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Exploring the New New Orleans

Ben Jaffe (left) and Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, outside the French Quarter club.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

“H-E-L-P”

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.

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