Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Big Time in the Big Easy, Part I

OK--I'm rested now, despite the fact that booming thunderstorms came through during my nap, knocking out the power for a while and the Internet/cable for slightly longer than that. I'm not exactly looking forward to starting back to the regular work schedule tomorrow, I can definitely say that this trip was totally worth it.

I went down there for three reasons: To hang with a friend, see Bob Mintzer in concert, and get a first-hand look at how the post-Katrina rebuilding and revitalization of New Orleans is coming along. As I said right before the hurricane, the Big Easy is one of my favorite vacation spots, and perhaps my favorite part of town is not the French Quarter (although I certainly love a lot of food places out there), but rather the Garden District, where Loyola is located. I knew that this area hadn't taken the brunt of the storm, but I was interested in seeing just how "back to normal" everything was getting nearly nine months later.

First impressions
As we were landing at the airport, I noticed a whole lot of water still around. It wasn't covering buildings anymore, of course, but it did seem like the drainage canals were pretty full (I would get this same impression while driving into town on I-10). It was obvious that the area had been experiencing very different conditions than our drought-plagued DFW area.

When I went downstairs to the rental-car counter at the airport, it struck me how empty the place was. This was, after all, a little after 6 p.m. on a Friday night, and St. Patrick's Day to boot. There had been very few other planes at the gates when we taxied up, and the baggage claim was nearly deserted. I knew that maybe half the city's population hadn't returned, and, if the airport was any indication, they were definitely missed.

Driving in on I-10, there were a few cars on the freeway, but not nearly as many as I was used to. There seemed to be more traffic going the opposite way, which was almost expected on an early Friday evening. Then, all of a sudden, I rounded the corner and was greeted with a sea of brake lights. I guess people were headed downtown after all.

Not wanting to sit in stop-and-go traffic, and realizing that I wouldn't be able to check into my hotel before the concert, I decided to go straight to Loyola via the scenic route, connecting to St. Charles Avenue from Carrollton Avenue. This gave me a chance to see the dichotomy that is post-Katrina New Orleans. A lot of the area made it look like nothing had happened, but there were a few telltale signs, most notably the number of fast-food places that hadn't reopened yet. Evidently, that industry was hit particularly hard, as their workers tended to be a part of the demographic that had evacuated and not yet returned. Indeed, places like McDonald's and Wendy's were hiring new workers for $8.50 to $9.00 an hour, enticing them further with monthly bonuses of up to $250. The places that were still closed were often not boarded up or anything; they were just dark--tables in place, promotional posters lining the windows, waiting only for their crew members to return.

Throughout my trip, I would see the contrast: Most of the buildings were intact, but, here and there, someplace would be in the process of being demolished or perhaps already be a pile of rubble. There's always a certain amount of urban renewal going on in New Orleans, but at least there was a lot of work being done at this point. Going down Carrollton as it hung a left and became St. Charles, I saw the things that I like the most about this part of town: the houses (I've always been an architecture fan, and I really like the old-school designs with their big porches, more than a few of which still had Christmas lights hanging from them), the funky little neighborhood restaurants crowded with people, and just the general air about the place--something that says "this is where people are always having a good time." It was unusual to not see the famous St. Charles streetcars running, but it did make for an easier time of crossing the street. (In the meantime, the bus lines run for free in that area. I'm not sure how they make money doing that--just like I'm not sure how McDonald's can afford to pay people nine bucks an hour--but I guess it's just what has to be done to make the city grow again.)

There's still a lot of work to be done, of course; some of the streets had some Geo-eating potholes, a few stoplights were still out, and some of the the hotels were in bad repair (one of the guests at the festival said his particular room had a hole in the ceiling, and his night of sleep was punctuated by noise from other guests, who may well have been some remaining evacuees). Some of the famous blue tarps could be seen on the roofs of various buildings, and a boarded window or two was evident here and there. Many of the locals are still working with contractors to get things done to their houses, but, all in all, the city is putting itself back together bit by bit.

The hotel
Because I waited around a little too long, and because I wanted to go cheap, I went slightly off the beaten path for my choice of lodging this time. I stayed at St. Vincent's Guest House, just a few blocks off St. Charles on Magazine Street. The building, dating to 1861, was originally an orphanage, and it had been renovated as sort of an uber-bed and breakfast. The reviews I'd read online (on sites like this) were devoid of any gray areas; people either loved it or hated it. I decided to be adventurous and try it; besides, at $79 a night, it was the least expensive thing I could find that still had rooms left.

Once I found the place (the street grid is a bit confusing at first), I could tell that it had a lot of character. There was a decent amount of fenced-in parking, and the staff was available later than I had expected (by the time I checked in, it was around 9:30 at night) and was much more pleasant and helpful than many reviewers had said before. The old staircase was ornate (and steep), and it wasn't too much trouble finding the room despite multiple wings of the buliding. The room was no-frills, but it was a decent size, and everything was clean. Sure, there wasn't soap or shampoo or mints on the pillow, but this is a B&B, not a five-star hotel (and besides, I bring all that stuff, with the exception of the mints). I really don't need to be pampered in situations like this, so the room worked out just fine. I almost had an issue with parking on the first morning when an insenstive jerk with a trailer almost blocked off an entire row of cars; it took a 27-point turn to work around him...but otherwise, my stay was pleasant. I didn't spend much time in my room anyway (save for a CD burn-a-thon that Jordan and I had last night), so if you're looking for a little character and want to experience New Orleans on the cheap, I have nothing but good things to say about this place. (Maybe I should go on one of those travel sites and contribute a positive review, just to counteract all the bad ones.)

TOMORROW: The saga continues, looking at the music and the food.

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