Through the Vieux Finder
Like an off-centered bellybutton on the lopsided torso of American culture, New Orleans is not a wrinkle-free world of manicured youth ideology. Withered time sits upon the scarred face of this city, covered in soot and sunshine. For some parts of the country, beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder – or in the hands of the plastic surgeon – but here, it is in the eye of the beerholder. While renowned for the strip bar street of Rue Bourbon, Carnival season’s Mardi Gras, and several rowdy festivities where locals and out-of-towners celebrate bacchanalian style without inhibition or (in some cases) undergarments, New Orleans is much more than a hurricane, an oil spill, or a party zone. New Orleans is history. New Orleans is the heroic Shakespearean character. She is a lovely damsel in distress; she is a beastly horror stalking the night; she is power and pawn; she is victim and vice; she is beauty and sorrow. These many faces of La Nouvelle Orléans make her a camera-ready model, the perfect artistic subject for a still life study, an ideal target for the click/snap of photographs. For each flagstone broken unevenly beneath the footfalls of contemporary citygoers cries out its story of yesteryear, begging to be heard and waiting to be discovered. New Orleans, with its dollop of charm and dash of mystery, has lived through centuries steeped in a gumbo of violence and death, skin trades and infernos, illnesses and plagues, yet somehow the city thrives and survives, becoming a universe filled with delicate architecture, street musicians and avant-garde artists, aristocrats and cutthroats living side-by-side in the crescent looped island cupped by the clench of a river gone by. Inside the embrace of this city, life turns on an unfettered axis, where texture builds itself thick and heavy, enticing fingertips to run along the razor-edged realm of realism. The true reality of New Orleans is more than a checklist travel guide. For it is easy to namedrop iconic areas such as the Garden District’s rambling antebellum houses along St. Charles Avenue with its quaint trolley clang-clanging between car lanes, or the whitewashed walls encircling the sacred above-ground tombs of Lafayette or St. Louis Cemeteries. It’s simple to portray the slums of old Storyville where jazz was invented inside the lowdown dives and music halls along Basin Street. It’s cliché to mention the pulsating, palpitating heart of the French Quarter (a.k.a. Vieux Carré) in which Jackson Square’s landscaped pedestrian mall stands in the towering shadow of St. Louis Cathedral. And perhaps it’s without thought to note the lusty marshes overgrown with wetlands and wildlife only miles from the hubbub of downtown business. But the city shaped like a croissant is best when seen beyond the tourist trapdoor that buckles beneath unknowing knees. Inside its succulent variety of images, an enlightened visitor can see the city’s charms in the most unsettling of places – in the crumpled heap of brick and stucco of houses dilapidated, in untidy walkways that cause a stumble-fall, in the sense of the river flowing lazily around the city, and in the low hum of steamboats paddling towards the delta while clouds loop like neckties in the sky. There is beauty found where the wandering eye may fall, for New Orleans is a living, breathing artwork who succumbs to tragedy and triumph; she enfolds forces of nature and beholds the passion of lovers, and she plays both beautiful heroine and grotesque nemesis in a twisted story of misfortune and glory. She is heartbreak and heartthrob, and she will enrapture those who are daring enough to fall beneath her lovely spell.
Iron & Lace
As opposed to a trendy style or design statement, the texture and appearance of New Orleans is like a birthright or an inheritance, not by choice but by condition. The city is an architectural relic. It is not covered in faux finish and trompe-l’œil in order to add design or to make a 200-year-old house look 200 years old. That would be like adding liver spots and wrinkles to the face of a great-great-great-grandparent. The fixer-uppers do not desire to be fixed-up. With its funky patina of New Orleans decay, the rusticity of pre-war ironwork balconies, and the hanging foliage known as “Gardens in the Sky,” photographic memories can be captured on each corner of this antiquated city. There is a poet hidden between each swirling cascade of vine and lace-like iron along the streets of Royal and Chartres. There is a melody wafting from old damask wallpapers that have witnessed the turning centuries inside each handsome home. There is a story to be told, a photo to be taken, a moment in time to be echoed from artist to artist as the city continues to inspire. Along with weathered walls, crumbling plaster, and the textural delicacy of peeling paint, iconic elements in the French Quarter – and even in other parts of the city such as the Garden District – include antebellum cast-iron and wrought iron balconies, gates, and fences so ornate and intricate they are compared to handwoven lace. The iron entanglements seem to be almost embroidered into the architecture along each street and rue, and while subtle features of fernery, baskets, and flowering vines sometimes curtain the edges of grillwork and railing, the outstanding detail of such unique and enchanting characteristics only lend to the city’s eccentricity. As early Creole builders made great use of wrought metal in French and Spanish architecture, there are numerous examples of this lacework throughout the Old City. From the handicraft fence sculpted to look like a corn field gating the Victorian-style Cornstalk Hotel to the unmistakably oxidized cast-iron gate of the Gallier House, it is the famous embellishments of lavish iron-lace galleries on the Pontalba Apartments overlooking Jackson Square that were likely the first to feature cast-iron in the city, circa 1849. But aside from these notable locations, the aesthetic eye discovers hidden gems in the details of ironwork such as tiny welded cherubs, entwined metallic grapevines and cauterized fleur-de-lis in the heraldry on broad verandas, gated porticoes, and cantilevered balconies. Although the Civil War put a stop to the flourishing golden age of cast-iron industries due to manufactures switching production from decorative uses to more utilitarian purposes, today it is honored through the restoration of ironwork that wreathes windows, sheathes pillars, and ensconces garden walls. Structures may bend and bow with the weight of time and age, but the essence of architectural expression does not fade from Île d’Orléans. Iron-railed balconies stretching above banquettes appear so frail and fine that it’s a wonder they do not shatter in hurricane winds. But the elaborate web of winding wrought elements attributes a beautiful élan of quintessential old New Orleans. As if smelted by a blacksmith, the city’s history may boil and burn from time to time, heated to a molten, hand-shaped by fire and force, and prone to rust by weather and age. The city bares all the strength of iron juxtaposed by the delicate quality of lace, both fused and fastened by design and device. At every curve there is an angle, on every smooth surface there is a splinter. New Orleans lingers in an air of both dignity and disgrace, quietly unveiling a world unlike any other.
