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Rebuilding New Orleans

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Photo: Julian Broad

Then again, New Orleans has spent decades trying to solve its waterfront. Much of what defines the riverbank today can be attributed to one man: local developer Lester Kabacoff. It was Kabacoff who lobbied for mounting a World’s Fair along the Mississippi in 1984. Though the fair was a bust, it did usher in a more visitor-friendly riverfront. A generation later, Kabacoff is hailed as "the father of New Orleans tourism."

Lester’s son, Pres Kabacoff, is a city revitalization specialist who was instrumental in reviving New Orleans’ historic Warehouse District. He is impressed by the ambition of the RTC plan. "These are some of the best thinkers around—we should be so lucky to do all the things that they’re proposing," Kabacoff told me. "New Orleans always needs to add to the show, as I call it—to expand the tourist playground." Is he concerned about a clash between the contemporary architecture proposed by the RTC and the historic cityscape that defines New Orleans?"Not at all," he said. "All of this can coexist. I may be a preservationist, but I’m not an antiquarian."

Before the storm, Kabacoff had himself conceived a plan to revive 4,000 acres of downtown. He imagined a more walkable, European-style city, with elegant parks and promenades, rejuvenated old-world architecture—even its own Eiffel Tower, a 15-story fleur-de-lis rising above the riverbank. "I took to calling us the Afro-Caribbean Paris," he said, "because in many ways we’re really the northernmost island in the Caribbean." The Caribbean analogy comes up a lot. In an essay published in Metropolis magazine earlier this year, the urban planner Andrés Duany described New Orleans as being "not among the most haphazard, poorest, or misgoverned American cities, but rather the most organized, wealthiest, cleanest, and competently governed of the Caribbean cities." As in the Caribbean, Duany noted, the culture of New Orleans arose from a surfeit of leisure time: "time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever…time to practice and listen to music…time to make costumes and to parade…time to spend all day marking the passing of friends." However, as life in the city becomes more challenging—demanding greater amounts of time, money, effort, and anxiety—"the culture that arises from leisure" risks being lost.

Food and music, it is said, are the twin pillars of New Orleans culture. They are certainly the foundations of its tourism.

The good news is that the culinary scene has mostly recovered. While many restaurants never reopened after the storm, and business is still relatively slow, restaurateurs speak hopefully about a full recovery. Formal old-school haunts like Galatoire’s and Commander’s Palace are back, as are beloved neighborhood joints like Franky & Johnny (for po’boys), Liuzza’s by the Track (for gumbo), Casamento’s (for oysters), and Blue Bird Café (for Southern breakfasts). Modern classics such as Restaurant August, Herbsaint, and Lilette are firing on all cylinders with creative cooking and assured service. Most encouragingly, a determined crop of new restaurants has appeared since the storm, among them Iris (whose Ian Schnoebelen was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs this year), Lüke (an Alsatian brasserie run by August’s John Besh), Cochon (down-home Louisiana cuisine from local hero Donald Link), and Café Minh (Asian-French fusion from the city’s best Vietnamese chef).

The music scene, however, is in rougher shape. Only two-thirds of the 5,000 musicians who worked in New Orleans before Katrina have returned, according to Aimee Bussells, director of Renew Our Music, a musicians’ relief fund. Others bide their time in far-flung cities, perhaps intending but unable to return. "We need to get them home to New Orleans to keep contributing to the culture, whether they play or arrange or teach or run music stores or mask at Mardi Gras," Bussells says. "To lose that connection to the city—some of them can’t breathe without it. Musicians constantly ask me, ’Where else can I do what I do?’"

A musician’s life was always precarious here. "But now tourism is down, so club attendance is down. Owners are looking at their bottom line and not always paying the same rates as before," Bussells says. Moreover, a packed house doesn’t always translate into earnings for the band. "People might think ’I paid a cover charge, the band’s being compensated,’ but sometimes the only money musicians see is tips directly from the audience."

Some help has come from Musicians’ Village, an affordable-housing community in the Ninth Ward run by Habitat for Humanity. When finished next year, the eight-acre campus will include 77 large-scale houses and duplexes, a park, and a performance center with rehearsal space, classrooms, and a library.

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