January 01, 2008

New Orleans

by Alan Beatts

Happy New Year everyone!

I hope that you all had a nice time through the holidays and that 2008 finds you well.  I had a great time this last month.  My brother and his family were in town for all of December, which was just great and for New Years I went to New Orleans with my daughter.  It was her first trip there and she loved it (takes after her dad that way, I'm guessing).

I was a little concerned about what New Orleans would be like.  I hadn't been back there since before the hurricane in 2005 and I was really concerned that it wouldn't be the same.  Actually I had no doubts that the city wouldn't be the same.  No city can go through what New Orleans did and not be changed.  What I was concerned about, in my selfish way, was the French Quarter and (to a lesser degree) the area around Frenchman St. and the Garden District.

Everyone visitor sees a unique face of a city.  I'm sure that there are plenty of tourists who think of Union Square when they think of San Francisco whereas that's something I actively try _not_ to think about.  But, when _I_ think of London, I see Piccadily Circus in my mind's eye (no doubt a result of stumbling through it late at night and drunk on my way home from nightclubs when I lived in South Kensington), though I suspect most Londoners think about it with the same "oh-sweet-christ" reflex that I have for Union Square.

So, without apology, I'll admit that the French Quarter _is_ New Orleans for me.  All told I've probably spent over three months in New Orleans and at least 90% of that time was in the Quarter.  Hell, there was a two week trip when I never set foot out of there except to go to and from the train station.  I don't think that there is a place on earth and outside of San Francisco where I feel more comfortable and at home.  I really, deeply and passionately love it there.  And, by extension, I love the rest of the city even if I don't spend much time in it -- the Quarter may be New Orleans to me but I know that it can't exist without the support of the rest of the city.  It's a delightful symbiosis -- the rest of the city provides the structure that the Quarter needs to exist; the airport, the shipping, housing, basic services like power and water, and in exchange the Quarter brings in the money that the city needs to survive.  Without a healthy city behind it, the Quarter will sicken and eventually die.

So, as I traveled out there I was scared.  I was afraid of what I would find.

I don't know what I expected.  Closed businesses without a doubt, probably poor service and food at the restaurants, perhaps even a vaguely shell-shocked feeling from the locals and the kind of crime problems that used to vex the city in the '90s.

I was surprised.

Want a piece of news that has hardly been mentioned by the national sources, the news that contradicts the travel advice, the news that contradicts the public misinformation?  _New Orleans hasn't changed much at all_! . . . at least from the standpoint of a visitor. 

That's not to say that there haven't been major changes that have affected everyone who lives there or that there aren't still large areas that need to be rebuilt.  Nor am I ignoring the suffering of the residents and the trials that they and their city still have to face.  But my point is that there is _no_ reason not to visit New Orleans.  In fact, there are two very good reasons to visit right now (or at least very soon).

First off, this year may be, all things considered, the best Mardi Gras in a long time.  Since people are still feeling hesitant to visit, the crowds this year may be just perfect -- enough people to have a hell of a party but not so crowded that you can't get a hotel, a restroom, a table to eat at or space at the bar for a drink.  All these advantages will apply even if it's not Mardi Gras.  Hotel rates seem cheaper than in the past and availability is way up.  And you can get a table at some of the best restaurants in the city without making a reservation a month in advance.

Second, possibly the best thing that you can do to help New Orleans is visit, spend money, have a good time; then go home and tell people about it.  Tourism is the life blood of that city and anything to speed people's return is a huge help.

It's also a big help to dispel some of the inaccurate perceptions that abound about how badly the city was damaged and how slow it's been to recover.  A recent survey of Americans living outside of Lousiana by the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center < http://poli.uno.edu/unopoll/studies/SRC1%20Press%20Release.htm > revealed some surprising results --

Of the people surveyed:
36.6% believe the water supply is still contaminated (I drank tap water through most of my trip),
33.4% believe the French Quarter was one of the hardest hit areas (the Quarter never flooded),
32.8% believe that few French Quarter businesses have re-opened (though there were slightly more spaces for rent, almost all the businesses I saw were open as usual),
And, last but not least, 26.5% believe that _parts of New Orleans remain under water_ (fer gods' sake, I'm not even going to comment on that one).

Granted, I know that good news doesn't sell as well as bad, but it still seems like there's been a shocking shortage of news about how New Orleans has recovered in the past two years.  Imagine for a moment what it would be like, after the next really big earthquake and after we San Franciscans had spent two long, hard years putting the City back together, if everyone in the rest of the US thought we were still living in tents under martial law.

Like SF in 1906, New Orleans has been through one of the greatest tests a city can withstand and is rising, stronger (and even more fun-loving) than before.

Pass the word -- New Orleans is open for business as much as ever.  If you've never been there -- go.  If you've been wanting to go to Mardi Gras but didn't want to worry about the crowds -- get your ticket fast 'cause it's early this year (Fat Tuesday is Feb. 5th) and it's going to be a hell of a party.

Maybe I'll see you there.

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