“Everything is droplets and particles that come together in bodies of water, and everything runs back to the ground. Everyone is individuals and also part of a whole.” As we cruise through the streets of the Garden District our taxi driver, Terrel, pours out a small measure of his theory of life. This is something you encounter a lot in New Orleans, a garrulous openness; stories spilling from everyone you meet.
The hospitality of the people contrasts with the inhospitality of the swamp. Being 85 per cent below sea level gives New Orleans a unique somnambulant feel. The muggy September 36-degree heat is relentless and heavy - barely dropping even at night. As an anomaly right in the heart of the deep South of the United States, its history and culture are inextricably bound by its watery topography: its surfaces, reflections and depths.
As Kelley Kirkpatrick, tour guide with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours, puts it: “It very much is a kind of cultural island within the state of Louisiana. It is rather unlike most of the southern states and is kind of being contained within the levee.” New Orleans is like a sunken island, an Atlantis removed and forgotten by the dominant narratives of American history and culture.
The first settlers were the French in the 1690s and, due to this influence, Louisiana has significantly different history to the rest of the United States. Dave Roberts, passionate and knowledgeable guide with Historic New Orleans Tours, gives an introduction: “I think the thing that explains this uniqueness the most is the mix of people. And the fact that for so long, we were isolated from the rest of the United States. We had different routes, and different language, different religion, different lifestyle and a different culture.”
A great way to learn about this history is the Freewheelin’ Bike Tour. Cycling in 36-degree heat doesn’t sound like the best idea but a breeze kicks up as we cruise through the historical districts to City Park and the notorious Treme district, hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and blighted by squatters. We navigate a lot of ground both physically and historically. The fast-talking, wisecracking Teddy Theodore Schiro II - aka the ‘Lord Mayor’ of New Orleans - is a captivating and charming raconteur, spinning yarns from personal, local and national history together. Catholicism meant that the French colonisers were encouraged to marry their slaves rather than live in sin, conferring status and inheritance to their offspring. Their descendants evolved the distinctive Creole culture. Slaves could buy their freedom, and didn’t work on Sundays. They gathered instead at Congo Square in Armstrong Park, taking part in activities such as dance and drumming celebrations. This is widely believed to have led to the birth of jazz.
After a brief spell as a Spanish colony, Louisiana went back to the French and was eventually sold by Napoleon to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Along with a large chunk of the US, it was sold for $15 million. At the time there was much debate about the treaty in congress due to the differences in culture and the relative freedoms afforded by the rights of free black people, among other factors.
The ripples of history spread out to this day and Schiro says that the reason a lot of people stay in the area is that the rest of the world doesn’t feel so progressive. “We’re stuck in our ways and stubborn, but we come from a background of relative tolerance so that’s what stuck,” he explains.
Wading through the wet heat, the flicker of gaslights and fans is like light glancing off water. The history is ever present. The French Quarter and other historic districts have the feel of a film set, uncannily familiar and not quite real. The buildings are protected and there is minimal redevelopment and, therefore no big-name brands - New Orleans has its own coffee and food chains. There are old fashioned neon, rather than plastic, signs. Keith Marszalek, product developer for the Palace Cafe, explains: “In New Orleans, you know, the only thing we are averse to is change, right? We know we believe that we had it right the first time.”
In the United States, New Orleans mostly has a party city reputation, with the city flooded with visitors for year-round events such as spring break, Mardi Gras and Halloween. There is also a steady stream or bachelor/ette parties, but these groups tend to stick to the touristy areas. As Marszalek puts it: “It is funny to see that to so many people what New Orleans is about is five blocks of Bourbon Street.” The streets in question are a rushing tumult of revellers holding giant takeaway cups full of alcohol, eddying around the roar of the street bands. Those in the know head to Frenchman Street instead where the music is better, the drinks cheaper and the atmosphere less frenetic. Go even further out and the streets are slow and lazy like the Bayou.
Music - and particularly jazz and blues - is everywhere in New Orleans. It forms a swirling, woozy part of the landscape distorting in a doppler effect as you walk past street musicians and bars. Marszalek continues: “New Orleans is the birthplace of an American music. This is the birthplace of rock and roll. This is the birthplace of jazz. This is the birthplace of rhythm and blues. This is the birthplace of everything.” The city has its own songs too - sounds are everywhere, patina, patterns and rhythms forming and dissolving: the crackle of electric streetcar rails, the dry rustle of trees, the long brass notes of the train whistles and fog horns and the more urgent lilting sirens of the ambulances ferrying dehydrated partygoers away.
