By Patricia H. Kushlis
"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at — Elysian Fields!" Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play A Street Car Named Desire, 1947.
The disaster named Katrina struck New Orleans more than five years ago when the levies broke and the floods that followed destroyed whole sections of the city, leaving thousands homeless and families and loved-ones among the dead. But the city’s main attraction, the French Quarter (Vieux Carré) stayed put: its Spanish colonial architecture and French cathedral did not wash away.
(Photo left of St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica and Andrew Jackson Statue in front by PHKushlis, 10-14-10)
Trolleys operate along Canal Street where the streets change names between the French Quarter and the city’s North. The Quarter’s statues of Andrew Jackson and Jean d’Arc are so bright and shiny that they look as if Katrina and her devastating wake had never even touched them. (Photo of Canal St. Trolley by PHKushlis 10-18-10)
Many businesses have long since reopened, and the free-wheeling pulse of the Quarter thrives perhaps in memory of its earliest settlers – the prostitutes, thieves and other derelicts sent by the French government to populate the new city. Or perhaps in honor of those hardworking German immigrants recruited thereafter to lend stability to this strategic port near the mouth of the mighty Mississippi.
The "Big Easy" Lives On
New Orleans is a friendly, anything goes kind of place. It didn’t get the nickname “The Big Easy” for no reason. Street musicians – in groups and solo - set up in the middle of intersections closed to traffic. They also perform in Jackson Square and on the Moonwalk - the riverside walk along the Mississippi’s embankment. Sounds of the saxophone, the sousaphone, the violin, the cello, the drum, the trumpet and far more exotic folk instruments permeate the air even mid-day. Sidewalk artists hawk their wares. Art galleries and antique shops along Royal Street are more circumspect. Horse drawn carriages show tourists places the automobile cannot go. (Photo of street musicians on Royal Street with horse and carriage in background by PHKushlis 10-18-10)
Even Free and Easy Has Its Limits
But the police tell vagrants and ne’er-do-wells to get a move on – smoking joints seated on the pavement near an art gallery on Royal Street at noon is an excellent way to hasten one’s departure to somewhere else. Free and easy has its limits – even here.
The French designed Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the Quarter's focal point. Its rare 15 stripe American flag as well as the flags of the countries – France, Spain, and Britain that preceded US rule - hang above the central aisle on the right side of the cathedral’s nave and beneath a fresco of the four evangelists and ten apostles (minus Peter and Judas). The cathedral is flanked by two identical French buildings – the Calbildo and the Presbytère – now housing collections of the Louisiana State Museum. (Photo of flags in St. Louis Cathedral by PHKushlis, 10-14-10)
City of Saints, Writers, Musicians and Sinners
William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers Pay, in the house at 624 Pirates Alley in 1925, a townhouse built in 1840 on a walking street on the cathedral’s north side. The townhouse now contains the Faulkner Book Store. Later, Tennessee Williams began A Street Car Named Desire when he lived at 632 St. Peter Street just minutes away.
Bourbon Street is its raucous self and dresses up for the Quarter’s all night Halloween party with noise and gusto. The Quarter’s ornate second story balconies provide excellent places to hang ghoulish banners, bizarre ornaments and strange signs to attract the attention of pedestrians and revelers below. Voodoo figures prominently in the decor and the celebrations. (Photo left of Plaque on Faulkner House and right of Bourbon Street bar decorating for Halloween by PHKushlis 10-14-10)
Halloween may not equal Mardi Gras, but a street party’s a party after all.
Restaurants and bars of all types, qualities and prices abound in and around the French Quarter many with Creole or Cajun fare. There’s Antoine’s, of course, the restaurant that figures in “The Big Easy” but there are many other lesser known including Lüke on Perdido, the Palace Café on Canal Street and Napoleon’s with its interior courtyard on Chartres (pronounced Charter), that are well worth the visit. (Photo of lights in a mirror at the Palace Café by PHKushlis 10-16-10)
The French Market – which now sells lots of cheap, imported goods many from China including voodoo dolls – also has a food stall overflowing with bright orange pumpkins presumably homegrown in Louisiana. One pumpkin sports the “Who Dat” logo of this city of Saints and Sinners. (Photo left of bright orange pumpkins by PHKushlis 10-14-10)
Beignets, powdered sugar and coffee
The crowded open air Café du Monde that begins the French Market and abuts Jackson Square only serves beignets (the local square donut sans hole and doused in powdered sugar) and coffee as it has for nearly 150 years. A Dixieland band in green and white complete with sousaphonist lustily performs on the sidewalk just outside and there’s no charge for listening. A lone saxophonist has set up store on the Moonwalk – performing and hawking his CDs. (Photo of sax player T.S. Lark by PHKushlis 10-14-10).
New Orleans natives continue to return as the city gets back on its feet: Some only to visit relatives, others to return for work. Nevertheless, the 2008 global financial melt-down slowed the recovery and the city's population may never be as large again.
One man we met who had lost everything and survived the storm in the Louisiana Superdome was offered a hotel job – if, that is, he would move to Michigan. He did. He told us he still works for the same hotel that offered him employment when he was destitute and that this was his first time back in New Orleans since his move to visit relatives who had remained.
A young woman – who had been working in Canada when Katrina hit - said matter of factly that her only sister had drowned in the flood, her mother had just died of cancer and she had recently returned to be with her father and brother. The three of them were restoring their battered house – bit by bit.
Tourists – including Canadians, Europeans and Asians – bring in dollars that help rebuild the city. Even so the sidewalks are uneven, the pavement chipped and dilapidated districts are found not far from the French Quarter. The freeway acts as a dividing line. These quarters represent a sadder side to this city’s life.
A refuge from restrictions at home
Nevertheless, this multi-ethnic city with its waterfront casinos, convention center on the river, downtown sports arena, universities, museums, aquarium and Preservation Hall where jazz greats performed and perform is unique to America as well as the South. It’s no wonder that Southern writers, artists and musicians have congregated here over the centuries seeking refuge from the restrictions of home. It’s pretty clear, they still do.
(Photo left: French Quarter balcony and photo right: Bridge over the Mississippi by PHKushlis 10-14-10)