New Orleans, like Rome or hope, is eternal. Visit Louisiana’s filigreed, fleur-de-lis city twice or 20 times, and the scent will be as unchanging as the air is unmoving: a humid mix of confederate jasmine and fried shrimp, diesel fuel and desire. The French Quarter ? Always rolling. At Galatoire’s, Uptown lawyers still get “liquor-store-robbing drunk” on five-hour Friday lunches of oysters Rockefeller and Pouilly-Fuissé, while farther down Bourbon Street, exhibitionists hooched-up on Hurricanes play to the balconies. The Garden District remains quieter than sleep—the whitewashed tombs of its cemetery still shelter the dead and fascinate the living. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar ? Forever un-air-conditioned. Its open windows frame America’s most beautiful boulevard. Last year’s Mardi Gras beads will be there, too, dangling from the live oaks.
The music remains unrivaled. Rebirth, or maybe a Neville or two, should be playing Frenchmen Street; in the Treme a jazz band sends a second line snaking past the Creole cottages painted cantaloupe, carmine, and chartreuse.
Immutable. Imperishable. As predictable as seersucker after Easter. Yet change has arrived like Blanche DuBois, suitcase in hand and a tad dishabille. The Crescent City has always depended on the kindness of strangers, but now they’re staying. Some 20,000 in the past four years have settled along the Mississippi, revitalizing whole faubourgs, or neighborhoods. They’ve Brooklyn-ized the Bywater with Banksy murals and hipster clubs. Audubon and City Parks are replanted, and the theater marquees for the Joy and the Saenger shine again on Canal Street. The Lower Garden District now claims French antiques and molecular gastronomy. Freret Street sports fancy franks and cocktails. Mercedes-Benz got its mitts on the Superdome (or, at least, the name). Those who love this town may worry that the change will overpower the charm. Relax. What’s new will just join the party, Sazerac in hand.
“Goodness, sugar,” says Marda Burton, doyenne of the French Quarter. “New Orleans just excites the senses. It always has. It always will.” New Orleans! Storied past. Bright future. Hot mess. Here’s mud in your eye. —Andrew Nelson | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER