Beyond Bourbon Street:
Seeking the Real New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
“So, what have you seen since you’ve been in New Orleans?”
I ask this of four college students, all decked out head to toe in blue beads, blue hats, and blue University of Memphis t-shirts. They are here to watch their school’s football team participate in the New Orleans Bowl, Memphis’s first bowl appearance in over 30 years.
“Oh,” says one of them. “Bourbon Street. Harrah’s (Casino). You know, all the sights.”
Ah ha. And what about their fans on the other side, the green-clad supporters of the University of North Texas?
“Bourbon Street,” say five UNT students, almost in unison. I ask if they’ve seen anything else.
“The Real World house,” offers one.
For many tourists, these answers are not unusual. New Orleans begins and ends, for a large number of visitors, on Bourbon Street, that 24-hour full-swing party avenue that features block after block of bars boasting everything from Zydeco music to topless dancing.
The street itself is just as rowdy, with open containers fully legal and portions of the street closed to automobile traffic. It’s not difficult to fall into the party, and with such featured bar drinks as The Handgrenade, Jell-O Shooters and Hurricanes, Bourbon Street can easily turn New Orleans into the best town you don’t remember visiting.
And that’s a shame, because there is probably no other town in America that offers as many musical, architectural and gastronomical delights as this one.
For the visitor who wants more than a hangover, it is easy to stroll the entire French Quarter, New Orleans’ historic downtown section, without ever doing more on Bourbon than simply crossing the street. The French Quarter is a living museum, a time capsule visited by the present. It is also the closest you can get to Europe without needing a passport.
One block after another, you will find oyster bars, cafés, Voudoun shops, street performers, and beautiful old buildings. The place practically buzzes with history, and the secrets held within the buildings are frequently sublime. The Napoleon House Bar and Café, for example, appears on its front to be little more than a mildly interesting corner bar. Once inside, however, the visitor will discover a gorgeous, open-air, walled courtyard, which has been used in several films, and whose design has been reproduced in architectural designs around the world.
Surprises such as this occur often in the French Quarter. The Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street just off of Bourbon appears to be a somewhat fancy place on the outside. Inside, however, it’s the same old dive bar it’s always been, with renovation being done while you eat, and some of the best oysters you will find in the city.
New Orleans is good at offering great tastes for all price ranges. Uglesich’s on Baronne Street, with their incredible oysters, and Crabby Jack’s on Jefferson Highway, which serves arguably the best Po-boy sandwiches in the city, are prime examples of the New Orleans credo that the worse a restaurant looks, the better the food is. At the same time, more expensive spots like the French Quarter mainstay K-Paul’s and Commander’s Palace, a gorgeous fine dining establishment, consistently rank among the nation’s best restaurants.
There is probably no establishment more distinctive than Café Du Monde, an open air coffee shop that serves beignets (French donuts) loaded with powdered sugar, and café au lait, 24 hours a day. The house coffee, which is used in the café au lait, is brewed with chicory, a wood that was used in the original recipe to add flavor due to the high price of coffee. The distinctive flavor is repeated almost nowhere else in the world, and Café Du Monde has held on to its original recipe for 140 years with pride.
But as well known as the Big Easy is for its food and architecture, it is equally well known for its incredible musical tradition, a tradition that continues every night at such storied musical clubs as Tipitina’s and Preservation Hall, along with newer spots like the House of Blues. The birthplace of jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans has also been, and in some cases continues to be, the stomping ground of legendary performers like the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Al Hirt, Professor Longhair, The Meters, and Buckwheat Zydeco.
New Orleans also has perhaps the best street performers you will see anywhere in America, many of them performing in and around Jackson Square, where street vendors also compete for attention, selling everything from paintings to palm readings.
But as much as this city holds on to tradition, progress is clearly knocking on the door. New Orleans is growing fast, and much of it, like Harrah’s Casino and the gigantic mall that is the city’s Riverwalk, has a hard time fitting in with the ghost-filled landscape of the Quarter. Even the Warehouse District, which at one time housed most of the manufacturing in New Orleans, has become a den of high end clubs and condos for the wealthy children of white flight, looking for a hip downtown environment to ease into.
This is where restoration and preservation gets confused with urban renewal, where the line between maintaining a distinctive character while attempting to attract a wealthier population to a city notorious for its high crime rate and corrupt police force, becomes blurred. New Orleans, for all of its charm, is still a city with deep prejudices, and even though the racial dynamic between white and black is relatively calm, the lines of demarcation around who lives where are, sadly, very clear, and very much rooted in the past.
New Orleans is a totally unique American city. But the desire to hold on to the past must be watched carefully, lest it breed continuing race and class issues. At the same time, the city must monitor itself as it becomes more popular and grows that it does not turn into a gentrified shell of itself, where the living history that now dominates is little more than a sideshow attraction.
It is the tension between these two extremes, between the desire to move forward without gentrifying and the desire to save history without continuing to implement the poisons of economic and racial stratification, that will make New Orleans a fascinating place to observe and visit as the city continues to make its own, fascinating history.
That’s the real life of a real city, and it’s something you just can’t experience on Bourbon Street.