When February comes in New Orleans, there’s one phrase on everyone’s lips: Mardi Gras! Every store, hotel and bar seems to be decorated with banners and decorations in Mardi Gras colours – green and gold, with a little purple here and there.
The town is abuzz. There are police cars everywhere, and the traffic barriers sit ready on the streetcorners to guard the routes of the Mardi Gras parades to come. And the first waves of tourists are arriving, filling every hotel bed and choking Bourbon Street with strolling crowds of drinkers and fun-seekers.
It’s the party of the year, and as usual, the action centres around the French Quarter. Already, the crowds stretch down the block to hear the old Dixieland music ring off the bare walls of Preservation Hall, while across the street, people line up for the haunted history tour, and the curious browse through Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo shop.
And over on Royal Street, in the Hotel Monteleone, the drinkers sip their Sazerac cocktails at the circular Carousel Bar as it slowly revolves around in a circle. So, it’s situation normal in New Orleans as Mardi Gras approaches – party town, U.S.A.
All of which is as it should be. But while the Quarter is much as I remember it – perhaps a little more slickly commercial – the town has changed since I last visited, more than 15 years ago. Yes, Hurricane Katrina did put a dent in New Orleans. But oddly enough, it seems to have helped kick-start a new wave of activity that has helped make central NOLA a more interesting and inviting place. Money poured in, renovations started, and parts of the city took on a whole new life.
When I visited back then, the Faubourg Marigny, the area just past the French Quarter, was a little scary-looking. Buildings were run-down, and its dark streets were a place you didn’t feel like venturing at night. But since then, the Faubourg has gentrified – in fact, it’s the hip place to be these days (though a taxi after dark is still not a bad idea).
A string of hip, funky music bars and restaurants has opened on Frenchmen Street, attracting music lovers looking for something a little more authentic than the cover bands on Bourbon Street. And outsiders have begun buying the old frame houses and fixing them up to rent out as Airbnb properties.
There’s even an unofficial Frenchmen Street greeter. Walking by a little coffee shop, my nephew and I came upon an old man in a fancy suit jacket, wielding a cane covered with Mardi Gras decorations. “Take my picture,” he said – “I’m famous.”
We did — and as it turned out, he was. Welmon Sharlhorne was once a prison inmate, incarcerated for two decades in the infamous Angola prison in North Louisiana for a dubious offence. But while there, he began to do pen-and-ink drawings that became known around the world. His work now hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
But Frenchmen Street isn’t the only part of town that has improved. Further east, St. Claude Ave. has become another cultural hot spot, with new galleries, bars and music venues popping up. And on the other side of town, across Canal Street, the Warehouse District has come alive as well. There, Julia Street has joined Magazine Street as the city’s newest “gallery row” where modern art hangs on exposed brick walls in buildings that once held sacks of coffee and grain.
Up on North Ramparts Street — once another dodgy area — imaginative sculptures and beautiful landscaping celebrate music and art in Louis Armstrong Park. An elegant statue of Louis himself greets visitors on their way to the impressive Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts.
That’s not to say New Orleans has become the new Beverley Hills. Parts of the city still have that dusty, abandoned look that can make you feel uneasy at any time of day. And the crime rate is still high. But there’s undeniably more to see, and more places to do it, than there were before. And if you stick to the downtown tourist area, you’re pretty safe.
Mardi Gras is still the magnet that draws the most people to New Orleans. But it’s by no means the only reason to come. The historic buildings, the great food, the unique culture – they’ve always been here. But today, there’s something new happening. And in an old, historic city, that’s a good thing.