Rising Like The Phoenix–New Orleans, Part 2

Doom-and-gloom seems to be the popular take on the future of New Orleans post-Katrina. I discussed it the other day. But, I see it otherwise. New Orleans has always been a friendly, party city. This was the call that first beckoned me to “The Big Easy” 15 years ago and it is the call that brought me back to New Orleans two weeks ago. I love this city, and I needed to know: Can New Orleans, after all the adversity it has faced, still show a visitor a good time?

The answer, I am relieved to say, is yes.

Let’s put the question in perspective. How many visitors to New York take the side trip to Bayonne or Secaucus? When you go to Philadelphia, is Eddystone on your must-see list? New Orleans is no different. The areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina — the Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette — have never been tourist destinations. But other, more popular tourist areas survived Katrina better. The French Quarter was spared flooding and sustained mostly wind and rain damage. The Warehouse District, Garden District and Uptown neighborhood all fared fairly well. Yes, some businesses are closed and some windows are boarded up, but much of the city is open for visitors.

In a previous column, I said that I was heading down to New Orleans as a “tourist with a vengeance,” and that is exactly what I did. I hope you don’t think my “Party on!” mission was heartless. It was just the opposite. It is my hope that visitors will return to New Orleans in droves, fueling the economy and giving it the boost it needs to rebuild. New Orleans is my favorite American city, and I won’t let it go down without a fight.

Here are the cold, hard facts. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, tourism is a $5.5 billion industry in New Orleans. That’s $15.2 million a day, or 40 percent of the city tax revenues. Before Katrina came ashore, the industry employed 85,000 people. It is imperative that tourists return to the city, and the sooner the better.

The good news is that the tourism infrastructure is in good shape and many key businesses are open. For example, 27,000 of the available 38,000 hotel rooms are in inventory, and 764 restaurants are open and cooking. The New Orleans Museum of Art reopened on Friday (March 3). Café Du Monde, City Park, the Audubon Zoo, Morial Convention Center, Amtrak, the D-Day Museum, Canal and Riverfront streetcars, Harrah’s Casino — all open.

Does this sound like a ghost town to you? Not at all. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the longstanding visitor areas are open, and the target for opening the rest looks to be April 1.

My three-day visit took me first to the Louis Armstrong Airport then to the hotel where I was staying with several friends, The Maison Dupuy (504-586-8000, 1001 Rue Toulouse). While the hotel is not open to the public until April 1, the manager was able to get us an early room and a sneak peek at improvements at the hotel, which underwent a $15 million renovation after Katrina damaged the roof. Ever the good neighbor, the Maison Dupuy has been housing its displaced employees and has managed to keep most of them working — and paid — since Katrina came ashore. Dominique’s, the hotel’s fabulous restaurant, is scheduled to open March 25 — if the hotel can wrestle Dominique Macquet back from his temporary gig as a celebrity chef in Houston. Don’t worry, his roots are in “N’awlins,” and he will be back. Sorry Houston — you lose!

After a late-afternoon lunch at the Coffee Pot (504-524-3500, 714 St. Peter Street), we took a whirlwind tour of the French Quarter. It looked great. There were a few broken and shuttered windows, but most businesses were open and welcoming visitors. I bought a 2006 Mardi Gras print from my favorite artist, Matt Rinard (his gallery is at 738 Royal Street), and we stopped in at George Rodrigue’s gallery (721 Royal Street) to make sure the Blue Dog had weathered the storm (he did). The antique stores on Royal Street are alive and well, too, and the crystal chandeliers are still out of my budget! Hey, this was looking like my old friend New Orleans!

The evening began with a fabulous burger at the Clover Grill (900 Bourbon Street), which still has its hubcaps, sassy employees and wacky character. After dinner, we gathered our courage and took the “New Orleans Ghost Tour” operated by Haunted History Tours (504-861-2727, $20 per person). Sid Smith has been running these tours for many years, and they are the best in town — fascinating, insightful and not too touristy. Our walking tour of the French Quarter began at The Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop across from Pat O’Brien’s and ended up in Pirates Alley (with a stop along the way at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for a drink or two). Our guide was Kalila Smith, a published authority on the paranormal who has a special interest in the macabre goings-on in New Orleans. Spooky good!

The rest of our night was spent at “The World’s Greatest Karaoke Bar”: Cats Meow (504-523-2788, 701 Bourbon Street). The club reopened just three days before our arrival, so I was concerned that the crowd might be thin. Worries allayed! The karaoke bar was packed and the upstairs balcony bar was crowded — not as crowded as usual but still, Friday night was a party. You have not lived until you have heard a bunch of Texas Longhorn fanatics singing “It’s Raining Men.” Thanks go to Theresa for making an amazing Hurricane for me (OK, many amazing Hurricanes). The Cat’s Meow also hosted our Tripso Happy Hour on Saturday night, when 300 people enjoyed all drinks 3-for-1. A big thanks to Stephanie for keeping everyone in line!

No visit to New Orleans is complete without a fine meal. While all food in New Orleans is good, our “fine dining” experience led us to Irene’s Cuisine (504-529-8811, 539 St. Philip Street). Here we waited 90 minutes for a table (sorry, no reservations accepted), but a fantastic piano player named Dan Marie kept all of us starving diners-to-be pleasantly occupied. Dinner was fabulous. In fact, my lamb dish was out of this world.

Unfortunately, Sunday was our day to head back home, and we only had time for beignets at Café Du Monde, some cheesy souvenirs for my kids (no, I did not get any of the FEMA shirts), and a glimpse of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus Parade and the Krewe of Carrollton Parade on our way out of town.

So, there you have it: a firsthand report of New Orleans six months after Katrina. Yesterday I laid out the terrible devastation that the hurricane brought to this proud old city. I do not want to make light of the ongoing suffering, as it is very real. I do not want to give the impression that things are back to normal, as they are not. But I do want to convey the message that this city is on the mend.

The music is wafting across the French Quarter, though not as loud or as confident as before. The Ghost Tours are still walking the streets, but they are not so well attended. The bars and clubs are pouring their drinks, but not as many. And while some restaurants have long waits for dinner, others are looking for patrons.

There is a long road ahead, for sure. I encourage you to do something to help with the rebuilding. Plan a trip to New Orleans for tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. As I have said for many years, New Orleans has something that eludes definition, something that you can’t quite put your finger on. The city has soul. Personally, I am not going to let this city down. My reservations for Mardi Gras 2007 are already secured, and there is a good chance I will be back before summer!

How ’bout you?

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