I visited New Orleans three times before Katrina stuck in late August 2005. In those visits I dutifully stuck to conference hotels, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and one memorable visit to Treme for chef Austin Leslie’s collard greens and fried chicken. But, the rest of the city I usually saw from an airport limousine travelling on I-10.
That changed for the better when I returned for my first volunteer stint in March 2006. I was met by my friend Bruno who took me for po-boys at Domilise’s, to his rental home uptown, and for a heart-rending visit to his flooded-out home in Lakeview and the recently opened Lower Ninth Ward. He deposited me at a FEMA camp in St. Bernard Parish. I’m certain that, at that point, the volunteers at the camp that week outnumbered the parish residents who had returned.
One day, as we were gutting houses, one the young women in my group shared that her friend had told her about a place called Frenchmen Street. It was not in the Quarter, but it was the place where locals went to hear real music. It was not the bad classic rock, zydeco, and stultifying jazz that make up most of what you hear on Bourbon Street. I didn’t have a car, but the first chance I had to get into the city, I went to Frenchmen Street.
It was in the Marigny, just to the east of the French Quarter. It was named to honor the Frenchmen who led the rebellion against the Spanish authorities who assumed control of New Orleans in 1762. A governor with a firmer hand had them summarily executed near where the street intersects with Decatur. History shows that he got his point across. But from this tragic beginning, this place has yielded wonder and joy.
If you like good music, Frenchmen Street is like no other. You don’t even have to enter one of the many establishments; you can walk from doorway to doorway, to hear blues or jazz or klezmer or brass band music – it stretches the imagination. Folks dance on the tight dance floors or on the sidewalks outside. That first week, I kept going back to a disreputable pile of boards called the Spotted Cat. How in the Hell did this three story shack make it through a hurricane?
But the building’s smoky, cash only innards were golden. It was loud, dirty and occasionally the toilets would flush, but for the price of couple of drinks you enter a world of great music and exquisite people watching. I became acquainted with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, the Pfister Sisters, Washboard Chaz and St. Louis Slim. I got to sit and talk to a wildly entertaining bartender named Bucky and watch as Uncle Lionel Batiste shuffled in, raised his bowler hat and did a soft shoe to the music. I was smitten, and years later my love has not diminished.
Snug Harbor. Apple Barrel, DBA. Blue Nile, Mimi’s and the rest. Frenchmen is a continuous, musical smorgasbord. But the Spotted Cat remains my favorite. Bucky is gone, but Uncle Lionel is still there. Along with a non-stop line of musical acts. So, when we head down at spring break, my students know where they can usually find me. It is my refuge; “The Street” is my office.
Frenchmen Street. From street performers, to street parades, to taco stands, to sidewalk cafes, to Creole food at the Praline Connection. And while I hesitate to invite anyone else to encroach upon my joy, to crowd my places of refuge beyond capacity, Frenchmen Street is opposite of Bourbon Street. If you like music and want to take the pulse of the city, you have to cross Esplanade and explore the Marigny. Frenchmen Street is where it’s at. Even CNN has discovered it; just in time for Mardi Gras!