More New Orleans Faves – 2015

So, I already wrote a post on some of my favourite things from my recent New Orleans visit, but there are a couple of things I didn’t manage to squeeze in. So I’ll do so now.

First, my favourite pseudo-haunted house:

New Orleans derelict house

New Orleans derelict house

As my friend S and I were driving out on the weekend, we passed by this wonderful old house, sitting on a corner in all its derelict glory. Faded paint, warped boards, broken and boarded up windows, overgrown trees. And best of all, ivy crawling all over the eavestroughs. The house has good bones, but it’s just on the right side of creepy. Loved it! Looked like something out of a movie.

My new favourite French Quarter building:

Delacroix Corp, New Orleans

Delacroix Corp, New Orleans

I totally love this building. It looks mysterious, the Delacroix Corp building does. No indication of what goes on inside, what they make or do. It reminds me of something out of an old 1940s Film Noir movie with the sign’s lettering, the colour, the symmetry, and the fact that it has an old black lamp post right out front. Fantastic.

My favourite museum visit:

Katrina garage, Presbytere

Katrina garage, Presbytere

The Presbytère, one of Louisiana’s state museums, was one of the most interesting visits. Rather than a formal history of the city or its famous inhabitants over the centuries (you can get that next door at The Cabildo), a visit to the Presbytère acquaints visitors with two of the most influential and important aspects of New Orleans: hurricanes and Mardi Gras.

The entire top floor is all about the party. The history of Mardi Gras, its parades and balls, its costumes and customs. Fascinating. But it’s the bottom floor that really held my attention. It’s dedicated to the impact of hurricanes, most notably Katrina. It showed the entire history of the event, complete with media coverage, social and health concerns, political failures, and the process of rebuilding. Awful histories of desperate, vulnerable people juxtaposed against stories all about the triumph of the human spirit. Leaves an ache in your heart and a fullness in your throat. A must-see, especially since 2015 is the 10th anniversary of Katrina.

St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

The Presbytère is pretty hard to miss if you’re in the French Quarter. It’s right beside one of New Orleans’ most recognizable landmarks, St. Louis Cathedral (left).

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Streetcars: New Orleans vs. Toronto

St Charles Streetcar

St Charles Streetcar

I live in Toronto and rely on transit to get around – specifically, the Toronto Transit Commission. Buses, subways and streetcars. So it’s always fascinating to visit cities that also still have streetcars on the rails. New Orleans is one of them. I took it every single day I was there – usually the St. Charles line, but also the newer Canal Street and the Riverfront ones. Fun to immerse oneself in the daily bustle of another city, when you’re not needing to be on time for anything, and you get to sit and people-watch.

The NOLA streetcar is not the same as its Toronto counterpart. Here’s how they compare:

Cost

New Orleans wins this one, hands down. With a single ride costing US$1.25, and a daily pass at only US$3, it beats TTC costs by a (pardon the pun) mile. A single ride on the TTC is CAD$3, a daily pass CAD$11.

Of course, I’d prefer NOLA transit prices. But when I consider that Toronto has more than ten times the population, covers a larger space, and the cars have to be heated and run in all weather conditions (including snow and ice and all that), I can see why the TTC costs more. Still. Even a $2 single ride would be nice…

Capacity

Sorry, NOLA. Toronto comes out on top here. A NOLA streetcar has a capacity of 52 people. The TTC website indicates that a regular Toronto streetcar holds up to 65 people, an extended streetcar, 100. However, as I’m regularly on Toronto streetcars during rush hour, capacity is essentially however many people can cram onto the damn car. No way there’s only 65 people – we’re stuffed on there like sardines.  I haven’t ridden one of the brand new cars that are coming into service – which apparently have 40% higher capacity – but I can’t wait!

Friendliness

Toronto streetcar (and bus) drivers take a lot of crap. They’re the face of the beleaguered and overly burdened TTC system, and they likely take more grief than they should from grumpy commuters complaining about fare hikes, delays and bad weather. Most TTC drivers are simply trying to do their job. They don’t tend to be too friendly (the roads are busy and frankly, I’d rather they pay more attention to the traffic), but I’ve usually found them to be happy to answer questions about the route or to call out a stop I’m unfamiliar with.

But not surprisingly, NOLA streetcar drivers (in my much more limited experience) are far friendlier. They seem less concerned with keeping to a timetable. They chat. They ask you where you’re visiting from. They smile. It was a bit of a culture shock for me 🙂

Timeliness

I frequently curse at Toronto transit. The streetcars bunch up and are often late. They Toronto fleet is old, very old, and they break down more often than they should. The colder than usual temperatures of the 2014-15 winter has forced the TTC to break out the buses to replace streetcars, which don’t operate as smoothly in -20C (and neither do I frankly).

I thought NOLA would be free of these issues, but in just my nine days of using the St. Charles car, I was cursing them too for taking too long. It’s supposed to pass by every 10-15 minutes, but there were more than a couple of occasions where I waited for 35-40 minutes for a streetcar. And I was on holiday, usually with a nice coffee in my hand. And it moves quite slowly. Much more slowly than a Toronto streetcar, if you can believe it.

