New Orleans celebrates its vibrant cultural history with various events. // © 2015 NewOrleansOnline.com
Feature image (above): Preservation Hall Brass Band participated in the “The Music Box Roving Village” art project. // © 2015 Music Box
When Hurricane Katrina slammed Southeast Louisiana on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, my family was preparing for the worst. Four generations of New Orleanians were making our best efforts to track down my aunt, who had missed the deadline to evacuate her home in low-lying St. Bernard Parish.
Finding protective higher ground and shelter from the storm was the first of many challenges for her. Then the levee broke, and the aftermath was catastrophic. Five days later, after making every possible attempt to find my aunt, we were certain she was dead. Out of nowhere, we received a phone call from a stranger who had found her and was giving her a ride to Baton Rouge.
My aunt would later tell us about the rescue boat that retrieved her from the rooftop of a two-story house, the bathtub she filled with water to survive and what it was like to see her home — and the rest of the neighborhood — completely submerged. She had spent days scavenging for food, water, shoes and other essentials, while spending her nights sleeping on an overpass with thousands of other displaced residents. And she was one of the lucky ones. Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and caused more than $100 billion in damage.
In the first few years after the storm, it seemed like New Orleans might never fully recover — that its jazz traditions, Creole cuisine, Caribbean architecture and French and Spanish roots would be washed away forever. Reconstruction efforts were slow and often stalled, and many residents didn’t bother to return and rebuild, instead finding new lives in nearby Baton Rouge; Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas; and Atlanta. Furthermore, the state of tourism was verging on abysmal, as annual visitor numbers dropped from 10.1 million in 2004 to 3.7 million in 2006, according to New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
But due to the efforts of locals, volunteers from all over the country, business and community leaders and celebrity-led recovery initiatives by Brad Pitt and Harry Connick Jr., the city began to see substantial progress.
Soon, out-of-state volunteers felt a tug on their heartstrings and decided to make New Orleans their permanent home. Affordable housing and a wealth of business opportunities attracted entrepreneurs who also wanted to contribute to the recovery. By 2012, business startups in the New Orleans metro area exceeded the rest of the nation by 56 percent, according to a recent report by The Data Center. Tourism and visitor spending also grew year over year from 2009 onward.
This month, as New Orleans commemorates the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, it’s clear that a renaissance is well under way. New Orleans CVB welcomed 9.52 million visitors in 2014, who spent a record $6.81 billion. And it’s safe to say that the Big Easy’s beloved jazz musicians, artists and curators of culture have found their audience once again.
“What has happened in New Orleans over the past 10 years is extraordinary,” said Stephen Perry, president and CEO of New Orleans CVB. “Thanks to the indefatigable spirit and hard work of the men and women who make up our tourism industry, the city of New Orleans is back.”
Louis Armstrong International Airport has surpassed pre-Katrina passenger numbers and is now serving more nonstop destinations than ever. To help accommodate the influx of travelers, a new, state-of-the-art airport terminal — estimated to cost $650 million — is slated for completion in 2018.
“Capital generated by [tourism] goes directly into assets such as new restaurants, hotels, green spaces and infrastructure that improve the quality of life for our citizens and visitors,” Perry said. “We are past rebuilding. We are recreating a better New Orleans for future generations.”
Foodies have long flocked to New Orleans to sample its creole cuisine and local treats such as shrimp po’boys, crawfish etouffee and beignets. Cuisine has remained one of the city’s strengths, with more than 1,400 restaurants to tempt the senses — in fact there are now 600 more places to eat than in 2005, the year the storm hit.
Critics are taking notice of the food boom in a major way. New Orleans was named the Best Culinary Destination in the Small Domestic category by Saveur magazine last year. This year, Thrillist.com dubbed New Orleans the Best Drinking City in America, and Travel + Leisure cited the capital as one of the Best Cities for Food Snobs.
Certainly, the city’s legacy establishments — including 175-year-old Antoine’s Restaurant and Brennan’s, a landmark Creole eatery, continue to dazzle diners. The restaurants that have cropped up post-Katrina, however, are doing things a little differently. Those that seem to be garnering the most attention are combining experimental dining concepts and local ingredients with 21st-century sensibilities.
At newly opened Ursa Major, diners prepurchase a ticket to reserve a spot at this far-out, astrology-themed eatery. A zodiac-driven cocktail program changes month to month, on the cusp, to celebrate the sign of the moment. Even the finickiest Virgo on your list can find something to munch on, from Nepalese chilled garbanzo salad to Hawaiian-inspired lau lau (pork wrapped in a banana leaf).