Cities of the Dead
Death is no stranger to New Orleans. On fitful wings through the passage of time and disaster, fate has forced the city’s inhabitants to acquiesce the mortal condition of life. Such a cultural treasure does not sweep away the ashes like dust into the wind; New Orleans embraces the deceased with an unabashed display of ruined finery and mysterious methods steeped in history, heraldry, and a few ghostly haunts. As the river slides slowly in its yellowed waters around New Orleans – the Venice of America, the Paris in the swamps – unpredictable flooding causes a rising water table for the seaport city on the Mississippi’s mouth, creating a watery grave for bodies buried in the soggy soil of Louisiana. Early settlers struggled with waterlogged burial plots, shallow and sodden in the land sloping back from the river towards Lake Pontchartrain. Placing stones and bricks in and on top of the coffins, gravediggers hoped to weigh down the caskets underground, but to no avail, rainstorms filled the muddy graves and caused coffins to surface and float through the streets of town. Noxious fumes emitted by corpses caused epidemics in the Antebellum Era, disease spreading throughout the city, infecting the colonists with malaria, smallpox, and influenza. Through this grim age of plagues, hurricanes, and destructive fires, the death toll populated the underground cemeteries until the colonists eventually followed the Mediterranean custom of using above-ground vaults, building the first St. Louis Cemetery on the outskirts of original city limits. Mausoleums, tapered monumental obelisks, sculptural headstones, and burial compartments of walled vaults lining the perimeter of these above-ground cemeteries fashioned “Cities of the Dead” where the living place flowers, candles, hoodoo money, and other bric-a-brac as respect for deceased loved ones. Death may be a hidden secret buried out of sight in other cities, but New Orleans offers a constant reminder of the impermanence of life through multi-layered tombs ornamented by porticoed façades and wrought iron fences that resemble the ironwork of the French Quarter buildings. Entering the heavy gates of a cemetery in New Orleans – be it St. Louis, St. Roch, or Lafayette Cemeteries – compels a feeling of welcome and warning. The sun-bleached maze of tombs encompass souls in the tacit rest of eternal sleep, decorated in rusty ironwork of ornate crosses and etched steles carved in marble and stone. Contrasting shadows cast mystery along crumbled corners of tombs jutting into the narrow paths of beauty and ruin in these miniature cities of the deceased where thieves, brigands, and ghosts lurk. Along the stone temples and sarcophagi, funerary symbolism represent the lost souls in each tomb with anchors for hope, broken columns for a life cut short, and clasped hands for love’s power. With a seashell that shows a journey, a lion of bravery, a white rose of purity, a crown of immortality, and a cross for Christian faith and resurrection, families chose styles to be constructed and symbols to adorn the tomb, expressing feelings for the family members buried in the tomb, honoring throughout the ages. It is not morbid curiosity or a macabre sense of the horrific that keeps these cemeteries alive with interest and respectability. It is the memory of human throes, the sanctity of hallowed ground, and the aesthetic value that inspires literature and photography in a beautiful and tranquil place, full of history and death, yet somehow strangely uplifting in the reminder that life is as precious and, alas, finite.
