Installment One of: The Seeples’ Guide to America's Greatest City
By Bryant Bell
NOLA, Nawlins, the Big Easy, the Crescent City, the Paris of the South, le Nouvelle-Orléans, Nueva Orleáns. I wasn’t born in New Orleans, and I didn’t actually move there until I was a teenager, so forgive my nativism de poseur, but I do emphatically suggest you consider a visit to my adopted home.
Alright, I’ll stop with the French. I won’t stop evangelizing, though. In this country of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, New Orleans is a curio of rhythm, spice, sensuality, and soul. The ghosts of history inhabit every corner, tradition is thick, humor writhes and bursts, and you cannot escape the music or the food. I’m not sure why you’d try. What other city could dare produce Lil’ Wayne, Anne Rice, Tyler Perry, and Ellen Degeneres?
At the root of New Orleans’ remarkable distinction among American cities is its unique Creole culture. While you will find the term Creole principally in the Caribbean, Europeans originally used it in the colonial period to identify inhabitants of full European ancestry that were born in the Americas. Over time it has come to take on conflicting meanings. Today, its usage in New Orleans aligns most closely with the concept of creolization, the mixing of West African, Indigenous American, and European cultures in the New World. The Catholic heritage of New Orleans that condoned interracial mixing and marriage along with the port city’s status as the country’s largest slave market in the antebellum period fostered this culture, which persists today in a way that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition that dominated the rest of the US would not have permitted.
As you may have guessed from that last sentence, despite my devotion, not all is well in New Orleans: the troubled aspects of its history have bled into the present. Perhaps you heard of the public battle last year over Confederate monuments that ultimately ended with their dismantling, and there are plenty of grave statistics. Any given year, the city is one of the contenders for murder capital of the nation. Incarceration rates in Louisiana lead the US, and those of the New Orleans metro area lead the state. Poverty is nearly double the national rate. New diagnoses of HIV skew the curve. Although it depends on your metric, the city has largely recovered from Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005. However, that disaster almost instantly wiped out much of the housing stock. Furthermore, the cause célèbre that the city became post Katrina attracted waves of new residents that gentrified. Under these stresses, New Orleans now has among the least affordable housing in the country relative to per capita income (yes, less affordable than New York or San Francisco). Situated below sea level, moderate rains a few months ago flooded hundreds of homes and cars due to faults in the pumping system managed by an infamously incompetent and corrupt public water utility. This January, a record stretch of freezes left thousands of residents with burst pipes and no water.
Sounds like a great vacation, right? Let these tales not weaken but strengthen your resolve, my dear friends and colleagues. New Orleans needs your tourist dollars, and you’re going to f***ing love it.
So without further ado, I present to you The Seeples’ Guide to America’s Greatest City:
“When you go see the Mardi Gras, somebody’ll tell you what’s Carnival for”
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the culmination of Carnival season, which starts January 6th on Three Kings’ Day and ends 40 days before Easter. This year the day falls on February 13th. Next year’s is March 5th, but you don’t have to visit the final long weekend. As you can see from this year’s parade schedule, the festivities pick up the last three weekends before the big day.
Of the parades, I highly recommend:
Krewe du Vieux - the first big parade of the season, and the most irreverent and satirical‘Tit Rex - (‘tit from petit) a parade in miniature
Chewbacchus - a funny science fiction extravaganza
Barkus - lots of dogs in costume!
Muses - all femme and fabulous
Endymion - one of the best of the big ones
Bacchus - the other best of the big ones
Zulu - on Fat Tuesday and the granddaddy of them all
However! Mardi Gras is at its best when it’s participatory and not just a spectator sport, so get your best costume together and check out Eris or Red Beans, two of the walking parades where you can hop right in, and while Zulu is a wonderful sight to behold, my ideal Mardi Gras morning kicks off at about 7:30am on the balcony at Mimi’s in the Marigny, where I wait to join the Krewe of Saint Anne, a walking parade that I follow into the French Quarter, New Orleans’ historic downtown.
Can’t Go to Mardi Gras? Go to a Sunday Second Line
Mardi Gras comes but once a year, but the Sunday second lines are every week (from September through May, at least). Second lines are walking processions with brass bands that are often conducted for weddings and funerals, but the Sunday second lines are put on by social aid, pleasure clubs, and African-American neighborhood associations established in the times of Jim Crow to organize and socialize in spaces fortified against police repression. Today, each club has a Mardi Gras Indian chief and sponsors a second line in their respective neighborhood. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with a second line in the Tremé neighborhood. The second lines there are my favorite. It doesn’t get much better than dancers framed by the porches of the historic and colorful Creole cottages.
For a homespun take on social aid and pleasure clubs and to see up close some beautiful, preserved Mardi Gras Indian costumes, check out the Backstreet Cultural Museum. This passion project created by a now-elderly Mardi Gras Indian couple is located in a two-room house where you get a personalized tour from the very personable and hospitable owners.
Where to Stay: Uptown is Nice, but Downtown is Spice
For tourists, the choice of where to stay is often between Uptown or Downtown. I recommend you stay Downtown, and specifically in or around the Marigny, the neighborhood directly east of the French Quarter. Uptown, with plenty of its own quirky charm and typically beautiful Southern mansions on oak-lined streets, would be the coolest neighborhood in any other American city, but Downtown is the heart of Creole culture, more dense, with bright colors reminiscent of Havana or Cartagena, and the place to situate yourself for the best attractions.
Airbnb has become very controversial in New Orleans, because it is seen both as a boon to tourism and a factor compounding the housing affordability crisis. Full disclosure, I hosted Airbnb myself there before it really got hot as an issue, so if you’re going to book an Airbnb, perhaps try to rent a room in a house in which there are long-term occupants and not one solely dedicated to short-term rentals. Or if you want to be as mindful as possible on the issue, there are some reasonably priced hostels, hotels, and bed and breakfasts, especially if you’re not visiting during a peak period.
That’s all for now…
Look out for upcoming installments of The Guide, where I’ll dish my best on such topics as music, food, art, dance parties, the LGBTQ scene, and some hidden gems of that sinking, shining city on a swamp. Till then, laissez les bons temps rouler.