Let’s take a ride through the Crescent City to fill your lungs and pop your brain. New Orleans right now is an open canvas that holds enough time, cheap living, and raw material to create, salvage, and re-form. It’s a place and a way of life where people are buzzing, buzzing, buzzing and completing their art and celebration in decadent style. If that sounds like tasty waves, this tour will give you some impressions and highlights to craft your own adventure. When I talk about the city, I’m going to sound like a true believer because I am one. I’ve been to Rio, I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Portland – I’ve been around to a bunch of places with creative scenes – and there is something special going on in New Orleans. It was my first time, and this is a full-on ecstatic tourist’s take on what was soaked up on the first run combined with the more informed insights of my gracious hosts like Chris Buerkle and Rusty Lazer who make it their home.
What struck me most about New Orleans was how active artists are there, how free it feels to fly around exploring it, and how down everyone is to build from scratch. Despite this being one of the world’s great party cities, people are making their ideas and projects happen, from costumes to events to physical works to starting their own restaurants. And at the same time, rest assured that every party I cruised through was a good one. Because of its nature and history, there’s an idiosyncratic dynamic where pursuing your work and passion in New Orleans is fused with your nightlife and partying, because so much of the participation necessary for accomplishing projects is based on bringing people together and celebrating. A great case in point is Dithyrambalina’s creation, The Music Box. It’s an experiment that should lead to a musical cathedral of unprecedented scale and substance, where almost every part of the structure and its guts are musical architecture that can be played by all kinds of different people across musical genres. Here’s an idea:
Watching people interact with one another on the street showed me how something like it could come alive in this context. I saw evidence of strong civil society: strangers would greet you goodnaturedly on the street, people came out of their front doors to watch the Dia de Los Muertos Parade go by, and neighbors of different backgrounds and colors sent their kids out trick-or-treating together. But in spite of this social fabric, my hosts explained to me that it’s also a threadbare and very dangerous place to live. Poverty, strong economic mechanical problems, and the far-reaching consequences of Katrina – like kids getting spun out of the education system and never being brought back into it – make New Orleans a place where it’s common to get violently mugged coming home late at night and where home invasions take place. It’s rough and desperation sets in when the economy is bleak for so long and the city is so over-reliant on the tourism industry. Yet against this backdrop, it looks like one important aspect of the city’s economy is changing for the better, as the film and television industries have begun using New Orleans more and more as an affordable location of choice, with attractive tax incentives and the nickname “Hollywood South.” The trick then will be figuring out how to spread that work and money around and how much life it can breathe into the rest of the system.
So not all paradise. But some kind of paradise. Another strong feature of the current environment is the outsider quality of young people in the city. I was there for a reunion with some of my closest, wildest friends during Halloween time, and I stayed some of my days with Chris who made the move there three months ago. What he outlined to me in his experience getting to know everyone is that a lot of the kids making their scene there now gravitated to New Orleans for its spirit, and feel at home in its nature where it’s a very good thing to be different, to be strange, to be charging it with abandon. They often come from places outside of this haven that have tried to stifle them, so they’re not instantly trusting and insulate themselves a bit. If you come in from the outside and try to quickly bro down, they may think you’re trying to make fun of them or are unsure of your ways and intentions. There’s also a constant influx of mainstream culture and social modes in the French Quarter – even as more normal people are partying their brains out and letting loose – so young people in NOLA aren’t completely free of pressure against being themselves and being as weird as they want to be. So if you head down, make sure to bring some respect for the way things are there and some extra patience as you make conversation. After a little initial uneasiness, people will let you in.
Those are the impressions, and now to the nuts and bolts of enjoying yourself. If we suppose that you’re being born into the city by plane, make sure you’ve got at least $60 bucks cash on hand as you make your way into it from the airport (MSY) by cab. It sounds like the city buses run during the day but stop doing their rounds from the airport around 11 at night, and with NOLA’s long torso, it seems complex to use them to go to the city’s main neighborhoods. Getting in that cab, it’s about a $40 base fare to the start of the city and then it becomes metered from a street called Elysian Fields. Once you’re in the thick of it though, you can use the buses and streetcars to get around pretty easily. It’s not the best public transportation system, but with some transfers you can get where you want to go, and seeing the downtown area around Canal by streetcar, you soak up the grand, continental and casino-feeling quality of the city center. With its design and architecture, this area will explain why New Orleans is called by some the most European of American cities; replete with bobbing palm fronds and wide, wide boulevards, it looks and feels like you’re in Spain, France, or one of their other former colonies.
