from the archive: all that jazz

A friend was asking my advice about her upcoming trip to New Orleans last night, which made me realize that Fat Tuesday is practically upon us.  So in advance of Mardi Gras’ parade of excess, I thought I would post this story that came about following a visit I made back in 2007, a little over a year after Katrina made landfall and the city remained desperate for help on all fronts.  I returned again in 2009 for Mardi Gras, which turned out to be the best attended celebrations since 2005.  Yet away from the crowds and the tourists there still remained so much work to be done for the people who actually live there.  The clean-up and rebuilding has progressed at a glacial pace.  But I don’t need to tell that to anyone who’s recently visited the open pit that remains in lower Manhattan, do I?

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“I used to think that Angelina was a slut,” a marketing executive told me over lunch last week in the trendy Warehouse District of New Orleans.  “I mean stealing Brad away from poor Jennifer Aniston,” she added with an almost religious fervor before trailing off, realizing that in her excitement to finally talk about something other than Hurricane Katrina, she has perhaps said a bit too much.  “I love Jennifer Aniston,” she added sheepishly, as though it were an apology for her momentary outburst.

But who can fault her?  New Orleans’ tempered recovery is under relentless media scrutiny these days.  To read the papers – or worse, watch the evening news – you’d think the Crescent City had dissolved into Dodge City.  Which isn’t the case at all.  Yes, crime has spiked in New Orleans, but taken in context it’s the equivalent of the murder rate rising on Staten Island and having that scare tourists away from the Theatre District. As one local resident bluntly summarized the situation:  “If you’re not involved in street drugs, you’re not going to get shot.”

So when the world’s most famous couple decided to put down roots in the French Quarter a few months ago and raise their ever-expanding, international family, you can imagine that New Orleanians were not only ecstatic to have something else to talk about, but also to have their Herculean efforts at rebuilding a civil society out of the greatest natural disaster in US history validated, too.

“You still got to get out and see the mess in the lower ninth and St. Bernard’s,” said Marié, a street singer belting out Sophie Tucker songs along St. Peter’s Street, “but maybe now that they’re here, people will understand that we’re not all living in trailers.  Bring on the paparazzi,” she laughs as her arms flail up into a touchdown pose. “This is a city that dances at funerals, baby; we’re not going to be beaten down.”

As if to further emphasize that point, the local Times-Picayune reported last month that if you look at a 19th century map of the original city, you’ll also be looking at a map of what was left relatively unscathed by Katrina.  The New Orleans that has seduced travelers with its heritage of music, food, and architecture (not to mention the grab bag of writers, artists and freaks) is still intact.  It’s just a little less crowded now, having been brought to its economic knees.

If ever there was a city simpatico with what has happened to the Big Easy, it’s the Big Apple.  Now more than ever New Orleans needs you – and you need it.  Here’s how you can combine a good time with a good deed.

What to do

One of the finest things about New Orleans is that you don’t have to do anything to get the full experience.  Dripping with history – and beads – at every corner, a simple walk down the street can yield as many unexpected pleasures as Christmas morning.  Browsing antique shops on Royal Street, the galleries of the Warehouse district or the sumptuous architecture of the Garden District can easily eat up an entire weekend.  However, if you want a proper tour there’s no better option than local historian Rob Florence’s Historic New Orleans Tours to give you a condensed yet authoritative overview of the many French Quarter highlights such as Pirate’s Alley, the Quadroon Ballroom, the magnificent Pontalba Buildings, Faulkner House and the building where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire.

Florence also happens to be an expert on the city’s distinctive aboveground cemeteries and none are as evocative – nor house as many curious characters – as the little St. Louis Cemetery, No. 1 on the edge of the French Quarter.  The oldest in the city, it houses the tomb of notorious Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, along with that of Homer Plessy, the unlucky plaintiff of Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined the concept of separate but equal in American law. The imposing Italian Mutual Benefit Association monument was featured in “Easy Rider”: Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson tripped on LSD here before getting amorous atop it with their ladyfriends.

The Old Ursuline Convent is not only the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley (built in 1745 on the orders of Louis XV of France), but also home to the Exhibition of the Vatican Mosaic Studio through June 1st, the first exhibition (and only stop) of these treasures outside of the Vatican. The thirty-seven priceless examples are the perfection of an art form.  A room of modern mosaics inspired by the art of van Gogh, Chagall and Monet is outstanding.  There is also a local mosaicist on-site demonstrating the craft.

