Lamenting the ‘subtleties’ lost in New Orleans

This column ran in the September 14 edition of the Northfield News.

It was an unexpected source of inspiration: a Twin Cities sports writer, lamenting the loss of America’s premier sports championship host city, shared insight into what generates vitality for communities.

Moving beyond the drunken revelry that helps to make New Orleans the favorite location for athletic championships, he highlighted the city’s “subtleties.” He listed its “excellent small restaurants, atmospheric residential neighborhoods and art shops.”

I’m no expert on New Orleans but I have studied it. My own list includes restaurants, neighborhoods and music clubs, but I think the sports writer and I share the same perspective and are trying to make similar points.

Both suggest something about what makes a destination desirable and a place pleasing. They also give guidance about what we should be trying to save in New Orleans.

Let’s start with the neighborhoods and their “atmospheres.”

New Orleans began with the French Quarter. It is the most historic area of the city and features architecture from the French and Spanish Colonial eras. It is also the center of the drunken revelry.

The Central Business District (CBD) became a residential area when Americans started streaming into the city after the Louisiana Purchase. Within the CBD is the Warehouse District. Once virtually abandoned, it has become the city’s gallery district.

Marigny was created by a wealthy Creole in response to the rapidly developing American sector. It has become a favorite with the young and hip. Pockets of distinctly Creole architecture remain.

Perhaps second only to the French Quarter in recognition is the Garden District. The picturesque streets of this district are lined with mansions in the Victorian, Italianate and Greek Revival style. Photos of New Orleans often feature this area with its wrought iron fences and grand Live Oaks.

Bywaters is located on a site that was once a plantation and divided up into building lots in 1810. It became the home of artisans, immigrants and free people of color and features light industrial buildings and working class homes. It is now a community of artists and designers. Many of the spaces have been converted to studios.

Treme was a thriving Creole community in the 19th century. Missed by preservationists and passed over by gentrification, it continues to develop organically. Today it is home to African-Americans and prominent local musicians.

It’s not just the architecture and the history that give these neighborhoods “atmosphere,” however. There are also the restaurants. Every neighborhood seems to have a few.

The French Quarter has had Antoine’s since 1840. At the other end of the spectrum is Mother’s Po’ Boys in the CBD. The Warehouse District has Emeril’s, the Garden District features Commander’s Palace, Mid-City has Luizza’s, Bywater is proud of Jack Dempsey’s, and people come from all over the city to Dooky Chase in Treme.

The restaurants in New Orleans are like the food and the architecture — a creative mix of the contributions of the French, Spanish, Africans, Americans and Italians. Diversity makes things interesting.

Then there are the music clubs. Perhaps best known to touring musicians is the Maple Leaf in Uptown. There’s Tipitina’s and Preservation Hall in the Quarter, Snug Harbor in Marigny, the Lion’s Den in the CBD, the Howlin’ Wolf in the Warehouse District, Mid-City Lanes Rock-n-Bowl, and the Music Hall in Treme.

The clubs are like the restaurants and the city itself. It’s a diverse mix of cultures, featuring blues, cajun, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and zydeco.

Diversity is the key to vitality in New Orleans. A lively and interesting mix of architecture, restaurants and culture makes a destination desirable and a place pleasing.

Some people are already suggesting that we should save the French Quarter as a kind of a museum for tourists, raze the rest of New Orleans and rebuild in a more “sensible” manner. Personally, I think they’re missing the point.

New Orleans is at least a dozen distinctive historic neighborhoods, each with its own mix of architecture, restaurants and culture. If the proposed solution to the present crisis is to reconstruct the French Quarter as an adults-only Disneyland, bulldoze the rest and replace it with block after block of master-planned variations on a theme of new urbanist mixed-use projects, New Orleans’ long-term vitality would probably be better served by being left to its own devices and the creativity and ingenuity of its people to rebuild organically.

The sports writer put his finger right on the heart of the matter when he used the word “atmospheric.” I think he succeeded where more prominent columnists and writers failed. The neighborhoods, communities and cities that have atmospheres get them from the funky, soulful, organic growth that is nurtured by the people that live in them, not the tidy, sterile, planned growth that is designed by outsiders.

Sure, New Orleans doesn’t make any sense. That’s why it’s so cool.