Rising star chef Nina Compton fell head over heels with New Orleans while filming season 11 of “Top Chef” and chose to open her debut restaurant in downtown’s Warehouse District. Compere Lapin — named after a mischievous rabbit in Caribbean folk tales — draws inspiration from local ingredients, the chef’s St. Lucian upbringing and her experiences cooking French and Italian cuisine.
Nearly 30 other restaurants have opened this year, including Shaya on Magazine Street, serving modern Israeli cuisine, and K Rebellion Bar & Urban Kitchen, offering kimchi, Oaxacan cheese empanadas, crawfish and shrimp spring rolls and much more.
Although not as prolific as the restaurant sector, New Orleans’ hospitality industry is growing steadily.
Both the 374-room Wyndham New Orleans-French Quarter and the 166-suite Homewood Suites by Hilton completed multimillion-dollar upgrades this year, and Marriott International debuted its AC Hotels brand in New Orleans in October 2014.
Located in an 1854 warehouse, complete with original brick walls and exposed beams, The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery opened its doors in the Warehouse District in late April. The neighborhood is also referred to as the New Orleans Arts District, and in a nod to its neighbors, The Old No. 77 has partnered with New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts to feature student artwork and a student-created literary magazine in every room.
Similarly, the recently opened Le Meridien New Orleans hopes to immerse guests in the local art scene, offering them free access to Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art and Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
A 10-minute walk away, there’s the brand-new Aloft New Orleans Downtown, which set up shop in a 1960s-era office building left vacant after Katrina. The 188-room hotel offers tech-driven amenities, millennial-approved design and 2,500 square feet of meeting space.
The cruise industry in New Orleans is also taking steps to stay current. Green Marine — a North American environmental certification program for the marine, port and terminal industry — recognized the Port of New Orleans as a certified Green Port. It is the eighth U.S. port to be awarded this environmental distinction.
Seeing the potential to attract lovers of Creole cuisine, jazz and nightlife, Carnival Cruise Lines is expanding its capacity in the Crescent City, replacing Carnival Elation with Carnival Triumph in spring 2016. Combined, Carnival Triumph and Carnival Dream are expected to carry 450,000 passengers from New Orleans next year.
“Not only is New Orleans a great destination for pre- and post-cruise extensions, but it also offers drive-up access to a very large geographical area,” said Marilyn Green, Cruise Editor for TravelAge West. “With new, longer itineraries, there are quite a variety of sailings for repeat cruisers.”
In 2017, New Orleans will be the homeport for Viking River Cruises’ first-ever North American river cruise. The line will launch two American-made riverboats, at a price tag of approximately $100 million each, with plans for four additional vessels by 2020.
American Cruise Lines’ new paddlewheeler — the 150-passenger American Eagle — debuted on the Mississippi River in May. With period furnishings and programming that appeals to history lovers and Civil War buffs alike, American Cruise Lines is bringing back the grand era of steamboating.
An Unyielding Creative Spirit
It’s not simply the improvements in infrastructure that are making New Orleans more vibrant than ever — it’s also the people. Residents are keeping New Orleans’ whimsical, quirky spirit alive by launching independent film studios, performance-art collectives, Cajun supper clubs, provocative magazines, storytelling events, spontaneous jazz concerts and pop-up shops that sell DIY creations by local designers.
One such example is “The Music Box Roving Village,” which I came across during a springtime stroll in City Park. The public art installation consisted of a series of wooden houses that could be played like instruments. It was inspired by both the New Orleans tradition of “second lining” — dancing and following behind a brass band — and a Creole cottage that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“We decided that out of this wood and space we wanted to build something that reflects New Orleans’ music, art, inspiration and performance,” said Delaney Martin of New Orleans Airlift, a collective that has worked to rebuild the local arts community after the devastation of Katrina.
Over the course of six weekends, approximately 10,000 curious folks visited the installation for interactive play or orchestral concerts. Some visitors were even treated to free shows by Wilco, Solange Knowles, Preservation Hall Brass Band, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Lost Bayou Ramblers.
“New Orleans has been through many changes over the city’s almost 300-year existence,” Martin said. “Some people felt apocalyptic, and that the culture would never return — and I certainly felt that way when I saw Katrina wash away the city. I thought, ‘What’s going to happen to second lines? What’s going to happen to the Mardi Gras Indians?’ Guess what: They’re still here. It’s amazing to see that in a country that is besieged by globalized culture, you can still find long-standing cultural traditions in New Orleans.”