A jazz band (above) at Maison on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans

A jazz band (above) at Maison on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans

This is the Life: New Orleans offers history and culture

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Decaying Disneyland for adults or last vestige of a regional culture in a country in decline? The question was on my mind as we made our way around New Orleans last week on foot, by streetcar and even a Mississippi paddle wheeler.

Not having visited before I didn’t give much thought to the pre-Katrina era, and certainly didn’t make any effort to look for evidence of the damage wrought by the devastating hurricane. But there is evidence beyond natural disaster ruin that this once great city struggles to maintain its sense of identity.

The evidence of greatness is not to be found on Bourbon Street, but from the water, where a dizzying array of craft ply the waters of the Mississippi (or Missippi, as the locals say) River. From the vantage of the Natchez riverboat we saw tugs hauling loads, ships in waiting to unload and load and even a pair of enormous US Navy equipment transport vessels. On the shore was a cluster of brick buildings used to house troops in the Civil War.

Two things make New Orleans a great city to visit — the major attractions are within walking distance and the streetcar system takes care of the rest. We stayed on Canal Street between Bourbon and Royal streets and quickly discovered Royal was a much more pleasant walk, Bourbon being pretty seedy and the nearest half-dozen blocks loaded with strip clubs and their customers — mostly drink-toting frat boys out for a good time, one they most likely won’t remember.

We enjoyed our riverboat evening, less for the food than the opportunity to get an appreciation for the enormity of the Mississippi and its importance — historical and current — to the country’s economy. The public address system provided details of history and water flow, and I was astonished to learn that the river ultimately drains 32 states and two provinces.

Food and music were my primary motivators for visiting the city. Not that the food is complicated or that the music can’t be found from different sources, but I was fascinated that they are so closely entwined with the city’s culture. Where else would one find T-shirts saying “It starts with the roux” and think it makes perfect sense (roux, flour fried in fat until it darkens in colour, provides the base for dishes like gumbo and étouffée). I’m a fan of oysters, and had them morning (with spinach and mushrooms in hollandaise sauce to make a great eggs benedict), noon (in a po’ boy sandwich) and night (on the half shell, raw). I was not disappointed.

On one great day we took the St. Charles Streetcar (the line was first built in the early 1800s) to take in the Freret Street Fest, which looked much like an expanded version of our own farmers’ market. It was about eight blocks long and had live music at each end and the middle. At one end we saw a church’s gospel choir perform and at the other a funk band that was fronted by two Indian spy boys — members of a Mardi Gras group that dress in fabulous bead and feather costumes. We returned to the streetcar later and continued on, making the full circle through the Garden District before getting back to the hotel. The architecture on St. Charles Street, with countless antebellum mansions, was wonderful, an indication of the wealth this city, through which most slaves arrived after the voyage from Africa.

Later, we took another streetcar to Frenchmen Street, where we were drawn like magnets to the open doors of Maison, where the sounds of a jazz group poured out. Mission accomplished, and made complete when we were escorted to the only empty two-seat table in the house, with a perfect view of the stage. We intended to have a drink and move on, but the music was so perfect that we settled in for dinner and more drinks, and stayed through the following band’s performance too.

When I booked our vacation, I was quite unaware that we would be in New Orleans over the Easter weekend. It turned out to be a bonus, though, when we learned that several parades are held on Sunday. We headed out to catch the first, which was only a dozen or so vintage model cars, with most seniors dressed to the nines, tossing small stuffed toys to the crowd. A few hours later a huge crowd lined Bourbon Street for a parade that had marching bands and dozens of floats. We soon learned that a New Orleans parade is all about the bling. Every float was filled with partiers tossing beaded necklaces and other goodies. Even as I stood with my camera in hand, I managed to snag my share.

The real fun came later in the day, though, when crowds gathered in the French Quarter for the Easter gay parade. No one seemed exactly sure of the route, but when we made our way to the intersection of Bourbon and St. Louis streets it became apparent we would not miss it there. We spent our time people watching — the Easter bonnets were amazing — until eventually the parade came toward us. The crowd was so thick that we could hardly see the parade, so we moved back to Royal Street and kept pace with it as it moved along. Eventually we were in a less congested area where people were waiting patiently. The parade found us, and again the bling came flying. This was undeniably the most fun of the three parades and there was a genuine sense of joy in the participants. The atmosphere in the crowd along the entire parade route was electric, not dampened in the least by the light rain.

As I write this on Monday morning, with a tour to a plantation scheduled for the afternoon, I can’t help but admire the residents here. They seem genuinely committed to keeping their culture going — music, food, parades, history. More than a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, the city has not recovered its population and some of the worst hit neighbourhoods have not been rebuilt. It’s hardly a secret that social engineering played a huge role in the rebuilding plans, with many of the housing projects that were home to generations of long-term, primarily black families who lived on welfare and wit. Backroom planning no doubt saw the Katrina damage as an opportunity to break the historic problem.

Of the many cities we have visited for more than a day or two, New Orleans tops my list of places I would be happy to return to. Nothing is taken for granted and nothing seems artificial. This is a love it or hate it place and those who love it stay, or return whenever they are able.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.