10 Things I Like About New Orleans Tuesday, Feb 26 2013 

St. Louis Cathedral from the Algiers Ferry.

St. Louis Cathedral from the Algiers Ferry.

OK, nearly in the “10 days to New Orleans” window. So much to do; so little time. Yet the anticipation is building.

So, let’s do a random, stream of consciousness exercise: name 10 things I like about New Orleans that are probably not on the radar of the average tourist. In no rational order:

1) The ferry to Algiers. You can hop on a free ferry from the end of Canal Street to Algiers, part of New Orleans, but more like a quaint village on the turn of the Mississippi.

2) Friday night fish fries during Lent. They are everywhere throughout southern Louisiana. The food is often great and the opportunity to meet and talk to locals is outstanding. Best combination ever: Friday night fish fry with my friends Bruno and Ani in Algiers.

Jazz Mass at St. Augustine's Church

Jazz Mass at St. Augustine’s Church

3) Jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Treme. Words can’t do it justice because you have to experience the sights and sounds for yourself. The sign of peace goes on the 15 minutes — and it ends too soon.

4) Grilled meat sandwiches at a second line parade. Never tried the grilled pork chop sandwich because the smell and taste of the grilled sausage sandwich is like heroin. Last year I found myself getting upset because the vendor did not make my sandwich fast enough.

5) Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. Traditional tunes by the Rites of Swing, with vocals by the lovely Yvette Voelker. The vibe is almost as good as the afternoon sunlight coming through the windows.

Jackson Square.

Jackson Square.

6) Sitting on benches people watching. Favorite spots: Jackson Square, the Moon Walk along the River, and Washington Square Park in the Marigny.

7) Abita Amber in “go cups” from Fritzel’s Jazz Pub on Bourbon Street. It is pretty much the only thing that brings me to the touristy part of Bourbon Street when I’m in the French Quarter.

8) Hole in the wall po’boy shops. Jimmy’s, a gas station near I-610, where you can get an enormous, wonderful po’boy for well under $10 bucks. This year, I’ll be staying across the street from a combination tire dealer/po’boy shop in the Lower Ninth. I expect it to be fabulous.

Louis Armstrong statue, Louis Armstrong Park..

Louis Armstrong statue, Louis Armstrong Park..

9) Walking the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery. I don’t think my students get it, but I love walking the battlefield where a rag-tag army under Andrew Jackson defeated the British Army in January 1815. The adjacent cemetery, which mainly hosts the remains of African-American soldiers from the Civil War, is equally peaceful and moving.

10) Louis Armstrong Park. Recently reopened, it contains monuments to New Orleans cultural icons, from Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong to “Tootie” Montana. And then there are the ghosts of Congo Square.

I could come up with more, but it is time to go to bed. And I’m sure that in a few weeks, I’ll be able to come up with 10 more.

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Test Testiness Wednesday, Jan 4 2012 

In recent years, standardized testing in the United States has come under considerable scrutiny. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, many have questioned whether it has improved the quality of education or driven teachers to teach to the test.

St. Louis No 1 Cemetery, March 2010.

While assessment scores have improved in New Orleans schools in recent years, there are a few members of the community who are unhappy about how test results are applied. These test takers drive horse drawn carriages, wander through cemeteries, and relay stories of New Orleans’ ghosts and haunts. Clearly, they are not school children; they are New Orleans tour guides.

While the South generally eschews regulation, it is interesting that the City of New Orleans, through the Ground Transportation division city’s Department of Safety and Permits, requires that all guides they pass a test  and submit to background checks and drug tests before receiving a license to operate tours.  Thus the City is pretty careful to make sure that the some 550 tour guides throughout the City know their history, architecture, and culture (or won’t endanger a coach full of tourists while in a drug-induced stupor). For that reason, the City requires that all guides take a comprehensive test that includes New Orleans facts, but also the rules and regulations governing tour guides.

The 70-question exam is largely taken “The Beautiful Crescent: A History of New Orleans,” by Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer. According to established guides, “The Beautiful Crescent” should be the source for members of the profession, since it covers most of what tour participants might ask. And the City agrees, since it has been cracking down and increasing enforcement since this past summer. In addition to the test, they are requiring biennial background checks. A number of guides find this rigorous enforcement onerous; however, four guides went further and filed suits that the City’s regulations and the test, in particular, are a violation of their free speech under the First Amendment.

Jackson Square and Decatur Street, March 2010.

Reaction form the City’s guides has been mixed. While many find the City’s application of the regulations to be burdensome, they generally agree that standards lend credibility to their profession. And it is permissible for tour guides to be licensed through exams offered by the Friends of the Cabildo  or through courses offered by Delgado Community College, which are more strict.

Although it is often difficult to predict judicial outcomes, I truly hope that the court supports the rigorous requirements for New Orleans tour guides. Over the years, I have taken part in numerous tours and listened in on countless others. I have been quite impressed with the knowledge these guides display and have learned a considerable amount from them. I’d hate to see the quality of what they offer be watered down. The result would be a disservice to the City and visitors, as well.

