of what you could call intellectual carpetbagging after Katrina,” Mouton says. ”A whole phenomenon of foundations coming down, and whatever they did was sure to receive acknowledgment.” The Ninth Ward is now, five years after the fact, largely a destroyed wasteland, and every instance of a rebuilt house, by Pitt or someone else, looks like an enormous victory. And there are more and more of them, making inroads against the empty lots. You have to admire Pitt’s project for its energy, vision, philanthropy. If it’s the future, the future feels strange.
Dreaming in NOLA
But whatever one imagines for the future of New Orleans, the past is always nearby, and it is felt most viscerally in music. My favorite place to experience it is at the legendary Preservation Hall, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the French Quarter dedicated to traditional New Orleans jazz. It’s run by Ben Jaffe, who plays tuba in the band. Like so many New Orleanians, he is in the same business as his dad, who took over the Hall in its early years and ran it for decades.
The tuba, the trumpet, the trombone. Brass instruments and marching bands. These motifs permeate the city; you can see it in the obsessive band-formation drawings by Bruce Davenport, on display in Prospect 1.5; Treme’s logo incorporates a trumpet. I never thought I cared for marching bands until I saw them at Mardi Gras. My first encounter with those parades reminded me of a fashion show, when it all seems silly and then suddenly you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Except in the case of Mardi Gras, the runway goes on for miles and there is a real cultural resonance and populist joy.
One sunny autumn afternoon as I was driving through the city, I turned a corner somewhere in Uptown and was confronted with a marching band consisting of what appeared to be eighth graders. They wore gold jackets and Prussian hats with white feathers and were on the march, cheeks puffed out, mallets swinging. Something about the hats with their plumes made the old Ottoman Empire briefly materialize on Dufosset Street. The low, bright sun exploded off tubas, trumpets, trombones; their jackets seemed to glow. It was an astonishing sight. The sound, cacophony. Like a dream, unreal, and like in a dream, they were a mysterious impediment. I had to back out of the street. As I was backing up, the noisy, brazen sound of the marching band and their brass instruments filled the car. I was stunned at the sight of this little army. I drove away through the nestlike, sun-drenched streets, past the pastel houses and their ornate details. The music was still in the air. I was glad for the fading thump and crack of the drums and the bleat and honk of the trumpets. They assured me I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
At press time, a search for direct round-trip flights to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport from New York showed fares starting at $229; from Los Angeles, starting at $317.
Great Value Columns Hotel A 19-room hotel in the Garden District, unchanged since Louis Malle filmed Pretty Baby there; the front porch is perfect for drinks. 3811 St. Charles Ave.; 504/899-9308; thecolumns.com; doubles from $120, including breakfast.
Great Value 714 Gov. Nicholls Street Francis Ford Coppola turned this French Quarter house into a seven-room hotel with exposed-brick interiors, antiques, and modern art. 415/788-7500 ext. 200; 714nicholls.com; doubles from $250.
Eat and Drink
The Abbey 1123 Decatur St.; 504/523-7177; drinks for two $7.
Antoine’s Restaurant A French-Creole favorite since 1840. 713 Rue St.-Louis; 504/581-4422; dinner for two $120.
Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits Gorgeous torchlit courtyard, great wine list, and local outfit Jazz Lab with Jessie Morrow on Wednesdays. 600 Poland Ave.; 504/948-9111; drinks for two $20.
Bayona 430 Dauphine St.; 504/525-4455; dinner for two $100.
Clancy’s The people-watching is almost as good as the upscale Creole food. 6100 Annunciation St.; 504/895-1111; dinner for two $100.
Coquette Bistro & Wine Bar 2800 Magazine St.; 504/265-0421; dinner for two $90.
Gautreau’s Hidden away in Uptown, this French-Creole restaurant feels like a secret eating society. Always packed. 1728 Soniat St.; 504/899-7397; dinner for two $120.
Le Bon Temps Roule Don’t miss Thursday nights with the Soul Rebels at this raucous bar. 4801 Magazine St.; 504/895-8117; drinks for two $10.
Mondo 900 Harrison Ave.; 504/224-2633; dinner for two $60.
Oak Street Café 8140 Oak St.; 504/866-8710; breakfast for two $12.
Plum Street Snoballs 1300 Burdette St.; 504/866-7996.
Queen of the Ball 8116 Oak St.; 504/430-5718.
Restaurant Patois 6078 Laurel St.; 504/895-9441; dinner for two $80.
Satsuma Café A cozy new lunch spot in Bywater. 3218 Dauphine St.; 504/304-5962; lunch for two $20.
Ann Koerner Antiques An eclectic mix of 18th- and 19th-century antiques from around the globe. 4021 Magazine St.; 504/899-2664.
Hazelnut 5515 Magazine St.; 504/891-2424.
Laredo Printing 5231 Magazine St.; 504/897-1224.
See and Do
Prospect 1.5 Nov. 6–Feb. 19, 2011; citywide; prospectneworleans.org.