New Orleans: Seen

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, April 19, 2011 |

When I arrived in New Orleans for a conference last Thursday, the first thing I did was rent a bike to see a city I'd never visited.  New Orleans is so lush and colorful and beautiful it makes San Francisco look like a bunch of yuppies shat pastel over Pittsburgh. Renting a bike is a perfect way to experience a new city, and not just because everything passes by much slower than the blur you see from a car or a tour bus. It allows you to actually talk to people. And I found almost all the people I talked to pretty fascinating, and inspiring, and hopeful. Not surprisingly, people are really very nice when you tell them how beautiful you think their homes and neighborhoods are.

I took some pictures, but it's hard to capture with pictures just how inspired I was by this visit. [There's some weird compression artifacts with these photos I'm trying to fix, but if you click on any of them you will see a bigger version].

When I was taking that picture of the Swoon piece, I told two guys standing there that I was just a tourist from Detroit and that she'd put the same piece up on a burned-out house back home, then one of them asked if I knew one of his former students who turned out to be a friend of mine. His name was David Gregor, and he invited me into the studio he'd built in this building, introducing me to the many Katrina cats he'd adopted, and sharing some of the projects he's been working on:

Then I biked over to the Lower Ninth Ward just to check out what it looked like five years after the storm. I was pretty shocked to see how high the water was against the levee, and how much higher it was than the roofs of the neighborhood:

Still, even down there I heard the ever-present hammers and power saws which (with the mockingbirds) were like a soundtrack to biking around New Orleans.

I know opinions vary, but I thought the Brad Pitt/Make it Right houses were pretty cool:

It was weird to see the sheer number of tour buses and vans filled with old white ladies rolling through the Lower Ninth Ward. I wasn't sure if they were there to see the devastation or the celebrity-subsidized rebirth. I guess there was a good mix of both.

Does anyone have Brad Pitt's cell number? I did pass through some pretty rough spots out there and in Gentilly. And yeah, poverty is as rampant in some parts of New Orleans as it is back home. But I was inspired to return to that corner of the city several times to see what all the young people and artists were doing. The homes out in Bywater are so eclectic and cool.

I stumbled across more Swoon wheatpastes and ended up in a conversation with the paper-bag-beer dude lounging across the street and he said she was coming back to put up an actual gallery on this spot:

The artist girls living next door came out and when I said I was from Detroit they rattled off a bunch of names of people I knew. I think they were a little bugged out by my styrofoam helmet and rental cruiser with three unfixed gears.

I stopped in the Habitat for Humanity architectural salvage store and was so inspired by some of the folks I talked to in there who were rebuilding their city, and it was tough to think about how little is salvaged from the thousands of homes demolished every year back home.

I was staying in the warehouse district and thought that area was pretty great as well, especially the yuppie farmer's market where I bought a pint of beet lemonade and some Louisiana muscadine jelly.

On Saturday morning, I rented bikes with Jon and Heather (failing to convince them to rent a tandem) and we rode out to the Garden District where everything was so clean and beautiful in the mid-day sun I didn't take any pictures. I did get a sunburn. We didn't get inside that cemetery where Ashley Judd shoots her way out of that dead lady's coffin in my fourth-favorite Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-relentless-pursuit movie. We didn't get in because it took Jon at least twenty minutes to figure out how to lock up his massive powder-blue rental bike, and by the time he figured it out a skinny gravedigger-looking fellow was already locking up the gate. So we walked around the outside and then over to Magazine Street.

I left them to get the bike back, and on my way through the lower garden district I met this guy Sam in front of his house:

Sam is a guitar player who built that sweet canopy for his scooter and that trailer to haul his guitars and amps to jobs. I told him about the dog wagon and we bonded over how much fun it is to build something that draws attention on the road. A couple blocks away I met Eric who lives in a nice old home next to a vacant feral house:

I talked to him for so long I almost missed my flight, but it was great to get some perspective from a local businessman and homeowner who told me he wanted to buy the feral house in order to fix it up (but the owner wouldn't sell). We talked a lot about New Orleans, its recovery, its struggles, and I told him quite a bit about Detroit and what we're going through. I also told him how much hope and inspiration I'd found in the people of New Orleans, and what a beautiful city it is. I do hope he gets a chance to buy that house and do something with it.

I between all this I attended a conference and reconnected with some other grizzled old veterans still in the trenches and met a lot of nice new people and gave the stink eye to a few hundred marketers. New Orleans wasn't at all what I expected, probably because I went to bed fairly early each night and avoided setting foot on Bourbon Street or any other street that needs to get hosed down each morning. I can't wait to get back down there---with my wife and kids---to see even more of this beautiful city.