Like any city, in any country, on any continent, you can stay in the tourist trap centre, or you can veer off into the depths of reality and explore suburban life. In most cities you are warned not to leave the tourist district. In the mind of your advisers, it’s best to stay with other vulnerable tourists, presumably this area is safer than walking around a neighbourhood where people actually live? Strange logic.
The advice we received about New Orleans was no different. Stay in the French Quarter, there’s enough to see there for at least three days. We appreciated the grandiose Colonial buildings, the quaint cobbled streets, and buskers on every corner in the touristic French Quarter. But it was expected. After a few hours we’d walked around the streets and were ready, particularly after visiting the viewing the Katrina exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum, to leave.
We hired bikes and cycled out into the next district of Faubourg Marigny. We started to see the strong Colonial structures of the French Quarter fade into less substantial versions of their former selves. We rode past the river, and wondered about how high the water was in this region. Being so close to the French Quarter, which we had discovered is one of the only parts of New Orleans to be built in high ground, we had assumed it was unaffected. But, in fact, after asking a man walking his dog, we discovered the park in this district was covered in knee-deep high water.
We stopped for a bite to eat and a glass of wine in what looked like a shack of a restaurant called Bacchanal. But when we stepped inside it was lined with fine wines and delicious gourmet snacks. Sitting in the quaint New Orleans courtyard we contemplated what we’d seen so far, and were determined to carry on cycling further into the neighbourhoods.
We cycled into the Treme as the sun was setting. The quarter, which is said to be the oldest black neighbourhood in America having been populated by free black people since 1730, is a real place with real people. We cycled from street to street, encountered friendly hellos from families and young children playing outside, and saw some of the houses that had been seriously affected by the water after Katrina. It’s possible to identify how many people died and survived in each house by the markings on the doors – and these can still be seen today – you just look for the X.
Damaged and derelict houses still line some of the streets, while erect wooden shack-like houses look surprised to still be standing. Despite the hurricane taking place over ten years ago, so many houses are still abandoned. As our wheels turned and we rode between the historic shot gun houses, we wondered about the neighbourhood, the criminalization of these vulnerable people, and couldn’t help but feel that this was the real New Orleans.