The Intoxicatig, Tradition-Steeped Charm of New Orleans
BY SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
Feelings Café in the Marigny neighborhood, one of dozens of dilapidated but colorful spots that demonstrate the city’s reverence for its past.
With its last-frontier appeal and magical mixed bag of culture, New Orleans is quietly luring a circle of expats, who find an evolving city that’s just the right amount of undone.
Over Miller High Lifes out on the porch at Vaughan’s, a local dive, trying to stay dry during yet another hurricane season, I chat with two writers, David Amsden and Brett Martin, about taking part in a somewhat counterintuitive mass migration — from Bloomberg’s spiffed-up New York to post-Katrina New Orleans, a dangerous and ruined city — to make a living and remake a life. “The storm put New Orleans on the map in a new way,” Amsden says, noting that after a while, “the disaster tourists left, but the romantics kept thinking about it.”
“It’s a pretty self-selecting city,” agrees Martin, who decamped from Brooklyn almost three years ago to work on his book. “It’s not for everybody.”
Later that evening, at Booty’s Street Food, Solange Knowles, who splits her time between Brooklyn and New Orleans, turns up for empanadas, her son, Julez, in tow. “There’s an unexplainable magic here which I don’t bother trying to intellectualize,” she explains.
Part of the allure, of course, is that even post-Katrina, New Orleans looks like a movie set. The relentless strip malling of the rest of the country has largely left the Big Easy alone, and the city retains its intoxicating charm. One-off boutiques line Magazine Street, where, unbelievably, there is but a single Starbucks. Many houses still feature working gaslights from the family-owned Bevelo Gas and Electric Lights, and you can always find a bar stool at any hour of the day or night. For transplants and locals both, the city still feels ripe for discovery — something that’s increasingly hard to say about New York.
New Orleans, in contrast to spiffed-up megacities like New York, has retained its many authentic charms. More…
Still, I spent roughly the first six months of my new life here in a sort of panicked, “What have I done?” state of mind. My husband, Paul, and I impulsively decided to immigrate from downtown Manhattan within minutes of being shown a crumbling old manse in the Garden District. In part, it was the house itself, but there was something else: the bewitching last-frontier appeal of an idyllic small town that seemed to promise real human connection and a chance to disappear at the same time. Still, becoming a former New Yorker was harder than I anticipated. Having been born and raised in Virginia and schooled at Tulane, I had spent my adult life trying to shed my Southern roots. And here I was, back in the deepest South. I worried I’d stay in pajamas all day and miss out on the A-list culture I’d enjoyed in New York.
Before long, I’d ditched my car for a bike, partly to work off too many fried oysters, but mainly to take in this remarkable city at a different pace. Pedaling through the French Quarter (in pajama pants, thank you), bypassing the neon glare of Bourbon Street, I am always blown into a time warp. But even in the Quarter, there are signs of change. In the rear of the Erin Rose bar (open on average 21 hours a day), a classic joint in a century-old building with a crusty patina and mixed clientele — some with teeth — I visit a 50-square-foot pop-up gourmet kitchen, Killer Poboys, where that classic sandwich is being reinvented with locally grown ingredients on fresh bread from a Vietnamese bakery.
Next to the Quarter in the thriving Marigny neighborhood, a live-music destination with a pocket subculture unto itself, I cruise past colorful Creole cottages and a local favorite, Feelings Café, with its peeling plaster facade. Sometimes I head out toward the slightly more punk areas of St. John and Bywater, where artists and musicians are colonizing old warehouses large enough to make things like furniture and beer and massive art installations.
But change is incremental in a town whose culture is fiercely guarded. Music clubs like Preservation Hall and restaurants like Commander’s Palace still pull in a devoted local following. Only New Orleans, where brass instruments and marching bands are required courses for school kids, could produce a musical wunderkind like Trombone Shorty and his funk hip-hop band. Perhaps because of its continuing travails, the Big Easy remains one of the most tradition-steeped cities in America. As Bob Dylan once put it, “The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here.”
At Sylvain, for instance, a three-year-old Southern bistro on Chartres Street, the co-owner Robert LeBlanc makes sure the last thing his bartender does before closing is to pour a lowball glass of Sazerac and light the candle that sits on the bar. Call it a buy-back for the resident ghost, Aunt Rose Arnold, a former madame who LeBlanc insists still haunts the building.
Indeed, sometimes it seems as though the whole city is negotiating with ghosts — more so than ever in the wake of Katrina. “After the storm, we lost a lot of talented singers,” laments Tom B. Watson, the senior pastor at the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries on St. Charles Avenue. “There was no money to get back home, and no jobs even if you did find a way back.” My family and I discovered Watson’s choir in the gospel tent at Jazz Fest and showed up a couple of Sundays later at church. We were not disappointed. Listening to one of Watson’s Sunday morning sermons is transportive. The message is powerful, the pew-dancing ebullient, and when the pastor wants to emphasize a particular point, he’ll call out to the organist, James Brown-style, for a B flat. “The economic divide in the city is obvious,” he points out, “but the glue that keeps the town rolling is the culture. The music, the food and the Saints.”
That culture, which survived Katrina fully intact, is central to the recent gentrification boom that has seduced my family and so many others. A remarkable new flowering of that culture is what finally convinced me, on a pivotal night down in the Ninth Ward, that I’d made the right choice. On Piety Street, the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin shares a shotgun house with Jay Pennington (a k a Rusty Lazer), a D.J., bounce-music booster and co-director of a public-art organization, the New Orleans Airlift. Next door, in an empty lot, Airlift had constructed an ambitious live performance piece called the Music Box. A jumble of small huts built with wood planks salvaged from an abandoned cottage and then outfitted with a variety of handmade instruments, it was an otherworldly, alfresco musical shantytown. It was only there, during one extraordinary performance, as I sat on a bench in the flickering candlelight, surrounded by a surprisingly diverse community bound by a common creative purpose, that I fully grasped the possibilities of this magical place.