Not even five years since Hurricane Katrina shoved America’s most relaxed city flat onto its back, the Big Easy has rallied strongly. Tourist bookings are up. A major medical convention recently sent Jazz Fest aficionadi scrambling for hotel rooms. Some longtime Fest lovers who normally stay in the French Quarter considered themselves lucky to secure lodging near Louis Armstrong Airport, 17 miles away.
“Who Dat?” ask posters and T-shirts everywhere, proudly reminding New Orleanians about their beloved Saints’ Super Bowl victory.
The sorrowful signs of storm damage are fewer and much farther between than on my earlier visits since 2005. FEMA trailers, previously as ubiquitous as Mardi Gras beads, now are as seldom seen as snowflakes. Where renovation and new construction do not exist, destroyed property largely has been leveled and removed. “An empty lot is progress,” says my friend Randy Boudreaux, a local attorney whose family moved here about 1760, when France’s King Louis XV counted the Crescent City among his baubles.
Suddenly, on April 20, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, burned, killed eleven workers, sank, and began gushing some 5,000 barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico each day. An ever-growing oil slick has approached and slimed parts of the Louisiana coast that yield the oysters, shrimp, and other seafood that Orleanophiles jet in from around the world to savor.
Can’t this city catch a break?
While residents and visitors alike fretted about all of this in recent days, the music and cuisine here remained as reliable and comforting as ever.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to enjoy my 16th consecutive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and my 21st trek to this most sublime destination. Also helpful was a generous invitation to address an early-evening happy hour hosted by the free-market Pelican Institute. We convened at the Avenue Pub, at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Polymnia Street. The latter is one of several Garden District thoroughfares elegantly named after Greek muses.
Before and after discussing The Obama Administration v. Free Enterprise, I quaffed a variety of fine and rare brews at this deceptively simple, 24-hour drinking establishment. (New Orleans’s bars are permitted to serve alcohol around the clock, and many do!) While luxuriating in a light breeze on the pub’s second-floor balcony, Pelican president Kevin Kane, his wife Lesley, several of this think tank’s supporters, and I relish such treats as crispy and rich Cabernet burgers with cheddar grits and bacon. This follows a small but splendid appetizer: deep-fried, goat-cheese-filled dried apricots wrapped in bacon. Yum!
Jazz Fest’s main events unfold at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, a racetrack on Gentilly Boulevard north-by-northwest of the French Quarter, not far from Treme, an ancient, music-filled district now gaining fame via HBO’s outstanding series of the same name. Across seven days encompassing April’s final weekend and May’s first, a cornucopia of musical acts relentlessly enriches the stages and tents erected in spaces usually reserved for horses and the gamblers who cheer them on.