New Orleans Offers History, Southern Foods, and a River Lifestyle

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 20, 2011

NEW ORLEANS, La. – The tugboat across the river, moving slowly downstream past the docked paddlewheeler, has a ghostly appearance. Only the wheelhouse and lights are visible above the river’s morning fog blanket. Hidden are the main deck, bow and handrails.

Beyond the paddlewheeler, a tugboat glides through the morning fog on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Beyond the tug, on the opposite bank of the Mississippi River, are trees still naked from winter. In front of me is a tourist paddlewheeler docked in New Orleans.

Welcome to another grand new day, I whisper to myself, snapping a few more photos from the dock as the tug moves through the fog.

After breakfast back at the hotel, I wander along the urban riverwalk, headed for the French Quarter. Docked along the riverwalk are the paddlewheelers Natchez and Creole Queen. They represent the riverboats that in the 1800s carried every kind of imaginable cargo needed by families, adventurers, gamblers and other travelers headed west.

The muddy river is the color of coffee with a touch too much cream. Greeting the new day with me on the riverwalk are some other early risers. They, too, are eager to absorb the city’s history, sights, sounds and smells.

Freshly-hosed sidewalks often greet each day’s new arrivals in the French Quarter. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

In the Quarter, filled with restaurants, bars, hotels, art galleries and antique stores, workers are hosing the sidewalks. Two dogs lead their master down the middle of a narrow one-way street.

Boxes of food and cases of bottled spirits are wheeled from delivery trucks into restaurants and bars. Other trucks haul in fresh tablecloths and sheets. A woman unlocks the door to an antique store.

A city street sweeper waits for city tow trucks to remove vehicles parked illegally.  On another street, a city crew digging through the sidewalk blocks one lane.

The smell of souring garbage in black containers at the curb taints the morning air. Mules tethered to carriages on Decatur Street at Jackson Square stand patiently, eyes mostly closed, ready for riders.

A history guide and her five visitors, each balanced on a Segway, steer their two-wheeled personal vehicles around a corner and zip south on St. Ann Street.

I pass workers painting window frames or replacing missing bricks or mortar in the sidewalk. A plumber with his wire snake waits for a restaurant owner to open the doors.

Slow ride to downtown

When I arrived in New Orleans a few days ago, I grabbed my luggage and headed for a taxi. But a downtown shuttle caught my attention. A taxi would be too fast. And I’ve found few taxi drivers want to talk. Their goal is to get me to my stop, usually at the speed of light, so they can find another fare. I landed here from San Francisco, where my cabbie drove like Darth Vader was on his tail.

Since this was my first visit to New Orleans, a shuttle’s zigzag route would be a free tour. My Best Friend’s flight won’t arrive for several hours. Besides, shuttles charge less than taxis.

I took the last seat in this bus. I sat with a young couple cradling their 3-month-old baby. The driver closed the door and pulled from the curb. After he maneuvered past the airport traffic, he turned on his chamber of commerce spiel. He explained the city’s history. He took questions, and he talked about the region’s many restaurants.

He described the long causeway carrying traffic across the swamps. There, he says, because there are no exits for 24 miles, you don’t want to have a flat tire or run out of fuel. It could be a heck of a swim, especially with the snakes and alligators.

We passed a cemetery that resembled a miniature Roman city. The driver explained that because of the high water table in this region, caskets cannot be buried. Instead, they are placed in aboveground vaults. New Orleans’ cemeteries are called “cities of the dead” because the vaults look like rows of small houses.

Our first stop out of the airport was Tulane University. The driver turned off St. Charles Street and wound through the neighborhood. He pointed out where a sports star lives and the site of a new movie.

He regaled us with information about the historical plantation homes along St. Charles, and about the old trees decorated with strings of shiny beads thrown by spectators during parades.

He told us about the city’s population decline after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Some residents abandoned their flooded homes and left the city. Others, he said, died of heart attacks or other natural causes. A desperate few, losing their homes to the storm and flooding, committed suicide.

Street entertainers

The next day, a Sunday, I head out on foot for the French Quarter. Visitors and street entertainers jam the streets. Mardi Gras was a week ago.

Two-seater vehicles with three wheels are ideal for navigating the narrow streets in the French Quarter. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

In one block on Royal Street, barricaded for pedestrians only, a tall mime dressed in white tails and top hat entertains visitors. Not far away are Tanya and Dorise, a duo seated in the street, creating magic from a guitar and a violin. Theirs was the head-turning kind of music. You hear it drifting down the street, and you turn your head and move your feet through the crowd. Follow the music, your heart says.

A young couple holding hands start dancing. Some of the onlookers sort through the musicians’ CDs. A few buy one or more, dropping money into a hat. The musicians’ web site is www.tanyandorise.com.

Between the mime and the musicians is a woman in shorts and a filmy halter top dancing barefoot with her hula-hoop to the music.

When Tanya and Dorise take a break, listeners applaud and move on. The hula-hoop dancer steps to the sidewalk. But the mime plays on. He keeps pace with the dog at the end of his leash – a snarling stuffed terrier gripping a cigar in his teeth.

On my walk out of the Quarter, I pass a male trio singing a cappella in the street. They stand shoulder to shoulder, choreographing their steps and snapping fingers to their music. They must have just started their routine because they hadn’t yet drawn a crowd. Courage and perseverance, I thought.

Friendly neighborhood

I’m reading a book by a nonfiction writer who refers to the French Quarter as tawdry. That’s harsh. The writer implies that the famous neighborhood with historic designation is riddled with scoundrels and buildings in disrepair.

True, the oldest part of New Orleans shows its age, just as any older region of any other city. Much of this part of New Orleans was built long before construction codes. Tawdry? Hardly. Welcoming and friendly, even quirky, without a doubt.

During my walks, I received smiles and good-morning greetings from strangers, whether they were jogging on the boardwalk or standing outside doorways in the Quarter.

Depending on the time of year, a morning’s deep shadows in the French Quarter offer cool places to walk before the arrival of midday heat. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The French Quarter is filled with narrow one-way streets. Many of its buildings, new and old, are decorated with cast iron or wrought iron railings. There are colorful neon or hand-painted signs, obscure entrances to bars and cafes and inner courtyards, menus with wonderful Cajun foods, and historic tours.

According to published accounts, the Quarter largely escaped the damaging flooding experienced by many other parts of the city during Hurricane Katrina. Some streets in the Quarter had minor flooding, but much of the damage was from the storm’s powerful winds.

The French Quarter is the place to visit in New Orleans. I found its urban personality interesting. It has a rare blend of wonderful foods, soothing music, interesting architecture and fascinating history. Tawdry is a condescending word I wouldn’t use.

This is a city full of hustle, history and soul. It offers a wide selection of food. It has legendary music that, if you slow down and listen, can help you focus on the path you’ve chosen.

For a map showing where the flooding occurred in New Orleans, visit www.nola.com/katrina/graphics/flashflood.swf.

Another map with updates on repairs in the French Quarter is available at http://frenchquarter.com/katrina.php.

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Mar 20th, 2011

One Comment to 'New Orleans Offers History, Southern Foods, and a River Lifestyle'

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  1. Helen said,

    What a colorful and informative picture of New Orleans. It was wonderful to read about the positive impression New Orleans made on you during your first visit. Your photos capture the essence of each experience.

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