My friends and I navigated heavy traffic and cobbled sidewalks as we made our way to the French Quarter on a bustling Saturday afternoon. We were heading to New Orleans’ historic heart to sip daiquiris and peruse the paintings for sale that hung on the wrought iron fence around Jackson Square. Wildly colorful cottages, tangled in lush landscaping, lined narrow streets. Drenching humidity and the beating sun brushed the scene with a distressed charm. Classic New Orleans.
Soon, we encountered another familiar scene: half a dozen college guys clutched plastic cups of beer. They tapped their smartphones and pointed to street signs before one of them started, “Excuse me, can you tell us how to get to … ”
Bourbon Street, I figured, and began waving them to our right.
Their question surprised me: “ … Frenchmen Street?”
This city has changed, I thought. Even the young and drunken tourists were venturing beyond the French Quarter to one of the city’s latest hot spots.
For a while, I had worried that New Orleans would never be that lively again.
Ten years earlier, I had been among the throngs of journalists in New Orleans covering the apocalypse of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that claimed nearly 2,000 lives. I was sent, in part, because I knew the city well; I had lived and worked here early in my career. During the storm’s aftermath, as I rode a flat-bottomed boat over submerged cars and past floating bodies, I grieved my beloved city, convinced that its joyful, anything-goes spirit had been washed away like so many of its homes. With so much destruction and heartbreak, how could it ever feel the same?
‘A magical place’
In a matter of months after the storm, revelers were back in the unscathed French Quarter, slinging beads from balconies, hoisting bright red hurricane drinks at Pat O’Brien’s and spilling powdered sugar at Cafe Du Monde. But even the lucky neighborhoods along the crescent of high ground next to the Mississippi — the “sliver by the river,” or the “isle of denial,” locals called it — faced an uncertain future.
Slowly, over months and years, pockets of renewal and optimism spread. Affluent neighborhoods were fixed up first. Then, once-downtrodden neighborhoods began to evolve, drawing new residents, shops and restaurants. As of last July, the city’s population had rebounded to more than 384,000, nearly 80 percent of its 2000 census number. The business start-up rate exceeds the nation’s by 64 percent, according to the Data Center, a New Orleans research group.
“New Orleans is a hot ticket right now,” said Potter DeBella, the barista who prepared my mocha one morning at one of those start-ups, the independent coffee shop Sólo Espresso. DeBella, a 31-year-old artist, moved to the city from Massachusetts after getting a taste of it as part of a film crew in 2009. “I just think it’s a magical place.”
A friend and I tapped into that sentiment when we took our own trip to Frenchmen Street late on a Monday night. It might as well have been the weekend.
Tourists holding mixed drinks crowded onto the narrow street in the Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, as music spilled out from club doors. At the Maison nightclub, sweaty trombone players blasted out their version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Down the block inside Blue Nile, a reggae band bopped. Across the street, jazz fans packed into the Spotted Cat Music Club, where a gravel-voiced saxophone player sang “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”
Frenchmen had long been a hangout for the locals, with a few popular music clubs. Now, it felt like a festival.
We stopped inside Dat Dog, a brightly painted fast-casual joint where you can buy an alligator sausage and top it with crawfish etouffee. I wanted to try one, but in a city where I have planned entire visits around food, I was still stuffed from dinner. Next time.
We turned down an alley, drawn by strings of white overhead lights illuminating funky jewelry and sculptures for sale at the Frenchmen Art Market. There, in the middle of the bustle, I soaked in the cool night air and sat briefly on a dinette set that had been arranged on a living room rug, as if it had been plucked from someone’s mother’s house.
If Frenchmen Street had come alive like this years ago, I thought, I would have brought out-of-town friends here all the time.
Beignets in the park
I headed to City Park, 1,300 acres of green space that stretches from the middle of New Orleans toward the vast shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
I had mostly just driven through the park when I lived in New Orleans, except for an occasional visit to its art museum or holiday light display. After Katrina, I remembered, it looked like a sad, battered mess of wind-whipped, dying trees and flooded fields.
Now, as I drove our rental car past blooming botanical gardens and shining sculptures, the park seemed lively. Families tossed Frisbees. Joggers shuffled by on gently curving paths. At the edge of a pond, adults waited in line to rent kayaks and bicycles while children threw kernels of popcorn toward a nutria, careful to keep their distance from its beaver-like orange teeth.