The culinary history reflects this uniquely diverse set of influences. Roberts explains: “Our present is our history. And we live the current times, but I don’t know where we’d be without our history. There’s no other city that I know of anywhere in Europe or UK, wherever, that has so much of their own unique music and their own unique food. A place like New York has a melting pot, but we have a gumbo.” Gumbo, the rich Cajun stew that personifies the rich heritage, is a must-try, as are the croissant/donut hybrid beignets (Cafe du Monde is the original), Muffalata (a layered deli meat, cheese and tapenade sandwich so big it’s served in quarters), crab cheesecakes and the theatrically flambéed bananas foster at Palace Cafe.
The city is picturesque in the old sense of the world - old but not necessarily frozen in time. Roberts explains: “We like to joke we got some old money; we don’t have a lot of new money. You go on from the street of elegance, antiques and unique shops, to straight up strip clubs and t-shirts. We just don’t have much middle ground, and we don’t have much middle class.” New Orleans contains the reflections of light and dark, high and low culture right beside each other. There is much that is gritty in the murky depths. There are people passed out on the street with no shoes as well as less visible poverty beyond the tourist areas.
At times it makes Vegas look like Disneyland. But New Orleans’ is inbuilt with a sense of resilience, open mindedness and hospitality. As Schiro explains: “Everyone’s going to treat you like family as long as you do, from the tramps under the bridge to the people on the street.” This fluid attitude translates to more progressive attitudes, not only the historic racial integration but also the welcoming of LGBTQI+ visitors and culture. Like many port cities built on trade from the Mississippi it is permissive and tolerant. They don’t call it the Big Easy for nothing. Or, as Schiro more pithily puts it: “Money is key, and cash is king. People don’t care who you are as long as you pay them.”
These attitudes translate into a vibrant, diverse and creative city. As Kirkpatrick describes: “Life is good in New Orleans, it’s a freedom. It’s a little more lawless and less bureaucratic than some other places in America. And it’s just nice having artists and musicians on the street corner and people vending their art and things. Different things call people to the city.”
Having no bedrock, the city has no basements. Buildings either ‘float’ on wooden foundations, rise from stilts or, in the case of the skyscrapers, are pile driven hundreds of feet to reach the rock below. Roads, pylons and other infrastructure rises directly from the water. There are no underground graves. Instead entire blocks are taken over by the distinctive crypts; suburbs of mausoleums. These historic cemeteries such as Lafayette number one and St Louis Cemetery number three are peaceful reflective places filled with rows of monuments to past lives. Actor Nicholas Cage has already purchased his plot and you can visit his pyramid tomb.
Much like other areas on the waterline, New Orleans is at the forefront of climate change. Like Venice, both flooding and subsistence are a problem, with buildings in certain districts visibly tilting. The region is still feeling effects from Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years later. Infrastructure such as levees and sewage are at bursting point. As Kirkpatrick puts it: “We are here below sea level and the sea levels are rising. There’s a lot of corruption in the city period; but especially in terms of our levee system not being fortified adequately. We have been flooding a lot recently. Essentially, we sit in this bowl. And as it fills up, we got to pump it out. It definitely feels like New Orleans has a time stamp on it with the rise of sea levels and the general lack of appropriate seeming measures being put towards actually addressing these pitfalls within our whole drainage and defence, which I think is rather inadequate.”
Climate catastrophe is also inching in in more subtle ways, such as salinisation destroying vast swathes of swamp habitat, bleaching trees to an apocalyptic white. The urgency of environmental issues is also beginning to be reflected in tourism, with eco-swamp tours (such as New Orleans Kayak Swamp Eco-Tours and Cajun Encounters Eco-Tours) taking steps to minimise their impact on the local flora and fauna and building sustainability into their offerings. This passion is visible in the enthusiasm of the guides and makes for a much richer experience for the visitor.
With a population of around 400,000, but tourism capacity in the millions, the visitor economy is clearly vital to the city. But sustainability must be in-built into the destination’s strategy to ensure a viable future amid these threats to keep the visitors coming in. Marszalek explains: “Tourism is our lifeblood. We were an oil industry city. We were a financial hub, we were a lot of things, but forever we have been a destination. It’s cliché to say there’s something for everybody. But it’s family friendly and child friendly. It’s dog friendly, it’s vegan friendly, is everything you can possibly imagine. We just want to take care of people. It’s not just polite, it’s hospitality.”
Where To Stay
Located on world-famous Bourbon Street, Royal Sonesta New Orleans effortlessly combines timeless elegance and southern refinement, setting itself apart from other French Quarter hotels.
With a total of 483 guest rooms and suites, authentic hospitality, a ‘food is art’ philosophy, wrought-iron balconies and a lush courtyard create an experience unlike any other.
Find out more on the official website.
Words: Sapphire Goss
Images: New Orleans & Company