Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mixed Bag Part I: Love, New Orleans

The Plants

If the calendar is to be believed, summer is a month away, but judging by the jungle cropping up on either side of our two story home, New Orleans has already arrived. The wisteria vine has already bloomed and gone, along with the bougainvillea. Now, the plantains that were leveled by frost this winter are already shooting up with fronds taller and wider than me. My favorite, though, is the fig tree. This squirrelly relic of Eden decides to get up close and personal every growing season. Its branches reach out to our front door and bathroom windows, sprouting frisbee-sized leaves that wave hello in the breeze. Our landlord offers to cut them back, but the truth is, I love this friendly, nosy tree. I like having to duck when I come in the door; I enjoy the fig tree’s leafy company.

At night, the jasmine blooms and its sweet, heavy perfume teases our noses. I don’t believe I’ve been gifted with the keenest sense of smell, but the smell of jasmine is arresting. Similar to lilacs, jasmine puts its scent out there for anyone to smell as if to say, hey! Welcome to my general vicinity. Don’t I smell fabulous?

And then there are those famous old oaks. Their Goliath roots make no secret of their laborious task: they push away soil and cement to reveal knobby knees weary from supporting the untempered spread above. Some branches just give up and rest on the ground, and spanish moss grows like grey hair on every surface.

The Buildings

In the 1960s, someone thought it was a good idea to start building brick ramblers on the outskirts of the city. As far as I can tell, these eyesores are the one architectural blemish I can see in the whole city.

When Joshua and I arrived two years ago, the buildings were the first things I noticed. I felt as though we had driven across the bayou and into another country all together. No where else in the United States have I seen such a unique and distinct style of architecture. Within the city limits, commercial buildings are few and far between. While there is one WalMart, a handful of Rally’s, Church’s, and McDonalds, and a couple of Walgreens, this city seems to be utterly devoid of the chains and strips common to so many other American cities. In their place are boutiques, small neighborhood grocers, and family owned restaurants set in hundred year old buildings.

The domestic architecture is even better. In the French Quarter, the homes and businesses sit side by side and on top of one another. It feels very European because there is a certain efficiency of space, and of course, the iconic wrought iron balconies drip with ferns, fronds, and flowers. There is color everywhere. Pink, yellow, blue, and green seem to be favorites, and it is not at all uncommon to see homes with an unapologetic combination of all four.

Joshua and I live behind a double shotgun creole cottage. The term “shotgun” basically means that the floorplan is laid out in such a way that each room opens onto another room, as if in single file. There are single shotgun homes and double shotgun homes; think of them as single and double file. A creole cottage is named for its original home builders and owners. The french term “creole” refers to a free African American. Usually, creole cottages have a formal side and a domestic side. The formal side would have been used for running the family business, and this side usually has the beautiful dental molding and elaborate ceiling roundels. On the outside, creole cottages have beautiful carved wood detailing that hangs down from the portico. Tall shutters and detailed iron grating finishes the classic New Orleans look.

Uptown, the homes expand upwards and outwards, and St. Charles is lined on either side by stately mansions with decidedly more space to breathe. Here, the trees reach over the road, spreading a canopy sparkling with Mardi Gras beads.

The Neighborhoods

There’s the Marigny, the Bywater, the Treme, Midcity, Gentilly, the French Quarter, the Central Business District, Broadmoor, Uptown, Carrollton, the Riverbend, the Garden District and the Irish Channel.

The Marigny and the Bywater occupy the two square miles or so east of the French Quarter. The Marigny is home to Frenchmen, a street lined with young and hip bars and clubs. Surrounding Frenchmen, the homes are well expensive and well kept, but overall, this is seen as the less touristy, but still extremely lively hipster offshoot of the French Quarter. The Bywater borders the channel and is technically part of the ninth ward. While many of the homes are renovated, just as many are falling apart. There are a couple of lesser known bars and restaurants in the area, and neighborhood is dominated by artists and musicians.

The Treme is a historically black neighborhood flanking the northern border of the French Quarter. It’s less integrated than some of the other neighborhoods, and it has a strong musical presence in the city. Midcity lies to the north, and is bordered by the fairgrounds and City Park, one of my favorite places. In general, Midcity is pretty diverse, and there is even a latino community within its borders. Gentilly borders Lake Ponchartrain and contains the University of New Orleans. It’s probably one of the most integrated neighborhoods.

The French Quarter is party central. Bourbon runs down the center, and tourists can be found partying any day of the week at any time of day. By the river, Jackson Square is another touristy area flanked by restaurants and shops. The Central Business District is on the other side of Canal. Julia Street is home to a number of galleries, and on the northern border is the Superdome. Next, the Garden District, and to the South, the Irish Channel. Both neighborhoods are residential have beautiful single and double shotgun cottages. Magazine Street runs down the middle with a mixture of yuppy and hip boutiques and restaurants.

Uptown is Audobon Park, Tulane and Loyola University, and St. Charles. The area is predominately white and wealthy, and with more space and trees, this is probably the greenest part of the city. Moving west, the Carrollton neighborhood is a mixture of student rentals and poorer neighborhoods. To the north, Broadmoor is home to the upper middle class neighborhood of Fountainbleu, and to the south, the Riverbend borders Jefferson Parish with a number of small but expensive restaurants.

Can’t forget Holy Cross! This is Sarah’s neck of the woods in the lower ninth ward bordered on one side by the river and on the other by the channel. Great domestic architecture with more breathing room.

The Food

The Joint: Best Barbeque in the World. Pulled pork sandwiches with savory sauces and DIVINE POTATO SALAD. The Bywater.

The Cake Bakery: Saturday Brunch! Cute little restaurant in the Marigny specializing in omelets, grits, and baked goods.

Port of Call: Yummy baked potatoes in the French Quarter.

El Gato Negro: Margaritas and Nachos in the French Quarter.

Nonna Mias: tasty Italian Deli in Midcity.

The Parkway: po’boys in Midcity.

Babylon: falafel, hummus, grape leaves and lamb with freaking amazing home baked bread dipped in olive oil. Uptown.

Juan’s Flying Burrito: Tex Mex with a Cajun twist. Magazine.

Felipe’s: make your own burrito! Claiborne.

Reginelli’s: best pizza in town. Magazine or Lakeview.

City Park

Joshua and I have run and biked around that park a billion times, and I still love it. I especially like the waterfront by Lake Ponchartrain, Marconi, Bayou St. John, and the old golf course.

Dressing Up

What’s not to like?

My Students

It’s a mixed bag, but I love their crazy selves.


  1. Hey, do I sense you missing the Big Easy already, and you haven't even left?

    You love that town,
    even if that doesn't ring true.
    You've been all over it,
    and it's been all over you.

    I am writing something about Zeitoun, and when I am done, I'll link to this blog posting.

    Photos, my dear. Visual images. Add them at your leisure, but do add them:)

  2. Ellie - and others - I just finished a posting about Dave Eggers' Zeitoun that might be interesting >

  3. Hey, Ellie. I'm so glad you're writing again. You have a gift for words and I never tire of reading your pictures and reflections. I read Zeitoun for bookgroup--it was so anxiety producing I literally couldn't read it just before I slept. Made me think a lot of you and Josh and the short time we were able to spend with you in New Orleans last Thanksgiving. Feels like a lifetime away.

    With love,