11.26.2006

Back to New Orleans, Gently

The New York Times

The New York Times by Matt Gross

IT was a Friday afternoon in late October, and the narrow lanes of the French Quarter were quiet. Fresh paint — pale green, robin’s egg blue, canary yellow — adorned the low, tidy Creole cottages, and the wrought-iron railings of town-house balconies shone blackly in the sunlight. The streets were free of litter, the air unpolluted by the musky odor of all-night parties. But as I wandered the beautiful Quarter, one question stuck in my mind: Where was everybody?

I suppose I already knew the answer. Since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, wreaking havoc across Louisiana and Mississippi, fewer than half the 485,000 residents of New Orleans Parish had returned to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even in the French Quarter, which was mostly spared the devastation visited upon neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward, “For Sale” signs hung from porch brackets, and on one street, a pickup truck had been abandoned, its hood open, its bed piled high with garbage.

This emptiness, disturbing and depressing as it was, turns out to be perversely beneficial for visitors — the city of exuberant indulgence has, almost overnight, become even more affordable. It’s a strange kind of affordability, though: Because tourists have yet to return en masse, the budget options sit wide out in the open, just waiting to be picked. Although rates have actually risen slightly, hotel deals still abound, last-minute reservations at hot restaurants are a phone call away and curbside parking actually exists. The Big Easy may no longer feel big, but it’s easier than ever.

At the same time, the frugal New Orleans experience can weigh heavily on your mind: How can you enjoy yourself when ravaged buildings (and lives) lurk around every corner? In seeking out discounts, are you exploiting the crippled city’s economic straits? And can mere tourism really help improve New Orleans’s fortunes?

I was determined to find out. Joined by my friend Tracy Jo, a punky redheaded poet from Houston, we planned an indulgent, affordable and, yes, ethical weekend in the Crescent City. We began by checking into the Hotel St. Pierre, a compound of former slaves’ quarters that had, in the 1960s, housed the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Our second-floor room was clean and basic (except for an elaborate gilded mirror), with a creaky balcony that overlooked a small swimming pool. At $99 a night, it was also the cheapest French Quarter hotel I could find.

Not that the other options were that much more expensive. For $20 or $30 more, we could have stayed at any of the half-dozen other slave-quarters-turned-hotels, or indeed almost any hotel in the metropolitan area — the average daily rate was $125.25 in July.

That’s actually $12 higher than pre-Katrina levels, a rise that the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau attributes to a 25 percent reduction in the number of rooms and the presence of so many government contractors. Unlike New York City after Sept. 11, there has been no concerted campaign to woo back tourists with discounts. Still, virtually all the hotels had specials starting under $200, even Le Pavillon, the 99-year-old bastion of New Orleans luxury, and the designer W New Orleans.

No data yet exist on whether tourists are taking advantage of these bargains, but judging from my experience that gorgeous weekend in October, I’d have to guess not.

NIGHTS at the St. Pierre were ghostly silent, with few, if any guests, moving through the lobby. At times, the only sign of life in the French Quarter was a lone dog-walker or a television flickering behind French doors. More visitors congregated around Jackson Square, the boardwalk along the Mississippi River, and, of course, the bars of Bourbon Street. But the only time I felt crowded in the French Quarter was in front of St. Louis Cathedral, where about 10 people had gathered to listen to a jazz trio. I instinctively fled, realizing too late that the audience was tiny, the music was good and that, in the new New Orleans, my tourist-trap alarm needed recalibration.

My escape route took me down Pirate’s Alley to Faulkner House Books, so named because William Faulkner had lived in the yellow town house while writing his first novel, “Soldier’s Pay.” Several of his first editions sat on the ceiling-high shelves, including “Absalom! Absalom!” for $1,750. I asked the employees if they’d lost much stock to Katrina and was met with dismissive smiles — nothing, they said, had been damaged. I got the feeling I wasn’t the first to ask.

It was eerie, this sense that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred in the French Quarter. But I felt a similar absence of Katrina in other tourist areas. The Garden District, an easy-to-stroll neighborhood of million-dollar Victorians, was in near-perfect shape, and the iron fence surrounding Rosegate, the Greek Revival mansion where Anne Rice once lived, was festooned with fake cobwebs in anticipation of Halloween.

