Travel: New Orleans
It would be downright irresponsible to wrap up the autumn season without including a deeper dive into one of the spookiest cities in all of America. The Crescent City might very well top the list when it comes to ghost stories, macabre history, and all kinds of other myths and legends that make our skin crawl and our bedside lights stay on deep into the night.
New Orleans holds a special place in my heart. As a history lover and fan of lively urban environments there is perhaps no better place in America to spend an afternoon that bleeds into night people watching and simply feeding off the palpable energy that seems to waft from the streets themselves like steam after a heavy summer rain.
Notoriety creates a mixed bag. New Orleans is a place that is cherished by some and rebuked by others. Some visitors say the French Quarter smells. I counter that it would be almost impossible to find a dense collection of two hundred-year-old buildings in one of the most humid places in America that never lets an unappealing scent escape its folds. Others visit the Crescent City and never stray from Bourbon Street. While I'm not disparaging the mecca of good times by any means, there is just so much more that the city offers.
New Orleans is a unique combination of history, fun, and haunts that's been practically romanticized to death by more publishings than even I care to read. The intent of this post is to approach the city from the vantage point of a writer. What makes New Orleans the kind of unique destination that writers and readers of all backgrounds and genres simply must experience?
Over the centuries New Orleans has taken over the swampy wilderness that surrounded the original city, what is now recognized as the French Quarter. Along the Mississippi, the Central Business District melts into the breathtaking Garden District that eventually turns into Uptown. The wards to the east of the French Quarter were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina but have tons of unique character. Up past Mid-City where the large green rectangle signifies city park, Bayou St. John was once a place for nighttime adventures and Voodoo rituals performed by moonlight.
It can be helpful to visualize city directions the way they were explained in the 1800's. Uptown is everything upriver from Canal Street (left of the French Quarter). Downtown is everything downriver from Esplanade (right of the Quarter).
You want history? The French Quarter's got it. This is the oldest portion of New Orleans. Founded in 1718 by the French, for decades it consisted of a very rough and tumble crowd; deported slaves, trappers, gold miners, and various other castoffs. In 1763 the town was ceded to the Spanish Empire. What is termed the French Quarter was actually entirely built by the Spanish. Even the original street signs that can still be found on the sides of select buildings are in Spanish.
The French Quarter burned twice. In 1788 on Good Friday 856 buildings burned to the ground. A subsequent fire occurred in 1794, destroying another 212 structures. Using brick instead of more flammable materials, the French Quarter we can lose ourselves in today was largely built after that second fire.
The city, along with all of Louisiana, was given back to France in 1802 only to be sold to the United States a year later as part of the Louisiana Purchase. By 1840 it had become the largest city in the American south as well as a critically important commercial center. And after hosting the 1884 World's Fair its appeal as a tourist destination quickly materialized.
WHAT MAKES NEW ORLEANS UNIQUE?
Above all, the Crescent City is a blend of components melded by time and circumstance that one might find here and there in other places, but never all at once. Sure, other American cities are culturally diverse. But where else are you going to find an extensive history of organized crime, authentic Voodoo practitioners (that originated when West African slaves syncretized their religion with Catholicism upon arriving in Haiti), a Red Light district that was active for two decades, and lingering cultural gifts of the French and Spanish all rolled into one place?
That's not even touching on the food or the festivals. New Orleans is known for both. Cajun staples like gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, and Po' boy sandwiches can be found all over the city. Check out Napoleon House on Chartres Street and Central Grocery on Decatur, the originators of the legendary muffuletta sandwich. Gumbo Shop is also a must-visit eatery.
For drinks, grab one of the best whiskey sours you'll ever have at Jacques-Imo's uptown past Audubon Park then get back to the French Quarter and spend an evening you won't forget in one of Pat O'Brien's iconic courtyards or piano bars. Bourbon Street has plenty to offer, but make sure you check out Pirate's Alley near Jackson Square and Frenchmen Street in neighboring Marigny for great live music and a less touristy vibe.
Festivals also aren't so hard to come by. I was once told (unverified) that there are 26 festival weekends a year in New Orleans; one for every other week. Mardi Gras is obviously world renowned. Covid-19 pending, consider skipping the Fat Tuesday hordes for Jazz Fest, Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in October, or Essence Festival. French Quarter Festival is also dubbed the largest free music festival in America.
It's so much more than food and festivals that makes New Orleans a place worth visiting and falling in love with. In few other American towns do you have the chance to stroll streets that look hardly unchanged (besides paving) in over 200 years. Colorful courtyards, wrought iron lace, and balconies humming with the comforting sounds of jazz music are everywhere.
The people of New Orleans have a tradition of singing and dancing for just about everything, whether that be in the wake of a newly married couple or a funeral procession. Due to the high water table and propensity for buried things to not stay there for long, for centuries the dead have been interred in mausoleums that sit entirely above ground.
This brings us to the Crescent City's spooky side. Old buildings, crypts shaded by oak trees, and streets lined with Victorian houses vividly paint the picture of a place that is more than a little open to the supernatural. Ghosts and hauntings are hardly throwaway topics on the banks of the Mississippi River.
There's the tale of the Ursuline Convent held hostage by mysterious, deadly children. Another of a girl who allows a vampire to convince her to fling herself from the rafters of a theater. That doesn't begin to account for the dozens of buildings said to be haunted by the ghosts of previous residents or proprietors. Or the very real torturing that went on in attic of the LaLaurie mansion. Take a ghost tour if you don't believe me. And while you're at it, check out the Botique Du Vampyre, the various Voodoo stores (Voodoo Authentica is a must) and museums (especially the one operated by the famous mambo woman, Sallie Ann Glassman), and if you have the stomach for it visit New Orleans' Museum of Death.
A CITY OF SURPRISES
But what does all of this have to do with writing? Good writing evokes a feeling, or more often several of them. It's not the bars and the buildings held over from another time and the beautifully crafted houses that make New Orleans special, it's the feeling that seeps into you when you visit. There's something unique and whimsical about old and modern existing side by side; a scent lingering in the air or the glimmer of knowledge that anything could be waiting around the next corner.
New Orleans, more than just about any place I've visited, is all about endless possibilities. It's an eclectic mix of cultures and backgrounds and pursuits that all seem to fit together somehow. It has a way of drawing in the food lovers and the music lovers and the lovers of all things historical or spooky. Whether you're attracted to the peaceful streets of Uptown and the Garden District, lost in the tall buildings of the Central Business District, or immersed in the history and excitement of the French Quarter there's a slice of New Orleans for everyone. And that's not even counting about ten other parts of the city I've completely left out.
If you came for Books, here they are:
I don't feel I'm remiss in calling Anne Rice the gothic queen of New Orleans. You can't go wrong with any of her books, although I'm partial to The Witching Hour and feel it does the city more justice than anything else I've ever read. Lasher is a close second. Interview With a Vampire is probably her most famous work and does a nice job showing the city's long path to maturity, among other things.
Although it's a play, A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, can't be overlooked on any literary list concerning New Orleans.
I had the pleasure of meeting and being critiqued by David Fulmer once at a writers conference. His novel, Jass, is an entertaining detective mystery set in the now-defunct steamy district of Storyville that also does much to educate about the humble beginnings of jazz music.
Fear Dat, by Michael Murphy, is a great guide to many of New Orleans' spookier aspects. I read it before my first visit and never looked back.
That's all for now. Thanks so much for reading and subscribing. Please comment below or email me at Life9ent@yahoo.com and be on the lookout for future blog posts and news about upcoming book releases!
- Charles Harned