View Full Version : Walking;To New Orleans

September 14th, 2005, 10:35 PM
I'm from New York.
It was there where I learned about urban landscapes.

First,it was Rochester,with it's marvelous mile-long Main Street,a parade of Nineteenth-Century Beaux-Arts and Brick Moderne commercial structures interrupted by the occasional '30s Deco or '60's Decorated Box,the DT flanked like bookends by interesting,walkable zones.To me,in those days,a really large building had 25-30 floors,and Rochester had a few of those.In between them were these great,human-scaled merchant buildings that spanned a Century of styles and always made "crusing the Main" a pretty cool trip through an architectural valley.
Later,it was Manhattan and all the architectural pleasures that it holds.Although Manhattan was forever shouting "BIG" or "TALL" at me,I paid closer attention to the small,to the neighborhoods of New York,than to the breathtaking skyline.Towers only look good from afar,but the low-rise neighborhoods that define the City can be appreciated from the more intimate walkaround eye level.
The neighborhood buildings were of a more friendly scale than the attention-grabbing highrises,so I gazed upon the City from a distance and I studied it--learned it-- from walking the streets.
It's so cool when you can find a street of ancient brownstones and have a cluster of high-rises loom up behind it,or find a sudden landscape of buildings that can calm the soul or spark the spirit.Not many cities have that quality.
I have spent more hours than I care to admit walking around in NY,admiring the commercial buildings and apartments and churches and coffee shops and brownstones,built over the span of a few centuries and representing,sometimes on a single block,dozens of the ideas about what a building should look like,all sitting in a quasi-natural juxtoposition to one another.I soaked this information in greedily on my walkabouts,like a Baby-Boomer Spongebob.
When I left New York I found myself comparing each new city I'd experience to my predisposed standards of urbanity--NY's walkable urbanity.
I come to a new city,I go Downtown first,I ipark the car and explore.
I've done it a thousand times.
I'd first look for the walkability factor,then for the views it could provide.I'd challenge the city--show me you can compare,show me your stuff.
What was the architecture trying to tell me about this place?
What have they done here to preserve and portray their history,their civic identity?
What kind of stores line the streets?How friendly do the streets feel,and do the neighborhoods adapt that "special feel" to them as I pass through--do they have that urban surprise element--the feeling that,wow,this is a really nice place I'm in?
Maybe I'll have a beer,sit outside,take it all in...
...What does the skyline look like at dawn and sunset,and do the Downtown lights throw a comfortable,yellowy glow over the neighborhood's landscape on a cloudy fall night?
What's that tower there,poking above the trees?
What's the food like,and how is the parking?
Do I want to return,explore,learn more about this place,or should I just say I've been there,had a beer there and just let it go at that?

I have visited a LOT of American cities since NY,and I've been in a lot of clunkers,loser cities that just never got the urban touch,or had it and somehow let it slip away.
I won't say which ones,for fear of setting off a shitstorm,but I will admit that DT Atlanta let me down,so did Detroit and Phoenix,all of Phoenix except Scottsdale.
Buffalo used to be great,but it's not anymore.Cleveland,too.And most of Charlotte's urban core is a cold void.These places,you just don't want to get out of the car.
But Savannah didn't disappoint,or Charleston.
Nor did Boston,Baltimore,Dallas,Denver,Boise,Richmond or Annapolis;Houston's not a walking town,neither is Tampa or Miami,(Tallahassee and St Pete,among Florida's cities,are)but they each have interesting "hoods to enjoy and they don't let you down.... I'm in love with Austin and Asheville...Washington and Boston were the closest to NY in my experience;they have that bigtown density to them and they are filled with walkable,admirable city neighborhoods and surprising architecture,and their crowded sidewalks lend them the same varietal urgency that NY has--in some places.Close behind are Montreal,Toronto and Philly.
San Francisco stands apart,making it's own definition.
Forget L.A..

So,by Century's end,I figured I had seen it all,I'd come a long way from Rochester,I've seen the country's best cities and had a pretty good personal database for unlocking the elusive clues to what made a city great--in my humble estimation,for my humble pleasure.
Then I discovered New Orleans.
Sweet Jesus,I had to remake my criteria,after all these cities I'd been to over all these years.I knew nothing.

I never walked The Big Easy,knew little about it.Except for whatever I had picked up from anecdotes and photos,New Orleans and I were strangers until 1999.
Since then,I've been there 7 times and passed through it 4 other times.I can't stay away,since I have fallen so deeply in love with the place.
It combined ALL the "city" elements I have come to appreciate,ALL the definitions I had created for being New York's equivilent,and still it held it's own as a one-of-a-kind,nowhere-else-but-here kind of place,like Paris or Vegas.
It's walkable as hell.It forces me to walk,I WANT to walk in New Orleans,to re-experience those early walks of discovery I took in the previous Century in places like New York and Savannah and Boston.
It has a skyline,a pretty impressive,big-city one.
It had a history and a presence,and it wore it's personality on it's streets for all to experience,often like a tattered cloak,sometimes like a new idea.
It had a vibrant feel to it.It allowed the sensation that it was presenting it's character to me as a brash but profound comic opera that was on stage until dawn, performing its act with class and a certain Southern gentillity until it dropped.
It had block upon block,mile upon mile of real,steeped-in-history Architecture.
There were vast neighborhoods to enjoy,and classic areas filled with magnificent 18th and 19th-century structures;man,they were everywhere,and majestic,palm-lined mansion Boulevards wound through the city,mixing the old and the modern with a casual abandon.
It had great food.God,did it have food,and beer that flowed in the streets 'till dawn,and music,better than New York's or Austin's music,blaring from a hundred streetfront joints that stayed open all night.
It dripped culture and wealth--no matter how it's defined--from it's grand Oaks,and it had a visible poverty that fit into textbook definitions.
It threw parties like my best friend would,it had walkable neighborhoods that occupied as much of my time as NY's great variety ever could.
And I didn't need a car to enjoy it.

I'll probably never go back,never walk her streets again.
It will break my heart if I do,so I won't.
When I pass by on the Interstate,on my way to Houston or Vegas or off to discover a new town to walk around in,I won't stop.
It would be like seeing a long-lost lover who passes me on a crowded sidewalk and ignites that old,thought-I-could-get-over-you flame.
I'll grow wistful and misty and long for the great times that my lover gave to me,but I know I can never feel her soft embrace again,not without sadness and tears.

New Orleans...Like my old lover,I had her and I lost her....

September 17th, 2005, 06:52 AM
Eloquently written and accurate, Hof.

At least you have New Orleans to remember. I've been all over the world and seen many of its great cities. New Orleans was at the very top of my list of unseen cities, and then this...