Read an Excerpt
Let the Good Times Roll
A fine spring evening in Jackson Square. As the sun gradually lowers, the shadows of St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo stretch across the flagstones, brushing the tables of the tarot readers; young couples with souvenir hurricane cups stand around a man playing saxophone, its case open in front of him.
And there it is, the mystique of New Orleans in a single vignette: empire, religion, music, voodoo, and alcohol. Laissez les bons temps rouler -- let the good times roll.
And yet there are some who say that what passes for "good times" is rolling too long and too strong these days. There is a battle raging for the soul of New Orleans, most visibly in and around the French Quarter; and while it is not a contest between good and evil, at least not in the classical sense, it will in the next few years determine whether the character of this unique city is lost, restored, or permanently altered.
That the character of the Vieux Carré has already changed is clear from a few hours' acquaintance. An odd confluence of factors -- renovation of some older houses into upscale condominiums and the gradual decline of others; a much-publicized increase in street crime and heavy investment by outside commercial interests into redevelopment, frequently uprooting smaller local firms -- has reduced the number of the French Quarter's permanent residents from about 15,000 a generation ago to fewer than 3,300 today. And of those, a dispiriting percentage are derelicts, street kids, and drunks, all looking for handouts and all with their vanished ambitions etched in their faces. A high tide of cheap-souvenir and T-shirt shops has swamped Bourbon Street, and glossy, private club-style strip joints, several bankrolled from out of town, are squeezing out the older, more authentic burlesque houses. At the same time, the number of bars offering heavily amplified rock and blues music, their doors open and competing for volume dominance, makes the retreat of jazz and Dixieland more obvious. Sit-down bars that specialized in classic New Orleans cocktails such as hurricanes and Sazeracs, touristy though they may have seemed before, now appear almost quaintly sophisticated in the face of carryout frozen margarita and daiquiri counters with their crayon-colored mixes spinning in laundromat-like rows.
Yes, souvenir shops are brighter than bars, but they certainly have less character. Sure, live blues is great, but it's more Texan than Louisianian. Mardi Gras, once the most elegant and elaborate of festivities, has become the world's largest frat party, its traditions degraded, its legends distorted, and its principal actors, the Grand Krewes, overshadowed by the mobs of drinking and disrobing "spectators." Several of the oldest and most prestigious krewes have withdrawn from the celebration, and travel agents say as many residents flee New Orleans during Carnival as tourists come in.
Altogether, New Orleans is in danger of becoming a parody of itself, a mini-Epcot or Busch Gardens' Old Country simulacrum. The posters and prints feature wrought-iron fences, but the real courtyards are gated and locked tight. Steamboats play recorded music intentionally out of tune -- "old-fashioned" in the hokiest sense. Self-appointed tour guides mix all their legends together: the statue in St. Anthony's Garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, memorializing French sailors who volunteered as nurses during a yellow fever epidemic, has even been explained as "the Mardi Gras Jesus" because the statue's outstretched hands are supposedly reaching for throws! And now life imitates, well, imitation: a 100-acre theme park called Jazzland is under construction only a few miles out of town.
And yet for all the tawdriness and commercialization, one cannot help falling under the city's spell. It is a foreign country within American borders, not merely a multilingual hodgepodge like Miami or New York, but a true Creole society blended through centuries. It is Old South in style, New South in ambition. It has a natural beauty that refutes even the most frivolous of franchised structures, a tradition of craftsmanship and even luxury that demands aesthetic scrutiny and surrender, and a flair for almost exquisite silliness -- like those Jackson Square psychics with their Pier 1 Imports turbans -- that keeps all New Orleanians young. Fine arts, fashionable cuisine, voodoo, vampires, and Mardi Gras. It's all muddled up, sometimes enchanting, sometimes infuriating.
We hope to help you find the real New Orleans, the old and gracious one, that is just now in the shadow of the Big Too-Easy. We want to open your heart, not your wallet. We think you should leave Bourbon Street behind and visit City Park, one of the finest and most wide-ranging public facilities in the United States. We want you to see Longue Vue House as well as St. Louis Cemetery. We'd like you to admire not only the townhouses of Royal Street and the mansions of St. Charles but the warehouses and row houses of the Arts District -- the combined Greenwich Village and TriBeCa of New Orleans. We hope you'll walk Chartres Street in the evening shade, watch the mighty Mississippi churn contemptuously past the man-made barriers, and smell the chicory, whiskey, and pungent swamp water all mixed together the way Andy Jackson and Jean Lafitte might have the night before the great battle.
So get ready, get set, go. Laissez les bons temps rouler!