Jazz & Heritage
Before the brink of civil war on American soil, the roots of jazz music were dug into a scenic landscape called Congo Square, a grassy knoll located on the cusp of the original city limits in old New Orleans. Under Euro-American rule, enslaved Africans and mulattos were often allowed Sundays off from their work, and Congo Square became the central space to market goods, socialize, and make music for singing and dancing, paying an homage to their cultural heritage and social cohesion in spite of hardships. The thunderous beats and pulsating cadence of bamboulas (early Creole music) echoed across Congo Square to the borders of New Orleans, a city standing at the crossroads of a slave trade. The Civil War freed the soulful makers of African and Caribbean tempos, and suddenly the celestial music of America was born from these island-inspired melodies. Drums, gourds, tambourines and banzas created raw, rhythmic sounds while new techniques eventually blossomed into a style known as jazz. Between two world wars and among a great depression, jazz music became the uplifting spirit in a time of battle and loss. The laughing notes of the sly trombone, the melodic trumpet or the muted horn, the cornet, the clarinet, the contrabass, and the piano man tickling the ivories…. Instruments were made to talk, musicians improvising music and words as they played, inventing jazz from unwritten notes, playing from the heart rather than sheets of paper. As brass bands performed syncopated jazz on the stage of riverboats, all-night bars, rowdy dance halls, and vaudeville venues, eventually the hard-swinging rhythms and smoldering instrumental solos entered esteemed theatres after years of struggling against controversy and bans. While traditional jazz has many offshoots in the music world such as Zydeco, swamp pop, rhythm and blues, ragtime, swing and rock-n-roll, it is the original Dixieland jazz that was invented and perfected in New Orleans. Jazz stands at the forefront of musical culture, providing the carnival ambiance of the Crescent City where lyrical folklore accompanies the melodies of jazz improvisation. This art is a birthright in New Orleans as the cultures of Spain, France, Africa and North America shaped the music of Louisiana; it is a mating call, a ritual courtship, an instrument of communication between ethnicity, race, and society. Jazz music, in its many fashions and forms, transcends itself to each listener in different and intimate ways. It can transform the mundane of everyday life, it can harmonize with its own dissonance, and it can coordinate freedom while trusting, demanding, and illuminating. It is more than mood and atmosphere; it symbolizes democracy at its heart by carrying the reminder of resilience and affirmation in the face of adversity. When it was banned, it did not crawl behind the curtain to sink into its own inertia. When it was embraced, it did not boast itself without humility. Jazz suffers and inspires, succumbs to fads and endures its appeal. Music has life and life is music. The fire and fury of New Orleans survives in the hands and hearts of musicians who carry the legacy of jazz. It is the soundtrack to the city, the cosmopolitan cadence, the melting pot of music. Jazz is legend, lifeblood, and love. Just listen.
Devil Down South
There is but one New Orleans; Queen City of the Inland Sea; Gateway to the Mississippi Valley; Paris of America. She is the most wicked of cities, with a past as thick as roux simmering on a stovetop. This backward-like town built on a bed of oyster shells offers some voodoo in a good ol’ Southern night, brewing a provocative spell through the pervasive French Quarter. She enchants vampires to roam and spirits to haunt, and if a passerby is willing to probe, there are mysteries to unfold. In the same fashion that ancient mermaids lured sailors to a watery death, New Orleans sends her own siren call to those compelled by morbid curiosity. Do extreme circumstances infuse the present with entities of the past? Do the streets lurk with the undead after dark? Does the haunted history of old New Orleans possess the ghosts of those who brought ill will upon the riverbanks of the Mississippi? In the early days of colonists, among the snakes, alligators, mosquitoes, and humidity, there were thieves, murderers, and culprits of every type and cast. Yet females were rare, and in order to further the colony, young women traveled from France with their lives packed into strangely shaped portmanteaus. Suitcases, shaped like coffins, reportedly contained the undead bodies of Parisian vampires. Until married, the “coffin girls” lived as nuns in the old Ursuline Convent, stashing their coffin-like suitcases in the attic where, to this day, they allegedly remain. These coffins, still hidden away from the world, mysteriously open at night, and the vampires hunt the dark streets of the Quarter, stalking their next victims before returning to their beds at the dreaded dawn. The bloodlust of devils in the convent hide no more than two blocks away from the renowned LaLaurie Mansion, a building with such macabre history that many shy away from its details. As the story goes, Madame Delphine LaLaurie lived an aristocratic lavish lifestyle in an opulent Royal Street home during the early 1800s, a time when slavery was not outlawed but the mistreatment of slaves was illegal. One afternoon, firefighters charged the mansion to douse a small conflagration, finding a grisly torture chamber behind a locked door in the attic. Slaves were discovered chained to the walls, strapped to makeshift operating tables, and imprisoned in animal cages, half-dead, half-alive and begging for mercy. Torture and mutilation scarred their naked bodies, and when the townspeople tried to arrest Madame LaLaurie, her carriage burst through the mansion gates, disappearing into the foggy night, the notorious “Mistress of Death” never found or brought to justice. Beneath the swollen underbelly of New Orleans lies the carefully hidden spirits of its haunted past, the tales of twisted fate retold from generation to generation. The dark journey through the city’s history seems to be tearfully marked by gravestone or ghost-sighting. What may lurk in the afterlife sometimes appears to the eyes of the living, and these paranormal encounters through the streets and shadows of this spirituous swampland forever ignite the imagination. It could be the story of a fallen Civil War soldier locked in an epic postmortem battle, or perhaps the lingering souls of a Creole family who refuse to vacate their former dwelling in the hereafter, or the priest who continues to walk the cathedral’s corridor in silent prayer long after his own demise. Such are the many myths marinating in the mist off the Mississippi. In New Orleans, there is always a story, a secret, a sliver of enemies, lovers, and the unknown. So when you should find yourself in La Nouvelle Orléans, live like you mean it, sin tonight and church tomorrow, and always expect the swamp to surely rise again. Because like or leave it, this city will love you… to death!