The previous two years, I’ve provided my report card for Nashville and Seattle. These were highly subjective grades based solely on my experiences in each city. I don’t claim to have had a definitive experience because I don’t believe such a thing exists. Now, my year in New Orleans has come to its conclusion (can you believe it’s been a full year?) and it’s time for me to bite the bullet and discuss my experience.
For a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like getting into here, this has been a tough year. For once, I had a surplus of funds thanks to New Orleans’ Limbo-low cost of living, but so much else about the year was a struggle. Negative personal circumstances will obviously color one’s perspective, so I don’t want to unfairly judge the city. The truth, though, is that the Big Easy didn’t always charm me like I expected. I’ve had tough years before (Chicago stands out) and I’ve still left loving the city.
More than any art or job, we often identify ourselves with our city, so I know that to criticize New Orleans is to, in some minds, criticize the people who love it. I certainly don’t mean that. As I’ve written before, it’s pretty clear that even the locals have a sort of love/hate relationship with their own city. Talking about a city invokes the Big Brother Rule: “I can make fun of my family but you can’t.”
Before I jump into the grades, I have to offer this passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities that captures the odd duality of New Orleans:
In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes with definite limits…
Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves.
Public Transportation – I began my critique of Nashville by saying “A city without a train system is always going to be at a disadvantage.” This was true for Music City, and it’s true for New Orleans. Of the 3 Southern cities I’ve lived in (4 if you count Costa Mesa), not a single one of them has had a public transportation system worth the hassle.
The main issue with the bus system here in NOLA isn’t a lack of routes. From what I can tell, most of the city is accessible by bus. The problem is that this is a city whose proudest industry is parades and festivals. 9 months out of the year, there’s almost no route in the city that isn’t delayed or completely blocked by the festivities. Now, this might not be an issue if you’re here for the party, but there’s no party if the workers can’t get to their jobs. I’ve literally had two mile commutes that would have been faster on foot.
My recommendation: Buy a bike.
(As regards taxis: There are a number of taxi companies in this city, but everyone swears by United Cab. They’re certainly the biggest company here, but their customer service leaves something to be desired. Half the time they allow you to reserve a cab ahead of time, but at other random times they’ll tell you they don’t take reservations.)
City Planning – For a city of this size (which I’d call ‘Big Town’), they’ve put their space to admirable use. You’re never more than a few blocks away from a bar, you know, on the off-chance you came to New Orleans to drink. The city is basically split into 3 main areas of distinction, the French Quarter, Uptown and Mid City. After that, you have a lot of other neighborhoods with their specific styles and facets of the citizenry. Like most cities, a superficial tribalism has arisen that pits residents of, for instance, the Marigny against Uptown. And like most such tribalism, it’s utter bullshit.
That said, while there is no shortage of bars and music venues and corners to watch stinky white kids who dropped out of high school play steel drums and a washboard, sometimes you want to change it up. For that there is the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park and the World War II Museum, and then of course plenty to see if your interest is the history of New Orleans. I get why that would appeal to a tourist, but a a resident, the myopia got a little old.
There’s a dearth of movie theaters in the city (another trend I’ve noticed in Southern cities). You either pay exorbitant prices for leather reclining seats at Canal Place or you make your way to the Prytania. If your movie isn’t playing at one of those two spots, you’re headed to the suburbs (Rian Johnson’s Looper, which was shot here in New Orleans, apparently never played within city limits).
This is all to say that there is a lot to do throughout this city in terms of quantity, but the variety leaves something to be desired.
Bars/Nightlife - This is where New Orleans hangs its hat. Any city worth its salt is going to have a nightlife to help the city unwind from the hustle and bustle of the day. In New Orleans, though, nightlife is the hustle and bustle. Leisure and hospitality isn’t actually the city’s main industry, but you wouldn’t be crazy to think so. Like any city, the bars of New Orleans tend to have their clientele, but most places are welcoming to diversity. There are definitely ‘black’ bars and ‘white’ bars (this is the South) but the young locals tend to intermix as well as any major metropolis.
I could describe the bars worth checking out, but it’d be faster to say what kind of bars they don’t have in this city: I don’t recall ever seeing a bar that catered exclusively to midgets, so, sorry little people.
But fuck Bourbon Street. Seriously, don’t waste your time.
Art Scene – New Orleans and Nashville are like siblings. New Orleans is the older brother who has tons of talent and is quite worldly, but never really did anything with his skills and was content to just gig with buddies. Nashville is the younger brother with the same talent but more ambition. He went out, got auditions and built a career. And ultimately that’s the difference between the two cities: Nashville is the professional version of New Orleans, with all the negatives and positives that suggests.
