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In June 2015, the week after a white supremacist massacred African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the removal of several prominent Confederate monuments that had loomed over the city for as long as anyone could remember. “Symbols,” he said, “should reflect who we really are as a people.” The declaration kicked off a debate about how to commemorate history that resonated around the country. For many New Orleanians, the statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were part of the urban fabric, inert vestiges of a bygone era. But when the city decided to dismantle them, it became clear that they remained explosively charged. Contractors hired to do the work received death threats and had to wear flak jackets. One backed out after his car was firebombed. In a speech after they came down, Landrieu presented their removal as not just a moral imperative but a sort of exorcism. The now-barren pedestals also offer the city a chance to decide how it wants to tell its story as it celebrates the tricentennial anniversary of its founding.
Ever since it was established, on swampy ground in the floodplain of the Mississippi River, New Orleans has been attuned to both the necessity and dangers of preservation. Change of any kind poses a dilemma for a city so invested in old-world allure. But in the last decade, modernity has been sweeping through New Orleans, transforming its streets and culture, and challenging a provincialism that has led many visitors to equate decay and dysfunction with charm and authenticity.
If one thing encapsulates this shift for me, it’s the fact that New Orleans has even taken on a new aroma. Walk through the French Quarter, as I did on a recent visit, and you won’t fail to notice it: floral and fruity, as if it were wafting down from jasmine bushes and satsuma trees spilling over wrought-iron balconies. The reality is not so romantic. The smell has a name, Superfresh. It was developed by the flamboyant entrepreneur Sidney Torres IV, who built a successful trash-collection business after Katrina, scrubbing the grime off the streets and spraying them down with the citrusy fragrance. Superfresh may be synthetic and inorganic, but it’s become as prominent a note in the bouquet of New Orleans as pralines and beignets. And it’s indisputably more pleasant than the all-too-authentic bacterial sludge that festers in the potholes of Bourbon Street.
Those potholes will soon be a thing of the past (at least, until the swamp that lies beneath has its way). For more than a year now, Bourbon Street has been torn inside out. The gaudy bacchanalian stretch— which to some might as well be the whole of New Orleans—is undergoing a makeover to replace the aging drainage system, repave the surface, and install the kind of retractable anti-terrorism bollards you see blocking off streets in many cities around the world. As the construction proceeds, a cleaner, smoother, Superfresh-scented vision of New Orleans is revealed in its wake, perhaps better suited to the city’s brand new bike-share program than to the kind of debauchery for which the area is known. (In February, strippers took to the street to protest a crack-down on their trade.) Likewise, a proposed rollout of 1,500 security cameras will challenge New Orleans’s reputation as a permissive escape from contemporary concerns, cut off from time itself.
I go to New Orleans almost every year to see family. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting by the drum kit at Preservation Hall and watching my father play clarinet on the same worn floorboards where his teacher, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong’s named George Lewis, played the same tunes in the early ’60s. The city seemed to me to have evolved in isolation from the rest of the world, like a turtle in the Galápagos. It never seemed to change. And then suddenly it did, with the force of a Category Four hurricane.
As the waters receded in the fall of 2005, the cultural economy of New Orleans went into overdrive. Artists, musicians, chefs, filmmakers, and idealistic youths moved in, drawn to cheap rents and a free-wheeling lifestyle, and driven by a sense of duty to celebrate the city’s bon vivant exuberance. But for that culture to remain relevant, it had to adapt.
“We really haven’t had this kind of cultural renaissance in decades,” said Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s director, when I met him at his office behind the courtyard, in the shade of overgrown banana trees. He points to the flourishing of native New Orleans genres, from bounce to contemporary brass band music, as well as new voices in gospel. Jaffe is especially glad to see successful homegrown musicians, such as the Grammy-nominated R&B singer-songwriter (and Maroon 5 keyboardist) PJ Morton, put down roots in the city. For generations, conventional wisdom held that if New Orleans artists wanted to make it big, they had to leave— a calculus made by Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., and Frank Ocean.
