New Orleans: It’s Complicated

After hubs and I went to Mobile last week to visit with writer friends Manda Collins and Cynthia Eden, we decided to swing by New Orleans for a quick visit.  I love NOLA, and Randy has never been, so we were both eager to go.  But I haven’t visited NOLA since Katrina hit, and I was really hoping the city was staging a comeback in a big way.

What did we find?  It’s complicated.

We all know about the devastation wrought by Katrina on the Gulf Coast, and most of us have seen pictures of the Ninth Ward, one of the worst hit neighborhoods in the city of New Orleans.  We’ve heard the reports that reconstruction and recovery has been a slow and difficult process.  Still, we hoped that the uniquely beautiful NOLA was roaring back to its prominence as both a tourist destination and a cultural gem of the South.  It is still those things, of course, but to a much lesser degree than we anticipated.

As we drove into the city, we were stunned by the level of destruction that was easy to spot, even from the interstate.  Neighborhoods that still looked wrecked, some with rebuilding going on, and some with little evidence of activity.  Exiting onto Canal Street, the first thing we saw were large office buildings and hotels, clearly abandoned.  I guess that’s not surprising, since a lot of business simply packed up and moved after the hurricane.  There was some rebuilding going on in the downtown core, and I take that as a hopeful sign.  But like most cities in the country, NOLA has been hit pretty hard by the recession, and the Gulf oil spill had to be a significant blow, too.  Given that a significant segment of the population was forced to move away after Katrina, I imagine the local tax base has been substantially diminished.

I know I sound gloomy, and it was hard not to be depressed by the signs of struggle and devastation.  But NOLA is still a beautiful city with much to offer.  As soon as we dropped our bags off at the hotel, we headed to the French Quarter to sample the food, drink, and fascinating mix of cultures in the Vieux Carre.  We wandered through the gorgeous streets, marveling as always at the beautiful balconies and centuries-old streets.

It’s Mardi Gras season, too, and many of the houses and shops are decked out for the celebration.


After lunch, we headed down to Jackson Square and the magnificent Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.  St. Louis is a spectacular church and well worth the visit, if only to see the unusual pulpit in the shape of a giant shell.

Of course, no visit to NOLA would be complete without a stop at the Cafe Du Monde, the original French coffee house just off the Square.  The beignets and coffee are simply amazing, and better than I remembered from previous visits.  And Jackson Square is as beautiful and interesting as ever, surrounded by a collection of wonderful shops and home to tarot card readers and musicians hanging out in front of the Cathedral.  Here’s a picture of me, with the Square in the background.

You’ll notice, though, that the Square looks pretty quiet, another thing that really concerned me.  I’ve been to NOLA in the winter before, and it was a good deal more crowded than it was on this visit.  Maybe the weather didn’t help.  As you can see, it was a cool, overcast day that made everything seem a bit gloomy.

Of course, if you’re feeling in need of a pick-me-up, you don’t have to walk far.  Bourbon Street hasn’t changed at all, as you can see from the sign below.

Not that you’ll find me ripping off my shirt to get some beads, but the young folks seem to have a good time.  And, as always, there’s something you come across in NOLA that makes you scratch your head.

I’m hoping a hand grenade is a drink.  They do like their drinks big down in NOLA.  And how can you not love a city that still proudly proclaims, after everything they’ve been through, that their favorite alcoholic beverage is the Hurricane?

Our trip to NOLA was short, and we barely touched the surface of all the things to do.  We never got to the Garden District or visited the cemeteries.  We’ll save that for next time, whenever next time rolls around.

But I can’t help worrying about the future of NOLA, especially since it seems to have faded from the news.  So many disasters and crisis have pushed NOLA off the front page, but the struggle to reinvent herself is, clearly, far from over.  But NOLA has survived an incredible number of catastrophes and come back better than ever.  I hope NOLA and her citizens pull it off again, and I hope we never forget what was lost and has yet to be recovered.