No question, music is god in New Orleans. And just like Nashville has more to offer than country music, New Orleans is a lot more than just jazz. Don’t get me wrong, jazz is definitely the high priest here and always will be, even while cities like Chicago are polishing up the scene and making a profit off of it. But there’s rock music, funk, country, folk, hip-hop, R&B, soul, club and, of course, bounce.
(My favorite local artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff. Luckily, they tour all over the US and Europe, so check them out if you get a chance.)
There are other forms of art here, including the aforementioned art museum, local theater, plenty of burlesque revues, and the Fringe Festival. But based on my experience, anything not music-related is, at best, an also ran, and at worst, an ugly stepchild. I went to a play with only 4 people in the audience, and one of those was a family member.
There are numerous galleries and there’s the famous Jackson Square where local artists (and “psychics”) sell their wares, though that caters predominantly to tourists (most locals wouldn’t be caught dead down there during the high traffic times). I’ve met artists who make a living purely on their art, which is fantastic, but I think that speaks more to how affordable this city is rather than to any specific infrastructure for building up and supporting the art community.
Oddly, even though New Orleans has a long literary history, writing is underrepresented. Writers are notoriously reclusive (guilty), so determining the size of the literary community in any city can be a difficult task. Still, as a writer, I felt adrift here and I know I wasn’t alone.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): B
Living – Getting around this city is a breeze if you own a bike. Yeah, a lot of the roads are in cruddy shape and the sidewalks look like Normandy after D-Day, but there are bike lanes aplenty and the city is small enough that crossing it on two-wheels isn’t out of the question.
On top of that, this city, as I already said, is cheap, cheap, cheap. Rent is cheap. Eating out is cheap. Even drinking is cheap if you know the right bars. Groceries, on the other hand, can be pricey, but that’s largely because most neighborhoods are served exclusively by small, local markets. That might mean better deals on some goods, but as a general rule prices go down when competition moves in. That’s the trade off for keeping the big box stores out, and I’m sure the locals are fine with that.
I can’t say whether wages are especially good in this city since I (and most everyone I knew) worked on tips which are hard to generalize about. Still, if you can get a job bartending or serving in this city, you’re going to put away solid scratch, assuming you have the self-control to not drink it all away (which most people don’t). After my second month here, my money situation was as comfortable as it’s ever been since I started this project.
Weather – This is a category I haven’t done for the other two cities, but it seems particularly appropriate here. Sure, Seattle is known for its rain (even though it’s really more of a persistent mist), but in no city has the climate been so omnipresent as it is here. The winter gets cold, but not biting. It never snowed, though there were plenty of freezing cold rainy days. The fact that most of the apartments in this city are poorly insulated makes owning a heater vital.
The lack of insulation is twice as important in the summer. I moved to New Orleans three days after Hurricane Isaac knocked out power to most of the city. The heat was unbearable. If you live in an apartment without central air, good luck. Most people from the southern portion of the country dread the thought of snow and cold Northern winters, but as much as I hate being cold, at least you can dress warmer. For 4 months out of the year here, the heat and humidity are so oppressive you’ve already sweated through your clothes 5 minutes after stepping out of your door.
Give me a few months of bitter cold and a couple weeks of suffocating heat rather than the other way around.
People – And here is the one that matters, the one that is most particular to my experience. It’s also the one where I’m most likely to ruffle some feathers because I have to say, this city is a mixed bag.
Let me be clear: I’ve made great friends here and the assortment of people was fantastic. People I met here were warm, welcoming, helpful, absolutely kind and tremendously fun to hang out with. At times, I was treated like a long lost friend after meeting someone once. Strangers bought me shots on my birthday, friends were quick to offer me a ride and many of the customers I waited on were exceedingly polite and would ask me tons of questions about my life and what I do. A weekend walk-about will reveal families having a leisurely stroll and a host of friendly neighbors waving as you pass. To be sure, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
But. I think almost anyone living here would admit that this city discourages a strong work ethic. I’ll go further: it punishes it. Try too hard and you’ll be stuck with the crap shift, watching everyone else get drunk for Mardi Gras or some other festival. And your coworkers know that. It’s basically everyone for themselves. Certainly, that’s not a trait unique to NOLA, but it’s pervasive. Additionally, a rabid distrust of authority – partially due to the notoriously corrupt politics in the city and the clusterfuck that was Katrina – has made the city a breeding ground for preposterous theories and outright hokum. What some here might label ‘freethinking’ I see as merely being contrary for the hell of it.
Basically, at its worst, New Orleans is a petri dish for ambition-less, cynical, rebels without a cause. Forget what you’ve heard about Portland, Brooklyn, Seattle or wherever. If hipsters were swallows, NOLA would be Capistrano.
If you do find yourself here, though, don’t worry: New Orleans at its best will help you forget it at its worst.