Magazine Street, meanwhile, looked like yuppie-bohemian paradise, its six miles lined with po’ boy emporiums, makeup shops that looked like art galleries and art galleries that looked like po’ boy emporiums. The only signs of Katrina were, well, signs. “Stumps Removed,” said one nailed to a telephone pole. “Houses Gutted,” read another. “Road Closed,” warned a white-and-orange barrier, with “No Exceptions!” written in by hand.

But otherwise, the streets were empty. Magazine Street was positively sleepy on Friday and Saturday nights, though it was obvious why. Every store closed at 6 p.m. While no one could say for certain whether this was a post-Katrina phenomenon, it was clear that stores were not about to extend their hours for a customer base that did not exist. It’s a tragic feedback loop that makes it ever more difficult for visitors to return to New Orleans.

Luckily, the early closing afflicts mostly stores: the restaurants, cafes and bars still stay open into the wee hours, and it was at these establishments that Tracy Jo and I began to find our missing New Orleanians.

We started at Casamento’s, an oyster bar on Magazine Street with fluorescent lights and yellowish tiles that scream no-frills. Maybe it was the neighborhood vibe or the cheap oysters (a dozen raw were $7.80), but the restaurant was completely full and buzzing. We must have arrived early, because while I was powering through beautifully briny oysters, the line grew to reach the door. There appeared to be few tourists among them, and I was guiltily grateful that we had the city to ourselves.

After dinner, we headed to Le Bon Temps Roulé, a down-to-earth bar. In the back, a piano player was jamming modern Dixieland on an upright, accompanied by a percussionist who made use of everything around him: a bucket, a stool, a cardboard Budweiser box. Better yet, an oyster shucker was slicing open shells and doling them out free of charge. Was this, I wondered, a post-Katrina deal to lure back customers? Nope, the manager Laura Vidacovich told me later, free-oyster Fridays have been a Bon Temps tradition for years. In fact, she said, the Bon Temps was operating just as it had before the storm.

“We still have no cover for shows, we still have free oysters,” she said. “New Orleanians do not like change. They can barely get away with cleaning up the corrupt court system, let alone changing the prices at bars.”

New restaurants, too, are coming to life. Saturday night, we went to Cochon, a casual restaurant in the warehouse district that Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski opened last April, after a six-month Katrina delay. In line with the blond wood and picnic-chic décor, the menu, offers haute renditions of Cajun and Southern classics — none of which cost more than $19.

But while Mr. Stryjewski and Mr. Link had expected most of their clientele to come from the many nearby hotels, the city’s sagging tourism has turned Cochon into a haven for locals. When we arrived around at 7:15 p.m., having easily made a reservation that afternoon, every table was occupied by couples and families.

And no wonder: the food was excellent. I started off with a plate of fried boudin, the ubiquitous blood sausage, as well as fried chicken livers served with a spicy-sweet pepper jelly and refreshing shock of mint leaves. I followed it with the juicy Louisiana cochon (a pan-seared pulled-pork patty) and a perfect slice of lemon-buttermilk pie. Tracy Jo, a vegetarian, ordered a slew of non-meat sides but had to shush our waitress when she tried to explain that the lima beans and collard greens might contain, um, meat. She gobbled them up in blissful ignorance. Along with a couple of Sazerac cocktails, a potent New Orleans special, dinner for two came out to $107 — not bad for such a memorable feast.

Afterward, we drove to the nearby Circle Bar, which occupies a Victorian house that even pre-Katrina was said to have looked run-down. Now, in the shadow of the multicolored Hotel Le Cirque, it appeared ready to topple, though not before Tracy Jo and I sipped cheap bourbon, listened to 1960s garage rock and discovered that our waitress from Cochon had sat down next to us.

She was, we learned, Adrienne Lamb, a poet and — big surprise — blogger who’d been chronicling her post-hurricane travails on afterkatrina.blogspot.com. As she told us about her ups and downs — her flight to Florida, her anger and depression, her sudden divorce — I was reminded of the way New Yorkers like myself still find ourselves recounting our Sept. 11 experiences to total strangers. Now, though, I was on the receiving end, feeling conflictedly creepy for my curiosity.

