I love the old streetcars. Of course I do—I rode streetcars almost every day when I lived in Freiburg, and I loved them there, too, though they’re not nearly as old or as cute as their New Orleans analogs. Canal Street impressed me. I had expected a regular, boring downtown street. Instead, the tall buildings were also old and pretty, with big palms welcoming the streetcars down the boulevard and perfect blue skies overhead. Cooper and I were reminded of Market Street in downtown San Francisco, only prettier. It felt so similar to ride into town on the streetcar, headed toward the water and the ferries (if not toward the delectable delights of San Francisco’s Ferry Building). Some streets felt a little like San Francisco too, with colorful wooden houses rising up beside us, the front doors above our heads. But this low, flat city on the country’s greatest river charmed us in a way the city by the bay did not.
I liked everywhere we went: the Faubourg Marigny, the French Quarter, Esplanade Avenue up to Bayou St. John and City Park, the Garden District and Uptown. Familiar as Cooper and I are with Detroit, we are not strangers to streetscapes broken by uninhabited houses, destructively situated expressways, or large expanses of neglected grassland, so those markers of hard times didn’t alter our enthusiasm. However, a long walk in City Park on our third day proved to be more than we bargained for. After beignets from the Morning Call coffee stand and a long stroll through the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, we headed farther into the park. It’s a huge place, bigger than I imagined from looking at the large rectangle on the maps. Our official goal was to find alligators, although our directions were vague at best. If I’d realized we wouldn’t make it back to the massive live oaks and pretty ponds covered in birds and turtles, I might not have left. (Next time: bring a blanket and a picnic!)
Instead, we walked under the elevated highway that bisects the park from west to east. When we reached the other side, we wondered if we had made a mistake. A car and then a motorcycle passed us; a few minutes later, each drove back the other way again. It turned out the road was blocked by construction, and there were no trails in sight to get us farther into the park. Instead of cutting our losses and turning back, we plowed through the weedy grass, passing a ramshackle, graffitied shed and a forbidding sign warning us not to go further without a special pass. Eventually we sighted a path in the distance and trudged toward it through the dry and matted vegetation.
That whole area of the park was desolate. We saw just one person on the trails there, a woman running with her dog, who lagged far behind her because he wouldn’t abandon his prize, a large tree branch about as long he was, which he was trying to carry in his mouth, held up in the air perpendicular to his body. They were running along a creek or canal—no alligators.
Eventually we found more fellow parkgoers, and soon hit a long chain fence covered in fabric, over which we could see expanses of dirt, heavy machinery, and the occasional stand of old trees, which were themselves fenced off, islands of greenery in an unnatural desert. By the time we got to a more popular nature area where there were maps and signs again—Couturie Forest, which is labeled on Google Maps—we had to admit defeat. We’d crossed about half the length of the park without encountering old fishermen or marveling at little alligators. Although the reviving forest was intriguing, we instead marched west out of the park, toward shade and sustenance. After lunch, we ordered our first-ever Uber to take us back to our room. It was time for a nap.
I knew Hurricane Katrina had drowned the park ten years ago. I knew it, but I didn’t really know it, didn’t know how the park used to be. Side by side satellite images from September 2005 and March 2015 show, in verdant green, what was once the largest stand of live oaks in the world, and then, after the storm and a decade of hard work by staff and volunteers, mere dots on the map where that forest used to be. City Park’s website says more than two thousand trees were drowned in the storm, when “for nearly four weeks the Park languished in one to eight feet of water.” Today, the satellite image on Google Maps shows what we discovered on foot: massive re-landscaping of the park.* Over six thousand trees have been planted since Katrina—and everything else in the park had to be restored as well. But buildings and flowers grow faster than trees; I hope the trees have time to grow tall and wide and strong.
The worst thing about New Orleans for us was the bus service, but that didn’t matter much, since we’re young and able-bodied, and were only tourists, after all. My favorite part of the trip was the last full day, including City Park, and the final morning. By then, I had a better idea of the city and was comfortable letting Cooper go ahead to a breakfast spot before our adventure, so I could take my time getting ready and then walk on my own to meet him. At the end of the day, we holed up in a little coffee shop, where Cooper read Ferrante, and I wrote (finally). We woke up super early on the last morning, so we decided to get breakfast before the airport. We headed back up my favorite street, Esplanade, to a nice coffee shop with sunny sidewalk tables. The outing was unexpected, and therefore marvelous.
When I’m on vacation, I try to do more than see pretty things and learn the history of new places. I try to lead the life I also I wish I led at home: a life where I can take part-time excursions, read and write at will, and have mental and physical space to myself (eventually you run out of interesting things to say to your travel partner if you lock your minds together 24/7). This would be easier with longer trips, with more time in one place, so I could really try out living there, instead of what sometimes seems like endless walking, overambitious sightseeing goals, and frequent restaurant indulgences. We struck a balance this time. I read a lot of Red Mars, as well as writing in the coffee shop and on the plane home, but we also wandered all over and ate plenty of food (as you should). I hope we can return soon ($100 round-trip tickets can happen from Detroit, if you’re willing to fly Spirit) and hit up Sucré and Eat again. Our favorite food spots in the city are below.
If you’ve been to New Orleans, let me know what I should check out next time!
- Three Muses (make a reservation so you can enjoy the cocktails and live music from a table!)
- Sucré (we indulged in gelato at their French Quarter and their Magazine Street locations)
- New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery (great breakfast and dessert spot in the Marigny)
- Eat New Orleans (favorite restaurant of the trip; BYOB)
- Fair Grinds Coffee House (cozy café near City Park and our AirBNB)
- Spitfire Coffee (loved sitting at their tiny ledge a long time with books and iPad on a particularly quiet night in the Quarter)
*If you get the Google Earth images instead of the satellite ones (if your browser is out of date they give you satellite), you won’t see the brown wasteland.