When people think of the French Quarter, what do they think of? Mardi Gras. Bourbon Street. Bars and strip clubs, alcohol, women showing skin for plastic bead throws. Or maybe French Quarter Fest, Jazz bands playing on stages set up on the streets (Jazz bands, by the way, that are not the bands that play in the Quarter every day that is NOT French Quarter Fest; the one above, playing near the Courthouse, is a band that plays here when it is NOT French Quarter fest). Or maybe people have come here for a convention, or a cruise, and think of the Quarter as a stopping-off point to have a drink on their way to the next event.
I admit that when I used to winter in NOLA, I'd get a place to stay close to the Quarter. I'd play on Royal Street, and when the season was over I'd leave town and head off to Georgia or Texas for renaissance faires. I knew nothing of the rest of the city. It really never occurred to me that there was more of the city. Later, when I worked for Carnival Cruise Lines and we docked near the Riverwalk, I would leave the ship by nine AM and head to Bourbon Street for some French Quarter amusement. Even the Riverwalk seemed like a strange, foreign place, nearly a mile from the Quarter.
So when I got involved with a girl a few years back who lived Uptown, I eyed her with trepidation. “You live in New Orleans...Uptown? You don't live in the French Quarter?” My mind could not even grasp this concept!
Now I myself live Uptown, though I spend a lot of my time in the French Quarter. I know a lot about the whole city. But the French Quarter is, for many people, the gateway to New Orleans. When I speak to people who have come here for Mardi Gras or French Quarter Fest, they are often curious about what goes on in the Quarter when they're not there.
Let's take a little trip through the French Quarter on an average weekday, when no special event is going on. We'll start at Frenchmen Street and Decatur, where stands a French Quarter landmark, the Old U. S. Mint.
This amazing building was a branch of the United States Mint (the folks who bring you the coins in your pockets!) from 1838 to 1861. It closed during the Civil War, but reopened from 1879 to 1909. In the few years before the Civil War, the coins minted here were CSA, rather than USA coins. (Collectors love the New Orleans Morgan Dollars, marked with an "O" mint mark). The building is now part of the Louisiana State Museum. One of its functions is to have brass band concerts on its lawns.
Down Decatur just a bit is the Old Ursulines Convent, which the Parks Department calls "the finest example of French Colonial architecture in America."
The Ursuline Nuns were some of the first French women to arrive in New Orleans, sent by King Louis XV in 1727. They ran a hospital, taught the daughters of Noble families, and ministered to the native women. They'd built a smaller convent when they arrived, but moved into this incredible building in 1751, and stayed there until the 1820s (the Ursuline Nuns now have a convent and a school Uptown close to where I live). The convent is still used by the Church, and houses Saint Mary Cathedral; the street it stands on is still called Ursulines Street.
Above is a detail of the Saint Mary Cathedral.
The nuns gained a bit of a reputation in the 1700s when they brought French women to New Orleans as brides for wealthy French colonists. The women would arrive after six weeks at sea in an awful state, pale and disheveled, carrying coffin-sized steamer trunks. Word soon got out that the nuns were bringing vampires to the city to drain the aristocratic blood of French nobles! The local bishop apparently led a mob to the convent, volunteered to go in alone, and came out a few hours later claiming he had destroyed the vampires. This story is how the city got its vampire reputation.
Across Charters Street from the convent is the Beauregard Mansion with its stately courtyard. Beauregard was a highly decorated Confederate Civil War general (down here we call it the War of Northern Aggression).
Our most spectacular cathedral is the Saint Louis Cathedral, right up Decatur Sreet in Jackson Square. It has the distinction of being the oldest operating cathedral in the United States.
Here is Saint Louis Cathedral as seen from Jackson Square.
Here are the grounds.
The cathedral is open daily to visitors. Let's peek inside.
When we cross Decatur, watch out for the insane drivers. There are plenty of F^#*ing cars driving at any moment up and down Decatur Street. The cabs are the worst. But there are also two other modes of transportation worth noting.
The first is bicycles. Most of my busker friends live farther downtown, in the Lower Ninth ward or the Saint Claude area. They come to work in the Quarter every day on their bicycles, an instrument strapped to their back.