There is, however, an antidote to feeling such guilt: volunteering — it’s like Lenten repentance after Mardi Gras. Tracy Jo and I woke up early Saturday morning and drove through the upper Ninth Ward, which, although it escaped the wreckage of the lower Ninth, was in abysmal shape. Everywhere we looked were caved-in roofs, houses ready to collapse.

We arrived at 4000 North Roman Street, where a compound of small houses in cheery blues, yellows, greens, reds and browns rose from a wide field of grass. This was the Musicians’ Village, a Habitat for Humanity project where we’d arranged to volunteer for the day, figuring that our labor would help as much as the dollars we were spending elsewhere.

We were not alone in our thinking: the village had 250 volunteers that morning — less, the organizers said, than they’d typically gotten on summer weekends. They split everyone into groups; I chose one where we’d be hammering nails, which is about the extent of my carpentry skills.

Twelve of us hopped in the back of a pickup and drove across the field to the worksite, a bare foundation of sand and cinderblocks reinforced by 35-foot pilings driven into the soft, damp soil. Under the direction of Ken Francois, the crew boss, we got to work building a floor system. First we laid a frame of 6-by-6’s atop the cinderblocks, and then filled it in with load-bearing joists.

By half-past ten, my hammer-bearing right hand was blistering, but I didn’t really care. It was a beautiful day and I got to meet my fellow volunteers. Some, like me, had come from New York City to tour Katrina-affected regions and were doing what they could to help. Others, like Kevin, a burly, bearded pediatrician, lived in New Orleans and were intent on resurrecting their city. Then there was Debra, a young woman with a sweet smile and 6-year-old son, who was hoping to live in this very house.

We banged and banged all day, and my aim and technique slowly improved. At one point, no-nonsense Ken came over, inspected my work and said, “That’s a nice, tight join.” I’d never felt so proud. When we finally broke for lunch — provided free by Loaves and Fishes — I devoured my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, hard-boiled egg and packet of Fritos with a hunger that comes from satisfying hard labor.

The workday ended at 2:30 p.m., and we returned to the St. Pierre with not only a sense of accomplishment but also a music tip: Kevin said that Frenchmen Street, just outside the Quarter, was his favorite spot for bands, and was livelier and less touristy than spots along Bourbon Street.

AND so that night, we headed to Frenchman Street, where there was easy parking and a bona fide crowd of revelers. They flowed up and down the street, some in scanty pre-Halloween costumes, others in jeans and T-shirt. A fair number were spilling from yuppie-free, charmingly grimy bars like the Spotted Cat and d.b.a. We paid a $5 cover at Kevin’s pick, d.b.a., bellied up to the bar, ordered a pair of Dead Guy ales and turned our attention to the small stage.

A local band called the Tin Men were playing a vaguely familiar cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The trio was comprised of a singer-guitarist, tuba player and Washboard Chaz, named after the instrument hanging on his chest. The version rocked, but when their set was over, we realized we’d been up 18 hours straight, finished our too-sweet ales and called it a night.

We awoke Sunday morning at the reasonably late hour of 9, had a nice brunch of eggs Dauphine (eggs Benedict with country ham and fried green tomatoes) at a sunny nearby cafe, Eat, and set off in search of the grave of Marie Laveau, the fabled voodoo queen. A beautiful, powerful black woman in pre-Civil War New Orleans, Laveau remains a figure of legend and mystery today — she’s appeared as a character in everything from blues tunes to Marvel Comics. Her tomb is a pilgrimage site. (Her reputed tomb, anyway: A new Laveau biography disputes many of the myths of her life — and death.)

The tomb was a few blocks away from our hotel, near the center of St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, the oldest in the city. But we took our time, since wandering the cemeteries of New Orleans is such a pleasant (and cheap) way to spend a Sunday morning. The aboveground crypts are marvelous reminders of the city’s past, topped with marble statues, the brass plates etched with names like Joachim A. Bermudez and Onesiphore St. Amand.

Laveau’s supposed crypt, however, is just a simple white block covered with triple X’s inscribed by devotees. Before the crypt were gifts they’d left: a candle, a guitar pick, Mardi Gras beads, a hollow tin cat, a scattering of small change and a slip of paper. Tracy Jo picked up the paper, unfolded it and showed it to me. Written in a child’s shaky hand was this request: “Please help me at school.” I added a quarter to the pile and hoped that the voodoo queen — or someone, anyone — was listening.