EVERYBODY THINKS THEY KNOW WHAT NEW ORLEANS LOOKS LIKE UNTIL THEY GET THERE. Or at least that was my experience, when I made the city my first post-lockdown trip outside my country, desperate for a place that looked as little like Toronto as possible without having to cross an ocean. In that aspect, at the very least, New Orleans – front-loaded with voodoo and cemeteries, jazz and blues, gumbo, po’boys and sazerac – did not disappoint.
By North American standards this is a very old city, loaded with history, and unique even when compared to other cities in the American South. With nothing more than a handful of books, a head full of postcard images and the advice of a local friend, I set out to capture as much of New Orleans as I could in just a few days, barely a couple of months after Hurricane Ida had hit the town.
My first objective after checking into my hotel was to cross Canal and search the French Quarter for a bowl of gumbo, and even on a weekday night with Covid still a thing, Bourbon Street and the adjacent blocks were full of partiers. I decided to explore the Quarter again a couple of days later, at dawn, with the sun just coming up over Algiers and the far side of the Mississippi and the streets empty except for shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks.
The Quarter is the oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans, built on the original footprint of the city that Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville founded in the early 18th century. Its signature architectural feature is the wrought iron balcony, and while you can find these all over town, I worked hard to capture the delicate iron lacework as you’ll find it on landmarks like the much-photographed LaBranche House at the corner of Royal and St. Peter.
It’s not like the Quarter is frozen in time – it’s changed a lot over the decades – but in the light of dawn it can seem like you’re in a time machine. “This sure is a beautiful city in the morning,” as one man said to me on Royal Street, while I was lining up a shot. The streets of the Quarter are full of classic New Orleans architecture like the shotgun and the Creole townhouse, and if you look up you’ll see signs for Tujague’s and Antoine’s, respectively the second-oldest (opened 1856) and oldest (opened 1840) restaurants in the city.
Up close your eye – and your camera – will focus on the patina of the place. There are institutions like Preservation Hall and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, and beyond that every old wall and door, their plaster and bright paint weathered by the heat and humidity. I was told that courtyards are really the heart of the Quarter – private places away from the sometimes raucous nightlife on the streets – and I found a perfect one behind Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights, between their store and their workshop museum.
But New Orleans is more than the Quarter. It’s worthwhile to cross Canal Street, the city’s grand shopping boulevard with its streetcars, and explore the Central Business District, which is where you’ll find a growing number of hotels. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood, with old bank buildings and warehouses next to new shops and restaurants all the way over to the cluster of museums just north of Lee Circle.
Along the way you’ll see another archetype of New Orleans architecture, the American townhouse, as well as oddities like the Lighthouse Building on Camp Street, which was never meant to be beacon for ships but was built in the early ’20s as a workshop for the blind (though nowadays it mostly functions as an event space.)
Walking along Camp Street in the CBD you can’t miss St. Patrick’s, the second oldest church in the city (after St. Louis Cathedral) since back when the neighbourhood was called Faubourg St. Mary. Like almost any Catholic church called St. Patrick’s, it’s a focal point for the Irish population of the city, and has been since the gothic revival building was opened in 1840. The outside is remarkably austere with its white plaster walls, but the interior is much more colourful, with its warm wood pews and balconies, the altar with its lovely murals and the beautiful fan of stained glass in the apse.
I made a point of using New Orleans’ iconic streetcars as my main ride around the city. The green St. Charles car is the most iconic of all – the oldest continuously running route in the city, and a handy way to travel from downtown through the Garden District to the campuses of Tulane and Loyola universities, all the way to Audubon Park and the Mississippi River levee. I spent a long time huddled against the trees that line the route, shooting up the tracks to where the late afternoon sun silhouetted the cars heading downtown.
The Garden District was originally the city of Lafayette, a haven for Americans who settled in the city after the Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th century. It’s still known mostly as a district of fine old homes, the centre of New Orleans’ high society, as well as being the epicentre of the parade routes during Mardi Gras. You can spend a whole day peering up at those fine old homes – by wrought-iron railings like the cornstalk fence around Colonel Short’s Villa, through clipped hedges or over the brick walls that line the sidewalks.
City Park is the terminus of one of the Canal streetcar routes, and a surprisingly short ride from the busy Quarter. Created in 1854 and twice the size of New York City’s Central Park, it’s a challenge to see all of it in a day. There’s a carousel, gondola rides and boat rentals, stables, a botanical garden, a children’s museum, two sculpture gardens, golf courses, two stadiums and a forest at the city’s highest point. I made sure I got pictures of the park’s magnificent live oaks and their garlands of Spanish moss, and Langles Bridge, one of the many bridges spanning the park’s countless water features.
Eventually, though, you’ll get drawn back downtown, and to the river – the reason why there’s a city here in the first place. It’s hard not to be impressed by the Mississippi, one of the most famous and important rivers in the world, and several orders of magnitude wider than anything I’m used to at home. It used to be a busy port, lined with piers and warehouses, but they’ve mostly disappeared since the ’80s, replaced by a streetcar line, riverfront promenades, docks for riverboats and cruise ships and monuments like the one to Joan of Arc, the city’s patron saint, “Joanie on the Pony”, a gift to the city from France. It was erected in 1972 after spending years in storage, and moved to its current location by the French Market and the original Cafe du Monde in 1999.
I try to take at least a couple of portraits on every trip, but Covid and masking has made finding subjects harder these days. In the end I gravitated to the carriages lined up by the gates of Jackson Square, and the remarkably placid, stoic mules that pull them, some of them sporting flowers and hats in addition to the studded leatherwork on their bridles.
It’s impossible to spend a few days in New Orleans without passing by St. Louis Cathedral, the city’s most iconic church and the symbol of its skyline. My dawn hike through the Quarter ended up across from the cathedral and Jackson Square, the city’s original Place d’Armes and military parade ground, where I wanted to catch the morning sun lighting up the facade and the adjacent Cabildo (the old town hall, now the Louisiana State Museum) and Presbytère (originally a priest’s residence and courthouse, and the other half of the Louisiana State Museum.) The square is pretty lively all day, but if you can get in just after they unlock the gates you’ll have the whole place to yourself for at least a few minutes – preferably with a cafe au lait and a beignet from the Cafe du Monde if you can beat the lineups.
(To go behind the scenes and see more photos from this trip go here.)
Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved
Thanks to Visit New Orleans for their assistance.
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