New Orleans, Louisiana: Hey, who got their Europe in our America?
Having been to New Orleans a few times, I’d never fully explored this cultural anomaly; this veritable European city within America’s American borders. Lacking only a bunch of washing machine-sized cars and a staunch refusal to shower, New Orleans could almost pass for Roma or Paris. Its European influences give the city a class and character that’s universally ignored by drunk American tourists.
In all honestly, I’d never really crawled much beyond the urine- and vomit-filled gutters lining both sides of Bourbon Street. This past Labor Day, however, we flew down to celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary, an event that I felt warranted somewhat more standing upright and far less public nudity.
This was, in essence, the first time I had seen the city entirely sober — though, that didn’t last long — and I was impressed. Not only is the city far older than I expected, it is far larger, too. As it turns out, the beer-soaked French Quarter is only one small part of this oasis in the redneck South.
The CDB, or Central Business District, is due West of the French Quarter, demarcated by Canal Street and its antique cable car line. It is, not surprisingly, where the business district of the city is…um, centered.
Our hotel, Le Pavillon (pronounced “La Pav EE on”), was located in this mostly commercial area, surrounded by many less-pompous hotels. Le Pavillon is a grand, opulent structure adorned with all manner of sculpture, carving, marble and brass. Soaring, fluted columns and dazzling tentacled chandeliers assaulted my eyes upon entering. Most flat surfaces were mirrored, and every object edge was gilded with gold leaf, or gold paint anyway.
To call the resulting effect “gaudy” was to miss the point of its design aesthetic: This hotel proudly carries aloft the banner of old-school Gilded Age excess. The lack of restraint demonstrated here is what eventually inspired the banal, minimalist look popular in Ian Schrager hotels. Le Pavillon is positively pre-modern. And the hotel deserves credit for not going about it half-assed. If you’re going there, bring sunglasses to wear…indoors.
The worst thing I’d say about this hotel is that it’s old. Built in 1907, Le Pavillon predictably has a bit of mustiness to it (a common problem in the humidity of Louisiana, whose State Bird is the Swamp Thing). But our room was, otherwise, entirely acceptable with all the amenities you’d expect (only dipped in gold). In addition to its obsessive use of gold, the hotel boasts a rooftop pool and Jacuzzi both filled, for some reason, only with water.
Also unsurprisingly, the weather in late August was hot. Really hot. We’re talking Florida hot. Only without the ocean breeze. So if you’re thinking of going in August, don’t. Just don’t.
There’s also an area called the Garden District. Basically, it’s a fancy, ironic name for an area with houses too huge to allow much of a yard, and so make do with a small garden. Still, the houses themselves are impressive Southern estates with wrap-around porches and elaborate exterior detailing: we’re talking Ionic, Doric and/or Corinthian columns, intricate lattice-work, and miles of black wrought iron. All butted right up next to the next house, almost as if they were row houses. We saw Anne Rice’s former home, and even got to see football legend, Archie Manning, taking out the garbage. Clearly, these are not inexpensive houses.
We next viewed some substantially more affordable places in the Ninth Ward. Most of the homes there could be had for pennies on the dollar. Or, just pennies. After Katrina and the Waves played the area, property values dropped faster than Lennox “Glass Jaw” Lewis.
Despite being approved for government funds, few former home owners have received a cent (Thanks, FEMA!). So two years later, much of the housing in the Ninth Ward sits boarded up and abandoned. In the more affluent, Lake Pontchartrain-front areas, cheery “For Sale” signs boast ridiculously low prices downplaying the homes’ “as is” catch: Buy this mansion and you get to tear it down at your own expense and rebuild something else, assuming you can get insurance which you can’t.
But, as we were leaving, we couldn’t help thinking that New Orleans should fire its PR and Advertising Bureau. Because New Orleans isn’t like any other American city — certainly nothing like Disneyland or World — yet that’s exactly how they are advertising the place to tourists (minus the mouse mascot, of course). And that’s pretty insulting to the city. People already know New Orleans is home to Jazz, Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and topless, bead-whores.
What people don’t know is the history and culture of the place. And maybe if the Visitor’s Bureau started promoting that angle, New Orleans would attract tourists that they wouldn’t have to clean up vomit after. Just a suggestion.