What to eat

It’s been said that people in the Big Easy don’t just eat to live – they live to eat. “You gotta do it the way we do here,” a waiter tells me on my first night in town:  “We start planning for dinner while we’re eating breakfast.”  The only thing I’d add to that would be to make sure you leave room for dessert.

The clown prince of the Food Network, Emeril Lagasse, may today be atop a global food empire, but it all started here at Emeril’s, the funky Warehouse District restaurant that helped lead the revitalization of the area almost 17 years ago. And while Emeril doesn’t don an apron here much anymore, Chef de Cuisine Christopher Lynch does the ragin’ Cajun proud: crispy Gulf oysters with Manchego fondue get enlivened with smoked pimento, duck schnitzel re-imagines the classic Wiener with roasted shallots and confit and a luscious banana cream pie will haunt your dreams long after you’ve returned home. Emeril’s, 800 Tchoupitoulos Street @ Julia  Tel: (504) 528-9393

Louisiana native Chuck Subra’s seafood-oriented menu at La Cote Brasserie draws on the diverse Cajun and Creole cultures that contributed to what we now call South Louisiana cuisine. A crispy whole redfish smothered in okra tomato stew with a cayenne beurre blanc is the perfect example.  Charbroiled oysters topped with spinach and parmesan is another winner. In a nod to his grandmother, he’s serving up her hearty duck & andouille gumbo and winning raves. La Cote Brasserie 700 Tchoupitoulos Street Tel: (504) 613-2350

You can tell from the lines out the door that Mother’s is a NOLA institution.  Although “that’s nothing,” says owner Jerry Amato, a bear of a man who can often be found directing traffic from a table just inside the door.  “Business is off a good fifty, sixty percent.”  Which means you won’t have to wait as long for home cooking at its finest:  hot fluffy biscuits stuffed with debris (the tasty scraps of beef that fall into the gravy while roasting), jambalaya or their famous baked ham — so famous they go through a whopping 175,000 pounds of it a year. Mother’s 401 Poydras Street Tel: 504-532-9656

What to hear & where to hang

In the city where jazz was born you’d be hard pressed to spend a day here and not hear the euphonious sounds of brass wafting down the street.  After you get your feet wet on famous Bourbon Street head to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny neighborhood.  Here you’ll find well-kept secrets like Snug Harbor (Ellis Marsalis and Charmaine Neville are regulars most Fridays and Mondays, respectively), d.b.a., where the cover’s never more than $10 and the bar has over twenty quirky brews on draught, or The Spotted Cat for fresh takes on classic big-band jazz and all sorts of funky roots music.

If music is not at the top of your list, sip a Pimm’s Cup in the courtyard at Napoleon House for a quintessential N’awlins experience.  Or head to Pat O’Brien’s, birthplace of the iconic – and ironic – Hurricane cocktail.  Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar has the clever A Drink Called Wanda with its very own goldfish and cheap heaps of crawfish on Sunday afternoons.

Where to stay

The 217-room Renaissance Arts Hotel in the hip arts district is a converted turn of the century warehouse.  True to its name, this comfortable hotel has cool contemporary art on every available surface:  Dale Chihuly, Francis Pavy and Mitchell Gaudet to name but a few.   There’s even a sculpture garden inside the atrium and a branch of the esteemed Arthur Roger Gallery located off the lobby – not to mention the many Julia Street galleries right around the corner. Spring rates start at $139 per room. Family packages start at $159 per night and include breakfast and a picnic lunch for four. Renaissance Arts Hotel, 700 Tchoupitoulas Street Tel: (504) 613-2330

Spring rates at the nearby Marriott New Orleans at the Convention Center start as low as just $99 per room. New Orleans Marriott at the Convention Center, 859 Convention Center Boulevard  Tel: (504)613-2888

Notes on the Lower Ninth Ward

Just as every tourist that comes to New York feels compelled to visit Ground Zero, so too, do visitors to New Orleans feel drawn to the devastated areas along the city’s perimeter:  an area, by the way, three times the size of Manhattan.  The scale of it is epic and you cannot really appreciate it – if that’s the right word – until you see it.  Nobody wants to gawk, yet the human need to bear witness is a powerful one.  Just be sensitive and avoid joining one of those tacky tour buses.  Michael Love – a Kiwi transplant involved in building community gardens in the lower Ninth Ward – knows the area well and can escort you through some of the more sensitive areas.  You can request him from American Luxury Limos. Tel: (800) 631-5466 or

If what you see moves you to do more, Habitat for Humanity takes volunteers Tuesday through Saturday (504) 861-2077 or you can sign up on the website.

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