Charm vs. usefulness for commuters

For my daily commute, I guess I’d rather have the TTC. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s a faster and more efficient service overall. But when you’re travelling around New Orleans on vacation, there’s nothing like these old St. Charles streetcars (many in operation were built in 1922-23!) with their wooden benches and open windows. They make a lot of noise. The lights come on and off. So completely charming.

Touring the French Quarter’s historic homes

French Quarter courtyard

French Quarter courtyard

There are lots of reasons one might want to visit the French Quarter in New Orleans. For one thing, it’s full of music. I didn’t have to go inside a single bar or club to hear music – in New Orleans, it’s right there on the streets. Everything from a small brass band in front of the St. Louis Cathedral to a solo pianist in the middle of Royal Street. Food is a big draw, whether you’re searching for Cajun and Creole food or a little fried dough with your chicory coffee.

The French Quarter is also full of colour and character, from the building facades to the old writer and artists haunts. Throw in a little Mardi Gras, and there’s always a festive, almost carnival atmosphere. And a lot of bars. And drunks, frankly. If you want lively, it’s the place to be.

French Quarter

French Quarter

But the thing I personally love most about the French Quarter is the history. The feel of it. You can see it in the buildings and practically smell it in the air. But so many people simply wander past the colourfully painted and shuttered buildings, never realizing the hidden treasures within. French Quarter buildings are usually quite narrow, so you only see a small portion of them from the street. They stretch far back into hidden courtyards and often have secondary outbuildings. You walk through one of those large doorways, down a gas-lit alley like this one (left), and you’ll enter into a beautiful courtyard like the one shown above.

Regardless of whether you have an interest in architecture or not, my advice is to do yourself a favour: visit one or two of the restored historic homes of the Vieux Carre and get a sense of how they’re constructed. Even seemingly modest facades often hide rather large and grand interiors.

On this trip, I visited three of the French Quarter homes open to the public: 1850 House, Beauregard-Keyes House and Gallier House. Sadly, I missed out on touring the Hermann-Grima House, though I did peek into the outer courtyard – but that just means I’ll have interesting stuff to visit on my next trip to New Orleans.

1850 House

This is one of the large apartments in the Pontalba buildings, which line the two sides of Jackson Square. They have commercial spaces on the bottom, and residential housing up top. This one’s been restored to its original configuration, and furnished as per the time period.

Gallier House

Gallier was an architect and built his family’s home in the late 1850s, and it reflects the height in architectural advancements. It boasts indoor pluming and hot and cold running water – and you can see how the boiler and cistern operated. There’s a skylight in Gallier’s office space, with a kind of airflow ventilation that would have acted a bit like air conditioning in 1860. I liked touring the wing at the back, too – which would have been the slave, and later servant, quarters. It’s an impressive house.

Understandably, one isn’t allowed to take pictures inside this historic home, so all I’ve got are outdoor ones. Suffice it to say, it’s pretty spectacular.

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Beauregard-Keyes House

The original owners and inhabitants of the house in the 1820s are not so memorable, but since General Beauregard called the house home for a time after the Civil War, its crumbling shell was saved from demolition in the 1920s. In the 20th century, prolific author Frances Parkinson Keyes purchased it and set about restoring it.

The house is quite interesting, the tour guide knowledgable and friendly. The front stairway is very grand and I particularly liked the wander around the back courtyard and outbuildings. The formal gardens are truly lovely, surrounded by a red brick fence, which you get to explore on your own. And with its location across the street from the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley – the Old Ursuline Convent – the setting is sufficiently historical.

Hermann-Grima House

I only saw the courtyard of this one since I arrived too late on my final day. But I did take a couple of pics that hopefully will whet your appetite. I certainly plan to visit on my next trip to NOLA.

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So if you find yourself in New Orleans, in the French Quarter, check out one of these historic homes to learn a little something about life behind the shuttered windows.

More New Orleans cemetery visits

St Vincent de Paul cemetery

St Vincent de Paul cemetery

Just in case you hadn’t seen enough images from New Orleans cemeteries in my first post, I’ve visited a couple more since. Earlier this week, it was St. Vincent de Paul cemetery uptown, sort of nestled in the neighbourhood I’m staying in. Peaceful.

Yesterday, I went north of the French Quarter to Armstrong Park (lovely!) and wandered through New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery #1.

St. Louis Cemetery #1

St. Louis Cemetery #1

It was quiet and mysterious and fascinating. I didn’t look for crypts of famous people (there are several musicians and a voodoo priest buried there) – instead I just strolled along the rows, taking in the family names, reading the historical plaques. Unlike other cemeteries I’ve walked through, the layout of this one is far from symmetrical. It feels more haphazard in design, with the crypts and graves more layered, forcing you to weave your way around them.

Interestingly, there was a big sign at the entrance notifying tourists that as of March 1, 2015, you wouldn’t be able to wander around the graves and crypts without an officially sanctioned tour guide. I fear there’s been too much damage done to it over the years. A sad commentary on humanity, but I’m pleased that New Orleans is taking steps to preserve the history!