If you know me personally, you were probably expecting this post.
Thomas (my husband) and I visited New Orleans for the first time in 2009, for our first wedding anniversary. Since then, we’ve been back countless times- and each time we return, we uncover a corner of the city that we hadn’t seen before. There is no way I am going to be able to sum up my feelings about this city in a single blog post, so it’s going to be a series of posts over the next few weeks. You see, the city is so rich with everything- I have to marinate on my thoughts- let them stew, write them down, add a little garlic, maybe a little more pepper, let that simmer for a few days, taste it again, add some more… you get the picture. New Orleans deserves my thoughts when they are operating at their highest level. She deserves plenty of my time. You can’t rush New Orleans.
Why New Orleans is the best city in the United States
I have been to most of the major cities in this country, and there are some really great places.
New York, for instance- is wonderful. Any food you want on every block. All cultures existing (mostly) peacefully together. The people get such a bad rap- but I have never had a bad experience. Most everyone I have encountered there is genuinely kind and helpful. But it’s not New Orleans.
Miami- oh goodness – the smells, the sights, the sounds! The ocean and its beautiful waterways, just dotting the landscape, the air is salty and seems so fresh. The food is great… don’t forget about Calle Ocho! But it’s not New Orleans
Los Angeles, while I have not dug into this city as much as I would have liked, I love what I have seen from my limited time there. The general vibe- everyone is so cool. So much music, so much entertainment- The weather! But it’s not New Orleans.
What images come to your mind when you think of New Orleans? Bourbon Street? Mardi Gras beads? Jazz music? These are right on the surface of New Orleans. What is underneath is rich, warm, gritty, spicy, friendly, and a little drunk (in a good way.)
If you love New Orleans then you know that there is a general understanding that anyone else who loves New Orleans is a kindred spirit. They are fun, friendly, a little quirky, and someone you know you are going to have fun with. Over the course of the time that we have been there, we have made friends that live in all parts of the country, also Russia and New Zealand! Everyone is a friend in New Orleans. But let me wax poetic on the local people for a minute.
The 3rd or 4th time we visited, we signed up for a tour of the Treme. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It was a hit series on HBO that I highly recommend- it was produced by David Simon- maybe you’ve heard of him? (The Wire, anyone?) It was some of the best television I have ever seen.
If this is your first time hearing of Treme , it is a historic neighborhood in Nola and described below:
“Won’t bow down. Don’t know how.” A place of pride and refuge for New Orleans’ free people of color who could buy property here, the Faubourg Treme – as far back as its founding in the 18th Century – served as cultural rendezvous between the worlds of white and black while its back streets birthed a music that conquered the world. Bulldozed but not forgotten, the infamous Storyville red-light district flourished in the Treme’s upper stretches while St. Augustine Church remains the centerpiece for the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the country. Jazz today is honored by Armstrong Park, named in tribute to Louis Armstrong and Congo Square – where slaves once gathered to make music. Similar beats are heard today seeping from tiny clubs, booming out in a joyous second line or in the eerie drumming of the skeleton krewe emerging from the Backstreet Museum at dawn Mardi Gras Day to wake the sleeping. “Live!” is their command. And that’s exactly what the Treme always does. (https://www.neworleans.com/plan/neighborhoods/treme/)
So, we are on this tour led by a man named Milton Carr. I am terrible with names, but I will never forget his. He gave us his business card and took us on a tour that lasted a few hours, but I was hanging on the edge of my seat the entire time. (well it was a walking tour, but you get the gist)
Milton was born and raised in Treme. He took us all around the neighborhood, showing us the homes of some musicians that still live there. The likes of these guys include Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins, (A MUST to see if you are there). He reminisced about a few that have passed on, or moved away, meanwhile interweaving stories of the food cooked and history shared of it’s residents. Mr. Carr took us on a journey into his space, his life, and his past. When the tour ended, he took us to Lil Dizzy’s Café, an authentic Creole restaurant on the outskirts of the neighborhood. We shared a meal together. The food was incredible- but that is for another post. He gave us his business card and told us to call him if we wanted to find the second line the next day (Superbowl Sunday.)