Today, Preservation Hall looks as romantically dilapidated as it did in 1961, when Jaffe’s parents opened the venue and used it to showcase the aging musicians who had contributed to the birth of jazz. But behind its weathered façade lies a fine-tuned operation. Since taking over from his parents, Jaffe has turned the hall and band into a global brand featured on late-night talk shows and the Grammys.
The balance between preservation and evolution “is something that I’ve battled with,” says Jaffe, who also plays upright bass and tuba with the band. “Do you want to be something that doesn’t exist anymore? Do you just become a caricature of that thing? That’s what I saw happening and couldn’t allow.” He’s collaborated with such decidedly non-jazz musicians as the Foo Fighters, Beck, and Yasiin Bey. And at Mardi Gras this year, Preservation Hall joined forces with the Haitian group RAM and indie-rock band Arcade Fire (which moved to New Orleans three years ago) to form Krewe Du Kanaval, a parade organization that pays homage to the multicultural origins of jazz.
A similar spirit has revitalized the food sector, the other pillar of the city’s creative identity. Until recently, a list of New Orleans’s best restaurants would have looked much the same as a century ago: Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Commander’s Palace, all offering variations on Creole classics. Those stalwarts still thrive—Arnaud’s French 75 bar has become a site of mixological pilgrimage under the direction of head bartender Chris Hannah—but their appeal remains anachronistic. They are now joined by restaurants that incorporate outside influences: Maypop and MoPho, chef Michael Gulotta’s twin establishments in the Central Business District and Mid-City, work in Southeast Asian flavors that reflect the city’s sizable Vietnamese population. A few blocks away, Compère Lapin, run by St. Lucia native Nina Compton, reacquaints New Orleans cuisine with its Caribbean roots.
This cosmopolitan perspective has found its way into the art scene as well. When my father was growing up, Julia Street was skid row; now it’s the epicenter of a chic arts district complete with galleries, museums, and boutique hotels like International House and that haute hipster staple, the Ace Hotel. When I stayed there during the citywide art triennial Prospect.4, part of the Ace’s lobby had been turned into an installation by Los Angeles–based artist Genevieve Gaignard, who uses Cindy Sherman-esque role-play to riff on race and identity. (One photograph showed her sitting on the pedestal once occupied by the statue of Jefferson Davis.)
A more cutting-edge cluster of galleries has sprouted along St. Claude Avenue. The boldest new art destination here, however, is not a gallery but a structure that could exist only in New Orleans. The Music Box Village, at the edge of the industrial canal that separates the gentrifying Bywater from the still-struggling Lower Ninth Ward, is a retro-modern expression of the city’s improvisatory enchantment. There is no sign outside. When my Uber dropped me off by the corrugated tin fence around what looked like a walled-off junkyard, I wondered whether I had the right address. But then artist Delaney Martin came out to meet me, followed by a pack of mutts. Martin walked me through the interactive installation, which she cocreated with her collective, New Orleans Airlift. Music Box Village is a kind of Oz-on-the-Bayou, containing an ever-changing configuration of curio-filled shanties that can be activated in ingenious ways to produce sounds. The place has served as a venue/playground for New Orleans performers like Solange Knowles, Diplo, and Tank and the Bangas, as well as outside acts like Norah Jones. But Martin conceived of it primarily as a gathering for the local community, which is her ultimate medium. The eclecticism of the city’s art scene, she says, would not have been possible before the storm. “New Orleans pre-Katrina was in a bubble of its own nostalgia,” she says, adding, “It was wonderful, and I miss it.”
The Disproportionate damage Katrina wrought on low-lying, impoverished neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward laid bare the systemic racial injustices that festered beneath the city’s laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler affect. If New Orleans was to join the ranks of modern cities, it would have to confront the legacy of slavery.