Streetcar Workers, a Strike, and a Sandwich Sunday, Feb 27 2011 

There have been interesting stories coming from Madison, WI about the national and international support for those defending their rights to collective bargaining. Tangible proof is the activity at Ian’s Pizza on State Street, which  has been delivering pizza to the capitol protesters nearby. Pizza orders have been called in on behalf of protesters from all 50 states and from as far away as Cairo – as in Egypt, not Illinois. (see “From Cairo to Madison, Some Pizza”)

A similar story took place in New Orleans over 80 years ago and the result was not just union and community solidarity, but the creation of the region’s most beloved sandwich.

Streetcar Riot, August 1929.

In the summer of 1929, there were transit strikes throughout the United States, and among the most acrimonious was in New Orleans. After heated negotiations broke down, the streetcar motorman and conductors of Division 194 went on strike. On July 5th, the company brought in strike breakers (reputedly criminals from New York) to push back the union and its supporters and reopen the streetcar line. Over 10,000 union members, supporters, and spectators showed up to watch the strikers disable and burn the first car to try to go into service. A protracted shutdown and strike ensued.

When the streetcars did start running again most locals avoided them, both in sympathy with the motormen and for fear of violence. In addition, the striking workers received goods and services from citizens and local businesses. One of those businesses was Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant, then at the French Market. However, Clovis and Bennie Martin were not your average restaurateurs. When the  brothers first moved to New Orleans from the town of Raceland in Arcadian Louisiana, they worked for the streetcar company and were members of Division 194. So as businessmen, they vowed to feed their former co-workers until the strike ended.

Martin Brothers, St. Claude and Touro.

The workers needed sustenance to walk the picket line, so the brothers asked a local baker to produce a larger and more regular loaf than the traditional French loaf.  They would cut these into 15 or 20 inch sandwiches, filled with their traditional fillings. So basically, they “super-sized” their sandwiches in order to feed the “poor boys” while they were on strike. And once the workers returned to work, the people of New Orleans remembered the sandwich, the “po-boy,” and the Martins’ generosity.

Soon thereafter, the stock market crash precipitated the Great Depression and many more New Orleans residents were out of work. The Martin’s moved their restaurant to St. Claude Avenue; and during such hard times, New Orleans families continued to depend on the brothers’ generous sandwiches to help get by.  They sold a 15 inch po-boy for a dime and the larger size for 15 cents. A lettuce and tomato sandwich was free.

Shrimp Po-boy from Jimmy's Discounts in Gentilly, March 2010.

The brothers eventually went in different directions, but their spirit and their gastronomic creation live on along the Gulf Coast. Po-boy shops abound and the sandwich’s popularity has spawned its own preservation society and festival. Click here for more on the po-boy and the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival.

New Orleans Seventy Years Ago: In Living Color Saturday, Nov 13 2010 

In the last couple of days I’ve come across a couple of fascinating short films about New Orleans. They were produced a few months apart in 1940 and 1941 and both are in color.

The first is a short documentary that James A. Fitzpatrick made for MGM. The beginning is missing, but the rest of it seems to be intact. It was made as part of the “Travel Talk” series, but comes off more as a social studies lesson. A lot of focus on the the Mississippi and shipping. Great scenes of Cafe du Monde,  the Roosevelt Hotel, and the “new” Charity Hospital. The shots of bustling Canal Street, when compared to the present, are rather sad. Not surprisingly, after viewing the short, you wouldn’t know that New Orleans including Bourbon Street or working class neighborhoods. You can view it on YouTube.

The other was made a few months later during the Mardi Gras celebration in late February 1941. The film quality and color are quite remarkable. There is no sound, but music featuring George Lewis and Johnny Dodds provides appropriate musical accompaniment. It includes a children’s krewe and the first female krewe (Venus). Alas, it would be the last Mardi Gras celebration until after World War II. You can view it here.

New Orleans Happenings Thursday, Feb 5 2009 

OK, so it’s in the single digits here this morning, so I have to think of warmer climes. Oops, the strawberries and citrus in Florida are threatened by a freeze and New Orleans is in the 30s.

However, there are a number of interesting stories about New Orleans of late:

Zatarain’s, the New Orleans-area food producer, is petitioning to have Mardi Gras made a national holiday. Read (and sign) here: http://blog.nola.com/cest-la-nola/2009/02/zatarains_spearheading_petitio.html

An observant blogger (not me) discovered that if you search for “New Orleans” in Google, you can come up with a timeline of New Orleans history, with links from specific dates to open source content, a veritable “New Orleans History 2.0” (to use her words). For the blog and link to the timeline see:  http://blog.nola.com/cest-la-nola/2009/02/history_of_new_orleans_20.html

The NOPD is at it again. An autopsy shows that a man killed by police on New Year’s Day was shot in the back of the body nine times:  http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/man_shot_by_police_hit_nine_ti.html

And in spite of such news, Mayor Nagin and the city council have reinstituted “Disney-like” sanitation services for the French Quarter.  It’s good to see where their priorities are. Which raises some interesting questions: do tourists vote? Does the rest of the city get dumpsters? See:  http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/deluxe_quarter_cleanup_resumes.html