I asked the park’s gondola paddler about getting a ride, but the big boat was booked far in advance, he said, as he arranged cheese and crackers on a plate to the vibrato of an Italian opera recording. Business was booming lately as the park was growing more popular, he told us.
Later, I sat down to the greasy scent of piping hot beignets at Morning Call, a New Orleans institution that opened a 24-hour stand in the park a few years ago.
I sipped a cafe au lait and shook powdered sugar on the freshly fried dough. A bass and guitar duo softly played folk songs. A white ibis landed on the branch of a live oak draped in Spanish moss.
The park had become a true oasis in the raucous city.
‘New’ New Orleans
Locals referred to it as the “new” City Park. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot nowadays: new City Park, new Freret Street, new New Orleans.
Many of the vibrant changes in town came at the hands of millennials who moved in from around the country to help rebuild after the storm.
They had been rehabbing Creole cottages, starting nonprofits and turning empty storefronts into industrial-chic restaurants in formerly neglected enclaves — from the Bywater neighborhood down river from the French Quarter, to Freret Street near Tulane and Loyola universities.
A grim area not far from the Superdome was going to be “the next neighborhood to pop,” our Airbnb host told us, as if letting us in on a little secret.
Already, near Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a gleaming senior high-rise towered over boarded-up brick industrial relics. A few old houses had fresh facades, with signs advertising nonprofits such as Bike Easy, a group promoting bike lanes and paths.
In a refurbished old market, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum — SoFAB, for short — had just moved in.
I put on my friendliest grin as I knocked on its window. The place was closed that afternoon, but I could see people inside. A young woman unlocked the door and waved me and my friend in.
Jennie Merrill had been hired as the new education and outreach director, and she was eager to show off the new digs. She led us through the exhibits on Southern barbecue, old restaurants, and that storied green spirit, absinthe.
Merrill, a 28-year-old who had moved to town from Chicago in 2009 to work for Literacy Americorps, had become a fast student of all things New Orleans.
Her group of friends were all transplants from around the country, she said, championing bike paths, community gardens and nonprofits, to name a few. Although those amenities are mostly welcome, they know that some locals are uneasy that such changes are coming at the hands of outsiders.
“Gentrification isn’t an awful thing, you know, if you do it with a consciousness of helping your community,” she said. “The concern, I think, is that we’re changing the culture.”
Then she paused. “New Orleans is based on an amalgamation of cultures … so that concern always strikes me as strange.”
She had a point.
In the years since the storm, the locals have been both grateful and apprehensive about the influx of do-gooders like Merrill.
My friend Stephanie Grace, a columnist at the New Orleans Advocate newspaper, described her own initial trepidation as we shared a fried oyster and bacon sandwich. We were eating at Cochon, a restaurant opened shortly after Katrina by longtime New Orleans chef Donald Link, now considered one of the hottest in the city.
“There was a fear of ‘Disney New Orleans,’ ” she said. “But that mostly hasn’t happened.”
She and others came to realize that the new transplants were helping more than changing things, she said. Last Mardi Gras, she was in a parade that welcomed the new residents with a satirical “Learner’s Permit” float.
“People are in love with the place and they want to be a part of it,” she said. “They’re coming here to embrace what is unique about New Orleans.”
The best parts of New Orleans haven’t changed.
On a late-morning jog down Magazine Street, past costume shops and art galleries, I caught a whiff of the distinct scent of boiled crawfish. Strings of shiny plastic beads glistened from tree branches, snagged mid-toss from parades gone by, just like they had every year before the storm.
At night, after a hearty dinner of sweet blackened redfish at Jacques-Imo’s Cafe, I wove through the crowd inside the Maple Leaf Bar next door. The old club was jam-packed for the Rebirth Brass Band’s regular 11 p.m. Tuesday gig.
The crowd, a mixture of race and age, locals, visitors and transplants, bounced on a floor slick with beer. Strangers struck up conversations and danced with each other.
“The energy in this town is absolutely unreal,” one man told me, his eyes bright as he explained why he moved to New Orleans from Dallas a few years ago. “People don’t know the real magic of what’s going on here.”
I closed my eyes and couldn’t help but smile as I wallowed in trumpet music blasting from the stage. I raised my Abita beer, a local brew, in my own private toast to the city.
Many of the city’s changes were for the better. There’s more to see and do now, and the enchanting old New Orleans vibe still infuses it.
The band played its signature song, “Do Whatcha Wanna” and I let myself get lost in the joy, just like I used to.