Okay- crash course on the New Orleans Second Line from the Gambinos (local Nola bakery) website (https://gambinos.com/new-orleans-history/history-second-line/):
Where Do They Come From, Where Do They Go?
Most research shows the second line dating back to the mid to late 19th century, its development deeply ingrained in the African-American community in New Orleans. In large part the second line’s creation and evolution can be attributed to what we now refer to as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. In the period following the Civil War, African-American citizens struggled to attain proper governmental support and insurance, which incited the development of communal societies or co-ops that would provide social aid for their members. These neighborhood organizations would charge their members dues which would contribute to a fund used for basic health and funeral insurance.
One of the earliest social aid organizations was the New Orleans Freedman’s Aid Association which was founded in 1865. This specific social aid group worked to provide loans, education, and insurance to recently freed slaves in the post-Civil War era. This club, and many like it, often hosted parades and block parties to advertise their services as well as celebrate and honor members when they died. These celebrations coincided with jazz funerals and together evolved into what we now recognize as second lines.
As racial segregation began to fade in the south, the need for individualized organizations to provide insurance faded as well. This is what created the transition from social aid clubs, to pleasure clubs or benevolent societies. Contemporary Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans, like Zulu or the Jolly Bunch, usually don’t provide insurance anymore. Instead they are used as clubs to allow locals to engage with one another and socialize in celebratory ways. Their name, however, still references the purpose they originally served.
The Contemporary Second Line
It is New Orleans tradition to use second lines to celebrate weddings as well as funerals, but nowadays we second line for more than just these purposes. Many Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs use second lines as a way of introducing themselves to the community or providing a reason for their members to get together. It’s rare that a Sunday afternoon goes by in the French Quarter without being able to catch at least one or two second lines put on by these clubs.
You can recognize the krewe members because they are often towards the front of the parade and dressed in matching, brightly colored suits, carrying parasols, handkerchiefs, or cocktails napkins and thrusting them towards the sky. It’s also likely you will be able to see some Mardi Gras Indians during these parades.
The typical second line tends to run through neighborhoods rather than along main streets and can march anywhere from 8-20 blocks, depending on the celebration. So next time you see one passing by, contribute to this incredible New Orleans tradition and hop in line
So it is Sunday and we are trying to find the second line. It’s also the Superbowl, so it’s going to be a good one. We couldn’t find it so we called Mr. Carr. He tells us exactly where to go to catch it in action. It has already started, but he gave us precise directions because he knew the route by heart. He CALLED ME BACK 30 minutes later to MAKE SURE we found it. He is a prime example of the people you encounter in New Orleans. Most tourism cities cannot stand the tourists, but the people of New Orleans ask them their name, ask how their family is doing, take them to the party, and invite them to a seat at their table. They will even give them a good cooking lesson if asked! MY HEART! A good chunk of it is always in New Orleans.
Another A-mazing tour of note is led by Chris Rose, a former Times-Picayune (local Nola newpaper) columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning reporter who gifts his audience with an experience that is part walking tour, part theatrical performance. He coins his tour “The Magical Musical Mystery History Tour.” He takes you on a journey that begins with the birthplace of jazz, takes a left at Rock and Roll Street, forks left at the corner of Reggae Tnpk and County Road (ha) but circles around the roundabout back to Country Road, detours to the House of the Rising Sun, makes a U-Turn to Hip Hop Lane, to finally arrive BACK at the House of the Rising Sun.
Okay, I’m sorry about that whole navigation metaphor- but it was seriously the best experience. Informative, a challenge to follow (in a GOOD way), a visual, auditory, and physical experience (it was hot as hell) like no other. Even contacting him about this tour is an authentic Nola experience. You email him. Two to four weeks later you will hear back confirming your dates. You will not hear from him again until maybe the night before your tour, telling you where to meet him. DO NOT FRET, FRIENDS. This is New Orleans. Slow, unpredictable, but- because of the people- always delivering a good time.