Easy Livin’ in the Big Easy: New Orleans Anew
Way back in 1947, in a Hollywood film called "New Orleans," Miss Billie Holilday and Mr. Louis Armstrong performed a little ditty called "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" The answer to that lyrical query was given a poignant urgency in 2005 in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when the nation - indeed, the world - shuddered to imagine a planet without one of the world’s most beloved cities.
Nearly eight years after the summer of Katrina (and Rita, which followed Katrina in September 2005), and a year after the BP oil spill in the summer of 2010, a visitor to the Big Easy might not be faulted for wondering what tragedy might next befall "The City That Care Forgot."
Ah, but this is a city that gave birth to jazz, a music born of the blues, And this is the city that created the country’s oldest known cocktail, the Sazerac, which is also one of the most potent. And this is the city that gave us Tabasco sauce. In other words, New Orleans is a city made of strong stuff. Even the great fires of 1788 and 1794 couldn’t snuff out the spirit of New Orleans. New Orleans takes the burn - and eats it.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to find a street named Melpomene in the American Quarter of New Orleans. Initially the Muse of Singing, Melpomene later became the Muse of Tragedy, wearing a crown of cypress. Aficionados of Louisiana will note that the state tree is the bald cypress, while lovers of New Orleans might point out that Terpsichore Street runs parallel to Melpomene. The Muse of Dance alongside the Muse of Singing: it’s the spirit of New Orleans in two blocks. And furthermore, Terpsichore is often said to be the mother of the Sirens, which perhaps helps explain why so many people feel the call to New Orleans.
One of the top ten most-visited cities in the US, New Orleans was recently ranked second in the nation for gay friendliness (after San Francisco in the top spot). Long before Tennessee Williams wrote about Blanche Dubois and her "sensitive" poet husband, gay people were finding their way to the city celebrated for its openness and joie de vivre. As our guide, Miss Jeanie, told us upon our recent return to the Crescent City, "You love New Orleans - and she’ll love you right back."
With its distinctive gumbo of disparate cultures, "The City That Care Forgot" was founded on hospitality, opening its arms to refugees and rebels, free people of color, Acadians and Haitian émigrés, francophones and hispanophones, as well as Creoles and Africans. The antecedents of jazz can be traced to Congo Square, where slaves gathered on Sundays to sing and dance (those girls Melpomene and Terpsichore again). Today, the city’s many music festivals, including JazzFest and VooDoo Experience, keep a similar Dionysian spirit alive.
Not unlike a classic beauty a little beyond her prime (think of Williams’ fragile heroines), elegant decay has always been one of New Orleans’ most alluring calling cards - and perhaps yet another reason why LGBT people have always been so fond of the city. The French Quarter houses the oldest gay bar in the United States, Café Lafitte in Exile, one of the watering holes frequented by both Williams and Truman Capote. New Orleans was Williams’ adopted home, while Capote used to quip that he was born in the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.
One of the best ways to witness some of the city’s antebellum charms is to catch the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line and ride it past the Garden District, out to the Audubon Nature Institute, across the avenue from Tulane University. While the Desire streetcar line made famous by Williams’ play has been a bus line since 1948, the St. Charles trolley is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the United States. Meander back into town through the Garden District, past homes where you’ll swear you’ve just seen Blanche (either Dubois or Hudson) peering from behind an upstairs lace curtain.
Famous for its cemeteries, many of which are filled with above ground vaults (due to the city’s location below sea level), New Orleans honors its haunted past. According to some local historians, the rise of dead bodies after one of the city’s floods created such a stench that intoxication was the only means for locals to endure the noxious fumes. (Pause for laugh line here.) The oldest and most famous of New Orleans’ cemeteries is Saint Louis #1 (there are two others named for Louis within the city limits), site of the massive crypt of Marie Laveau, the renowned voodoo priestess.
Measuring only one square city block, Saint Louis #1 is a kind of black magic mini-version of Père Lachaise in Paris, with devotees of voodoo and their pythons lingering among the stone sarcophagi and tombs. Small wonder that the cemetery has figured in the works of Anne Rice.
To walk through the neighborhoods of New Orleans is to see the imprint of the city’s polyglot culture made manifest in numerous architectural styles. Apart from the widely-recognized ironwork of the French Quarter’s balconies, there are creole cottages and American townhouses, as well as mansions with double galleries, all repositories of a parade of immigrants bringing with them influences from the Caribbean, French-speaking Canada, as well as Spanish and French colonialism. As Miss Jeanie instructed us, if you say the word "Arcadian" three times quickly, it’s an easy slide into "Cajun," which is as much a lesson in history as it is phonetics.
Without question, for many people, the boon from such a mélange of cultures is the resultant richness of New Orleans cuisine. Merely to hear a litany of New Orleans’ culinary specialties - gumbo and jambalaya, po’boy and muffuletta, red beans and rice, shrimp creole, oysters Rockefeller, bread pudding, beignets, and bananas Foster - is to find your tongue hanging "out your mouth," as they say.
Late one evening, having survived a swamp tour through the Louisiana bayou, where we learned three folkloric synonyms for the Spanish moss hanging from trees ("Spanish beard," "French wig," and "tree hair"), we found ourselves in Lafayette Square at the base of the statue of Benjamin Franklin. The second oldest park in New Orleans, Lafayette Square was named for the French Marquis who fought for American independence.
That evening, in the gloaming, as the lanterns came on around the square, it seemed propitious somehow that both Ben and the Marquis were still watching over the city of New Orleans.
(Travel feature continues on next pages: What to Do, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Where to Party, Where to Shop...)