"Wait a minute! I have a bicycle too," you say. "Doesn't everybody?" Well here there is an entire bike culture. In fact we call the downtown females "bicycle girls." We have a store called Plan B: they'll help you make your own bike. It's an identity as well as a mode of transportation here. On any day in the Quarter, every gate, fence and column has a dozen or so bikes chained to it. It's how we roll. Really!
But OK, you're still unimpressed. You have a bicycle too. Maybe you even ride it to work every morning. Maybe you even love your bike with a New Orleanean passion. But do you have one of these?
I didn't think so... Yes, we use mules, all over the city. They draw carriages for tourists. They draw candy vendor carts. They draw floats for parades. They've even been involved in a wedding or two. And they're damn cute! Look at that face... All over the Quarter you find troughs of water for these critters. We love our mules. Next time you come down take a mule carriage tour. The drivers are the best tour guides in the city (aside from moi).
By the way, a mule is male. Do you know what a female mule is called? Maybe I'll tell you some time...
On our way from Ursulines to Jackson Square we run into our first of many street performers. This one has what nearly all street performers around here have: a dog. And his dog has puppies. I made the mistake of calling my girlfriend over to see them. I highly recommend not doing this, by the way...
Stop staring at the puppies. Let's head over to Jackson Square.
We love our history here in New Orleans. This cannon was fired in the War of 1812, the War of Northern Aggression (that would be the Civil War), and the Mexican American War. It now guards the river.
Below the cannon is this cool sign. The first riverboat to navigate the Ohio-Mississippi weighed anchor right here! I knew you would be utterly impressed.
In Jackson Square is a "human statue" street performer. They're pretty much all over the Quarter. I just like this human statue best of them all. I imagine you can figure out why that is...
The day I was down here, there happened to be a Mardi Gras Indian showing off his mask for tips (mask, you may remember from my previous Blogs, is the word for the entire costume). These costumes cost a LOT of money to construct. Some indians show off their current mask to make money to create their next mask. If you read my previous Blog, you'll know that this is a Flag Boy.
Let's head up to Royal Street next, passing the statue of Saint Joan, patroness saint of New Orleans, which we call Joanie On A Pony...
She stands over the French Market. A lot of bands play here. It's the only place in the FQ where bands need a permit to set up and play. I passed this band as I crossed Decatur under Joanie.
By the way, a female mule is a jenny. Let's head up to Royal.
Royal Street is lined with art galleries. Here are my friends playing Old Timey Fiddle outside the Blue Dog Gallery, home of local-painter-done-good George Rodrigue.
The fiddle player, Lyle, is also in a band with myself and singer Stephanie Mitchell. A lot of musicians down here, myself included, play in several bands. That way we work as often as possible.
Royal Street is closed off every day to auto traffic, and becomes a pedestrian mall. For that reason, many busking bands play here, as you can play right in the street and gather a good crowd. Here are my friends the Yes Ma'am Band playing at Royal and Toulouse.
Dizzy is an awesome washboard player, and is in great demand by several local bands. Washboard is our preferred rhythm instrument: easy to carry, easy to play, and with a sound unique to Cajun, early Jazz, and to String Band music. Most bands down here have a washboard (few players are as good as Dizzy though). Note the requisite dog at Dizzy's feet...every busker has one.
Elena is every bit as good a fiddler as me, and I do NOT say things like that lightly. She also dresses to match her bow. Nick on the banjo is also in a band with my buddy Hank. They are about the funniest band I know. I wish I could be as funny as Nick and Hank when they play. Yes Ma'am, while really good, is not very funny.
One bock down from Yes Ma'am, at Royal and Saint Phillip, is the Royal J band. They play early Jazz, and they have professional dancers accompanying them. The male dancer is also their singer.
The female dancer also teaches swing dance classes at a couple of clubs around town, including the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen. You should check it out!
Before we leave the Quarter, we should walk down to the river. Here is one of my favorite statues along the river, representing the immigrant spirit. My grandfather came to America in about 1910, at the age of nine. I think of him when I see this...
This is the other end of the statue, the spirit guiding the immigrants to American shores.
And finally, a dog, belonging to a busker friend of mine. Yes, they all have one.
From the French Quarter in New Orleans, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.