New Orleans is the most unique city in the country. Having grown up there, I may be biased when I say that, but I believe the evidence is apparent. The music — primarily jazz and blues — and the cuisine that have originated here are world-renowned. The European influence on the city, particularly in the storied French Quarter, has imbued New Orleans with an inimitable charm and history.
Unfortunately, New Orleans may also be the most vulnerable city in the country. The buffer of the wetlands has steadily eroded, leaving the city more susceptible to damage by powerful hurricanes than ever. Hurricane Katrina wreaked significant damage on several areas of New Orleans, most notably the Lower 9th Ward and the lakefront area.
When surveying these neighborhoods I was struck by the notion that New Orleans was not just a city for tourists, but a city of generations of families often struggling to get by in their daily lives. The sense of place and community I witnessed created an identity that made the loss all the more painful — beyond simple dollars and cents, brick and mortar. The sense of human pain in these abandoned communities was palpable.
There are some worthy ongoing efforts to revive the Ninth Ward, including Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. Several homes have been built for low-income families through his organization. The architect Thom Mayne is developing the design idea for floating houses in preparation for future floods.
Key to the recovery of the city, however, are the areas of town most popular with tourists. These came out relatively unscathed. The French Quarter and Garden Districts were wisely built on higher ground in anticipation of the inevitable floods caused by the “sunken” nature of the city (N.O. is below sea level) between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. Thus the average tourist may not notice much difference between New Orleans in 2004 and New Orleans in 2009.
You can still hit the world-famous restaurants, hear the same jazz, take the streetcar (don’t call it a trolley) into the exquisite Garden District to view historic homes and mansions protected by architectural preservation ordinances. I grew up a block from St. Charles Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Garden District, and the sound of the streetcar still rings in my ear.
You can still begin your day with a café au lait and plate of beignets at Café du Monde and walk out to Jackson Square or to the Mississippi River to take a stroll down Riverwalk. You can still enjoy the famous New Orleans food at a multitude of restaurants. My favorites include jambalaya, crawfish etoufee, shrimp creole, seafood gumbo and oyster po' boys.You can even sample a hurricane (the drink) on Bourbon Street (but beware!).
Experience for yourself what has always made New Orleans great. If at all possible, visit during the spring or fall, when the heat and humidity are less intense. Just go – and discover what’s made this city a national treasure.