As soon as you’re settled, I’d like to shout out bicycling to get to know the city. You’ve got to be careful because as noted, it’s common to get mugged coming home late, and oftentimes this will happen on a bike by being run up on by people on foot or by being cornered by a car. But if you can keep your wits about you, it’s an inexpensive way to move freely between the different organs of NOLA, to be in it, absorbing it all without being closed in in a car on the main streets. To boot, it’s a good way to support the rental economy too. I traveled mostly by skitching along behind my friends’ bikes on my board or riding rented ones, and simply riding through the streets listening to the sounds and not-sounds of the city was one of my biggest thrills there. I felt free and I loved it!
Whichever way you choose to get around, you’ll probably start zoning out on all of the beautiful houses, the palm trees, and the noisy heat as you make your way. Nature rules and the human attempts to keep up with it are consuming and magnetic. From the crummiest places to the most elegant mansions, the houses will get you. Due to historical trends where New Orleans’ influence, trade, and industrial activity began to wane after 1860 and the devastation of the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788, the majority of homes sit in a range of bright, tropical architectural styles with contrasting shutters and moldings that will leave you staring. Something cool for DIY projects and groups of friends working together in this environment is that houses can be rented affordably, so a lot of the good parties you’ll go to are at punk houses or the centers of artists’ collectives that have transformed these old homes into weird worlds: part dress-up, part Dark Crystal, and other parts mess, bikes, muddy sneakers, and storehouses of old books and far-flung relatives from thrift stores.
Then when it’s time to eat, food in New Orleans is no small thing. There’s a lot of care, thought, and richness put into your options. For breakfast, places like Saint Coffee and Satsuma set a good standard and welcome their patrons with a warm nonchalance. Your boy didn’t get to eat at the city’s staple Café du Monde, but passing by, it was always a bustling madhouse and the food and presentation, especially its signature coffee and beignets, were hella tight. For lunch and dinner, you’ve got to figure out your balance of affordability and healthiness. The go-to fare are heavy, greasy, meat and seafood-driven dishes like Po’ Boy and Muffuletta sandwiches. Other options that aren’t super expensive are scarce, but if you search around, you can find places with salads and there’s a fast-food style, but actually pretty healthy and a step above Chipotle Mexican restaurant called Felipe’s Taqueria near Decatur and Canal. The burritos are bomb, big, and hover below $7 bucks. If you’re into pizza and a good vibe, Pizza Delicious makes a distinct mark with a unique menu and rocks student-made artwork on the walls from a local community creative studio. And if you are really going to treat yourself and lay the bills down, Elizabeth’s decorated by Doctor Bob is your place to pick a meal with an interlaced collection of quality parts comforted by sauces and preparation that figuratively can be summarized as gravy. Examples include Berkshire pork Osso-Bucco over fried grit cake or smoked tofu spinach chick peas and roast garlic sauce.
To spend your days in anticipation for the acceleration of the nightlife, try venturing out on foot to pass through the different neighborhoods, especially to get to know the water-hewn shape that has molded New Orleans. Downtown, you can walk along the waterline watching the big ships creep by, in other corners you can check out the levies, and going real far you can visit the End of the World to see the power of the streams so central to the city. In that vein, Crescent Park is a big gleaming new park that makes an audience for the water. It’s got an amphitheatre, bike paths, and flows along as a greenway-style promenade. We’ll see what happens with it because it’s removed from the neighboring physical space ‒ you have to cross a trestle to get in and out of it, and if it’s not patrolled well, it could become an easy place to get held up. Despite its beauty and potential, it quietly sits you between the mostly human-less expanse of water and ships on one side and the railroad tracks on the other. But if it goes the other way, it could be a sun-baked addition to all of the good in New Orleans.
As the sun goes down and you prepare for your adventures to start, try out New Orleans daiquiris at a place that picks your fancy. Profiled by VICE earlier this year, this genius creation is so cold and so good you’ll want it to be never-ending, and you definitely will make that last little bits straw sound. My recommendation is for Gabby’s, a good bet for a great, inexpensive one in a down-home place with novel flavors, air-brushed imagery, and the killer Piña Colada. From there, talk to people, scrounge around for flyers, and find out where the parties and alive-and-booming bars are. So much rich, pulsing music is being poured out by entertainers and so much electricity churned out in exchange by their audiences, it’s like a universal tap of energy turned on in all of these places. I don’t want to even spotlight one type of music or one venue, because there are so many choices and they are all so good. The deciding factor is what strikes a feeling. So you just have to pick the particular lightswitch you want to turn the juice on, and go with the night where it takes you.
That brings the tour to an end. Thanks for coming along, and now go play. The city will make a believer out of you, too.