The rough edges and sweet smiles of the Big Easy 

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY ALLEN BEST - Inspired balconies of the French Quarter.
  • Photo by Allen Best
  • Inspired balconies of the French Quarter.

New Orleans is a town of rough edges. Just ask my girlfriend. Arriving after dark, we checked into our hotel across the street from the convention center. We hadn't eaten — and I wanted to explore!

"Let's walk," I told Cathy. I wanted to sniff new odours, taste novel concoctions, and see the pageantry of this wonderfully exotic mix of ethnicities. I had a list of clubs a half-page long that had been recommended for their music. Carnival, the season of revelry that culminates with Mardi Gras in March, was about to begin.

"But will we be safe?" she wanted to know. We were 1.5 kilometres from the French Quarter.

I scoffed. Our hotel was across the street from the city's conference center, and our room, even in midweek and during the slow season, cost $122 a night. How could the neighbourhood not be safe?

That first night we adventured the 10 blocks to Canal Street. It's more or less the main street of New Orleans, wide and with a street car running down the middle. On one side is the French Quarter, where streets are as narrow as a 20-year-old model, and doors high enough to admit the tallest of professional basketball players.

French influence is evident everywhere. Colonists from France had established a fort amid the swamps by 1701. It remained a French outpost until 1803, when Napolean sold the United States the French claim to the large part of the North American interior for $3 million. Native Americans, of course, were not consulted on this transaction.

Cajuns also have a strong influence on New Orleans. They are descendants of the French who settled Nova Scotia and other of Canada's maritime provinces in the 17th century. When the British gained control of Canada, the Acadians relocated to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Talk about a change in scenery.

Spain had many colonies in the Caribbean and also directly controlled New Orleans for a time. The legacy today is found in the inner courtyards, large arched doorways, and decorative wrought-iron fences. Second-floor verandas are ubiquitous, serving double-duty as porches or, for those walking along the sidewalk below, a shield against the 163 centimetres of annual rainfall.

It wasn't raining that first night Cathy and I arrived in New Orleans. We finally feasted on red beans and cabbage at Mother's Restaurant before exploring the streets of nighttime New Orleans. That's when I started getting resistance. Cathy had been advised by others against night-time walking outside of the French Quarter.

"I don't like this," insisted Cathy as we walked down the streets of the Warehouse district, toward our hotel. It had nice restaurants, signs for museums, and other evidence of affluence. Still, when we came to a block of long shadows and no signs of life, she balked.

Perhaps she was right. New Orleans has a very high crime rate. As our trip ended, a local newspaper reported that the mayor had had his Jeep stolen from in front of his house.

New Orleans is called the Big Easy, and I could see why. It's friendly and welcoming. But there's dark energy at work, too. This is a place of voodoo. Perhaps these yin-yang impulses, the smile and the scowl, come from the same place, an instinct of living in the moment.

Instead of thugs vandalizing our trip, it was an edge in the sidewalk that tripped up Cathy. She landed on her shoulder. Soon, she was in the hospital emergency room, her humerus bone shattered in unfunny ways. That's one way to get to know a city.

It's a city of rough edges and grit. Ski resorts have become almost uniformly polished places. Even spring mud is mostly absent. But New Orleans wears its age on its streetscape sleeves. This is a city of wrinkles and stubble.

Yet from that rawness also comes richness. I would go back, although probably to stay in the Garden District, connected with the French Quarter three kilometres away by an inexpensive trolley. And I'd carve out time to explore the art and other museums, or perhaps just find a bench to sit and watch this medley of dark and bright images and the rough edges that separate them.


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