Random Facts About New Orleans Sunday, Mar 4 2012 

These facts have been supplied to help my students get a snapshot of New Orleans prior to their spring break, service-learning trip. Some facts may be subject to bias (mine). Those generally appear towards the end of the list. No harm or misinformation is intended by these pronouncements.

St. Louis Cathedral, March 2010.

Distance from Durham NH to New Orleans LA: 1,586 miles

Road hours from Durham NH to New Orleans LA: one day; two hours

Average high temperature on March 10th in Durham NH: 37 degrees

Average high temperature on March 10th in New Orleans LA: 71 degrees

Population of New Orleans LA (2010): 343,829

Population of Durham NH (2010): 14,638

New Orleans founded: 1718 by French explorers and speculators

Durham founded: 1732 by English settlers

Portion of New Orleans below sea level: 49%

Top New Orleans employer: Ochsner Health System, 10,000

Second line parade, March 2010

New Orleans racial composition: African-American 60.2%; white, 33%; Hispanic, 5.3%; Asian 2.9

% of New Orleans population who are Roman Catholic: 35.9%

Rank of New Orleans in murder rate (US): 1st

Rank of New Orleans in bicycle and foot traffic (US): 8th

Best cross-dressing bounce artist: Big Freedia

Best radio station: WWOZ (90.7 FM)

Best seafood po’boy: Domilise’s

Best music club: Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street

Best place for traditional music: Preservation Hall

Me and Kermit Ruffins, Rock and Bowl, March 2011.

Oldest regularly performing jazz artist: Lionel Ferbos (100 years old) at the Palm Court

Coolest senior citizen in America: “Uncle” Lionel Batiste (81 years old) bass drummer for the Treme Brass Band and Frenchmen Street denizen

Best New Orleans brass band: Rebirth Brass Band (OK Stu, I’ve come around)

Mr. New Orleans: Kermit Ruffins

Best city in America: Do we really have to ask?

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Frenchmen Street Saturday, Mar 5 2011 

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.

Rites of Swing, Spotted Cat, March 2008.

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?

The Spotted Cat, March 2007.

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.

Praline Connection, Frenchmen Street, March 2009.

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!