New Orleans wasn’t just complicit in the slave trade—it was the beating heart of it, harboring the largest slave market in America. Its vestiges hide in plain sight; one auction hall, for example, was a block away, near Jackson Square, where the Omni Royal Orleans hotel now stands. Yet you’re more likely to run into a Ghosts of the French Quarter tour group than one that visits the sites of that true and more haunting story.
The city’s reckoning with slavery and Jim Crow has long been delayed, and the path forward is not obvious; but there is forward movement. The state’s first slavery museum was established in 2014, on the site of historic Whitney Plantation, just up the Mississippi. At another antebellum plantation, Oak Alley—known for majestic live oaks and a gauzy sense of lost grandeur—the slave quarters have been rebuilt and their inhabitants’ forgotten narratives incorporated into the tours.
Across town, near a desolate rail crossing in the Bywater, a discreet plaque marks the spot where, in 1892, Creole activist Homer Plessy was ejected from a whites-only first-class car; the ensuing Supreme Court case led to the “separate but equal” decision that enshrined the legality of segregation. Just a stone’s throw away in the Rice Mill Lofts, a hip adaptive-reuse luxury condo, lives a woman who helped close that chapter of history. In the lemongrass-scented lobby I met Ruby Bridges, who, as a six-year-old in 1960, became the first black student to integrate a New Orleans public school, walking up the steps of William Frantz Elementary with four federal marshals at her side. (The moment inspired a famous Norman Rockwell painting.) Bridges, who now tours the country speaking to children about civil rights, surprised me with her criticism of Landrieu’s order. “I don’t think taking down those statues is going to change anything,” she says. “A better use of our time and money is to put up new statues of people who have contributed to history in a positive way.”
Most suggestions for statues to replace the Confederate monuments have indeed involved cultural figures. One petition gathered thousands of signatures for the still-living Louisiana native Britney Spears. Other more serious proposals have included Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. A new music video for local resident Mavis Staples imagines a replacement that would solve the problem of selective commemoration: On the empty pedestal that once held Jefferson Davis stands the bronze effigy of a nameless young black woman, her eyes cast hopefully toward the horizon.
One young local artist, meanwhile, has addressed the dearth of civil rights iconography in the most New Orleans way possible, which is to say spontaneously, joyfully, and without asking permission. Five years ago, Brandan Odums began sneaking into abandoned buildings in the Lower Ninth Ward and spray-painting vibrantly colorful portraits of such figures as Malcolm X, Gil Scott-Heron, and Muhammad Ali, which got him in trouble—until the images went viral and attracted street-art aficionados. Soon, building owners stopped painting over his pieces and started protecting them like precious frescoes. Now his murals are in demand around the world, from Harlem to the West Bank.
Showing me around his compulsively Instagrammable workspace, Studio Be—a Bywater warehouse that has become a destination for school groups and celebrities like comedian Chris Rock and director Ava DuVernay—Odums took stock of the yin-and-yang tradeoffs of the New Orleans renaissance. Growth can bring opportunity, he says, as long as it doesn’t drive out the very class that made the city what it is. New Orleans is not an American treasure “because the city has the best roads, or the best-designed urban spaces,” he says, but “because art and culture’s always led the way.”
New Orleans Essentials
The classic standbys—Galatoire’s Restaurant, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s Restaurant, Commander’s Palace, and Brennan’s—haven’t lost a step. More adventurous new spots include the Southeast Asian–inspired MoPho and Maypop; Shaya; and Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro.
There are plenty of hotels that exude the city’s nostalgic grandeur. But for more contemporary flair, there are the Henry Howard Hotel in the Garden District (rooms from $200) and the Ace Hotel, which has become the unofficial hub of the Warehouse District (rooms from $160).
Preservation Hall puts on three to five shows a night. Book ahead. Check the Music Box Village site for public hours and event listings. Artist Brandan Odums’s Studio Be is open to visitors Wednesdays through Saturdays. Oak Alley Plantation and the Whitney Plantation Museum are a short drive away along the Mississippi River.