As the last snowstorm of the winter swept through the Hamptons, my wife, Chris, and I decided we should take five days, go down to New Orleans and enjoy the warm weather there.
She’d never been there. I’d been there only once, and that was for an overnight. I recall a lovely downtown area called Jackson Square. I recall that the new Superdome was under construction. And I recall having breakfast at Brennan’s, a restaurant famous for breakfast in that era. Having breakfast that morning was our Vice President. His Secret Service men stood around. Spiro Agnew had a big breakfast. So that’s how long ago this was.
New Orleans is one of the strangest cities in America. In my mind I had considered it to be a centerpiece of jazz, Mardi Gras, the French Quarter, Bourbon Street and Creole cooking. I was right about that. I also believed it was a port city on the Gulf of Mexico and that many people there spoke French. I was wrong about both of those things. New Orleans is on a bend of the Mississippi River about 10 miles up from the coast. As for French, there aren’t even any French restaurants in town that I could find.
The city was founded in 1746 by the French. They built a stunning little French port town here, a remarkable collection of two- and three-story row houses, 12 blocks long and 10 blocks deep. The streets were narrow and cobblestoned and the buildings fronted on the second and third floor with beautiful outdoor patios laced with iron railings. You could almost jump across the street one to the other. This is all here today, and you would never believe you were in America, walking up and down these streets.
But if the French Quarter is of-a-piece—go to the Spotted Cat for jazz, the French Market for fresh fruits and vegetables, Jackson Square for art, hippies and outdoor jazz concerts, go to Bourbon Street for the nightlife scene and for the Harper Lee Warlock fortune tellers—the rest is spread out and much like any small city in America.
It is a city of universities, skyscrapers, oil refineries, beautiful parks, trolley cars, a Harrah’s gambling casino, grand 19th century English mansions, southern plantations, an aquarium, wetlands and a huge lake the back of which has great fishing. There is also still stuff leftover from Hurricane Katrina. All of the above are not in the French Quarter, which went through the hurricane unscathed. Also not in the French Quarter are the Superdome, the nearby marshlands and what is ranked by TripAdvisor as the fourth best tourist site in America (and the best tourist site in New Orleans), the $1B Museum of World War II.
Chris and I made really good use of the five days we were there. We stayed at the Whitney Hotel, a historic hotel that started life downtown in 1909 as the Metropolitan Bank. Everything is just as it was when it was a bank. The reception area is in a space that had been for safe deposit boxes. The restaurant is in what was the grand bank lobby with the teller windows. The bank vault is now a conference room. There are 20-foot ceilings, chandeliers, elevators that go up to where the law offices and business offices once were. This is a historic place that cannot be altered in any way. It is beautiful, Victorian and splendid. And one part of it on the ground floor, behind a large panel separating it from the restaurant, is indeed the branch of the Whitney Bank. So bank business is still done here.
The Whitney, while small, is centrally located about four blocks from the westerly boundary of the French Quarter. It’s amid skyscrapers downtown. It’s a good place to stay. And it is very accessible by trolley car to any of the attractions you might like to go to in New Orleans. There are six trolley car routes. The cost is $2.40 a ride. And they take you everywhere, but not into the French Quarter. And that begins to explain why downtown, and the Garden District, and the War Museum and the Superdome seem to have nothing to do with the French Quarter, either. Indeed, the Mardi Gras parade doesn’t even pass through the French Quarter anymore. The floats are too big to fit down the streets. They pass along Canal Street, the main boulevard of New Orleans that separates the French from the English. Which, as those in-the-know know, is really what is going on here.
We took the St. Charles Trolley car about a mile out of town (80 cents for seniors) to a tour of the Garden District, an assemblage of huge 8,000-square-foot English mansions on five or six acres each (one is owned today by Sandra Bullock, another by John Goodman). You might have thought you were in the wealthy Mayfair Section of London. How could this be?
“Canal Street kept the French on one side and the newer arrivals, the English and Americans on the other,” our guide, a Mrs. Jane Orr, told us. “They could go there to shop. Shake hands. But never meet.”
New Orleans, founded by the French in 1740, was meant as a trading town for the home country. There were just the Indians here. The French exported furs and everything else from upstream. New Orleans was a rough sailor and pirate town.
But by 1800, the French were getting tired of having an empire in the Americas. They were at war with England. The Spanish were present and, for a brief time, took over New Orleans. Then the Americans came and said we wanted it. Napoleon happily sold the Americans New Orleans in 1804, and also the entire Louisiana Purchase that subsequently became 13 new states all the way up to the Canadian border. The cost was about 2 cents an acre.
From there on in, the French Quarter went through booms and busts, while the area to the west of the Quarter became a true American city with great years of prosperity. Thus was founded the downtown, the refineries, the skyscrapers, the trolley cars and the Superdome, with the money made used to build the great mansions of the Garden District. “Bob Dylan rented one of these mansions in the 1970s,” Mrs. Orr told us. “One morning he was seen through a window, playing the piano in his living room, naked. It was soon made clear to him he could not remain in town.” Perhaps in the French Quarter, if they’d have him. (In those days, the Garden District was the City of Lafayette. It merged into New Orleans around 1900.)
Probably the best way to get a sense of New Orleans is to take the 250-foot-long Natchez Riverboat cruise that leaves the dock on the river at the French Quarter every morning at 11. You will see where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in the War of 1812. You will see the refineries down the way. You will see the barges coming up and down the Mississippi, which, by the way, is very muddy here. There are no tides. It just roars along. There’s a jazz band on this boat, a classic New Orleans lunch, dancing, you can visit the engine room with its 1830 iron transmissions and steam boilers chugging the craft along by paddlewheel.
Walk the Old Quarter. We listened to a great jazz group at the north end of Jackson Square. Enjoy a classic creole fish chowder at the Red Fish at the corner of Bourbon and Canal. Have fine crab soup and baked oysters at the Annunciation, watch the films of Hurricane Katrina at the Presbyère, which fronts Jackson Square, and visit the World War II museum and take the tours “Road to Tokyo” and “Road to Berlin” and have a malted in the canteen afterwards. In the great hall there are B-24 bombers hanging from the ceiling and a WWII landing craft—12,000 of which were built by Higgins for the Normandy Landing right here in a factory in what is now the Artsy Warehouse District of New Orleans.