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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

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.

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