New Orleans: Spanish Moss, Swamps, and Great Sax

July 24, 2018 by

Crossing the intersection at Magazine and Napoleon Streets, I passed through a cloud of thousands of tiny soap bubbles floating across four lanes of the street from one side to the other. Then, as I turned the next corner, I stopped for a pedestrian who was wearing a construction hard hat encrusted with small yellow rubber duckies. Just another normal New Orleans moment.

From Beach to Bayou
I picked the dead of summer to move from the beach to the bayou. From the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California where I could see snow-capped mountains in the distance, to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River in New Orleans, where I can see the rebuilt post-Katrina levees. I traded generally balmy temps for stifling heat and humidity, and kale kale everywhere for cuisine that could send the healthiest person straight to the cardiac ward. But this city has soul, lots of great music, a festival every weekend, and total strangers who want to talk to me.

Ursulines Convent Garden.

Taking the City by Storm
Here in NOLA we’re just two months into the five month-long hurricane season that typically begins June 1 and lasts until November 30. The prediction for 2018 includes an anticipated total of 14 named storms (so Bertha is next), six of which are forecast to attain hurricane strength, and two of those expected to be “major hurricanes.” Locals shrug it all off in the same way that we native Californians do about earthquakes and Midwesterners do with tornadoes.

Sign maker Simon Hardeveld is a NOLA icon whose signs are everywhere.

After battening down the hatches, some New Orleanians even gather together for hurricane parties as they track the storm. And The Hurricane is the very tall rum drink served at Pat O’s (Pat O’Brien’s) that once nearly had me dancing barefoot on a table.

At least with a hurricane I’ll get a little advance warning and can evacuate. I’m told to empty my fridge so that when I return after the extended power outage, the place won’t smell like a rotting dead body.

Because I am a generally positive person, I’ll just consider it all a “lagniappe” (lan-yap), local lingo for something extra you didn’t pay for that was thrown in to sweeten the deal, kinda like a baker’s dozen.

Decorative tiles embedded on many sidewalk corners identify the streets for those on foot.

Where’s ‘Dat Anyway?
Living in a place where residents don’t navigate using north and south coordinates will not be a problem for me as, being directionally challenged, I never know where north is anyway, even with a GPS.

Nobody here uses cardinal directions, rather they direct you Uptown, Downtown, Riverside (Ol’ Man River), or Lakeside (Lake Pontchartrain.) Since NOLA is a basically a bowl built on a swamp with 49% of it below sea level, the least flood prone areas are on the edges of the bowl, either at the lake or the river (except when the levees break.)

Garden District Digs
My new digs are on a tree-lined street in the Garden District not far from the river and a block off the Mardi Gras parade route. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras but I just learned that according to New Orleans law, float riders are required to wear masks, one may only hurl beads from the second story or below, and that no lizards are allowed within 200 yards of the parade (New Orleans Code Section 34-21.)

Floats, Beads, King Cakes and Lots of Booze 
Mardi Gras isn’t a single day, it’s a two month season. In 2019, Carnival celebrations will begin on January 6 when the krewes (social clubs that plan and stage parades and celebrations), along with New Orleans marching bands, will put on several free parades and street parties. The festivities will continue through “Fat Tuesday” on March 5, the final day of the Carnival season. People will eat King Cakes, don costumes, wear and throw beads, and drink copious amounts of alcohol on the streets, because it’s legal to do so in NOLA.

I have no idea what “larpin” is…

Various parades travel different routes throughout the city. Uptown, they will go down St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street, where I plan to watch from the “neutral ground.” The festivities may end on Fat Tuesday, but remnants of Mardi Gras endure all year. Beads in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, gold, and green, will remain strung along fences, hanging from trees, and wrapped around parking meters–just about anywhere and everywhere. This year, after the city pulled out 93,000 pounds of beads from storm drains in a five-block stretch of St. Charles, they installed “gutter buddies” to allow drainage but block debris.

“An American,” Mark Twain once wrote, “has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll)
Magazine a six-mile long street that follows the curve of the Mississippi, beginning downtown at Canal Street in the French Quarter and running uptown through the Garden District to Audubon Park on the other end.

Nothing like the more tourist infested French Quarter, the street is filled with shops–from the tony to the funky, antiques to junktiques, art galleries, and many restaurants, bars, and coffee places.

Someone has an opinion. Side of newspaper box outside Surrey’s on Magazine. They have great breakfast.

The donuts at District are so big, they come in individual boxes. Try to finish one.

Urban Roots garden center has a shop for indoor gardening as well.

Rising Waters Maybe, But No Rising Ground
NOLA is flat. It does however have two small man-made hills. One, Monkey Hill in the Audubon Zoo, was built in the 1930s by the WPA to give local children “the experience of a hill.”

City Park.

You won’t be scrambling over any steep ground along the 1.8 mile path that winds through Audubon Park, but it’s a bucolic space for walking, jogging, or cycling as it wraps around a par 62 golf course, passes by some calm lagoons, and weaves beneath century-old oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss.

At 43 feet above sea level, Laborde Mountain in the Couturie Forest nature preserve at City Park, is New Orleans’s highest point of elevation. One of the oldest parks in the country, City Park’s 1300-acre green space contains numerous trails including the three-quarter mile Zemurray Trail on Big Lake. I’ve spent some time wandering around the 60 outdoor sculptures sprinkled about the park’s five-acre Besthoff Sculpture Garden and have strolled through the Botanical Gardens which feature great examples of regional garden styles incorporating native plants.

As part of the post-Katrina revitalization, the city built a few trails for biking and walking. One of those is Crescent Park, a 1.4 mile trail on the banks of the Mississippi River. It begins just outside the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods then continues east through the Bywater, an area now known for its bohemian, artistic vibe.

While I look forward to getting to know the city’s various neighborhoods, I’m also very aware that the Bywater, like many other parts of the city such as the Marigny and Treme, is one of the neighborhoods where gentrification has displaced its original poorer residents.

Typical of urban gentrification, the more affluent folks in NOLA rebounded from Katrina and, along with newcomers, benefitted from the flat post-hurricane real estate prices, whereas the less fortunate residents were unable to rebuild with the meagre FEMA funds they received and are now locked out of their former neighborhoods where housing prices have risen beyond their means.

When in NOLA…
In a short time, I’ve learned important things like a “dressed” sandwich is one served with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and loads of mayo (“mynez”); one doesn’t shop for groceries, rather “makes groceries”; an alligator pear is an avocado; and the grassy area between lanes on a boulevard is not the median but the “neutral ground.”

Street names may read French, but their pronunciation is uniquely New Orleansese. And there are even variations on pronunciations depending on whom is speaking. For example, the street Tchoupitoulas, is pronounced a few different ways: Chop-ah-too-luss, Chop-ah-too-luh, and Shop-ah-too-liss.

I’m eager to learn all I can about the town, but first things first. I’d like to know why the city changed its baseball team’s name from the Zephers to the Baby Cakes (whose manager’s name is Cookie.) Granted, the team does not have a stellar reputation, but still.

Photos: Robin Plaskoff Horton.

The freshest innovative and eco-friendly designs, trends, and ideas for urban gardens and stylish small places.

Visit Robin Horton @UrbanGardens's profile on Pinterest.