Out and About in New Orleans, and Where We Stayed

I’ve visited New Orleans, Louisiana 4 times so far during my life. Twice pre-Katrina, twice post-Katrina. Every visit has been quite different. There is something so magnetic about this place. It is a city that I hope I will be lucky enough to return to, again and again. Here is a small handful of sights from roaming around the NOLA, the Crescent City:

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Love the old regional architecture. Those house lamps are gas and the effect is pretty magical when they’re on at night. It’s so cliché, but there is something shiveringly wonderful about walking down the streets of NOLA at night.

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Along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

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A lovely home in the Marigny neighborhood.

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More loveliness in the Marigny.

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Even though we weren’t there for Mardi Gras, it’s easy to see preparations for it going on all of the time.

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From the spectacular horticultural gardens in City Park.

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At an antique/rummage store in the French Quarter.

I freely admit, these images leave out the ongoing devastation from Katrina. I’m a pretty shy photographer, and it felt too raw and disrespectful to be the tourist taking pictures of storm damage, if that makes sense. Make no mistake, the most visible sights in the French Quarter and right around it look pretty good. Part of that is because those weren’t damaged as badly as other parts of the city.  Part of it is because bringing tourists back was crucial to the area economy and so damage there has been dealt with pretty quickly. But if you drive around at all, it is shocking how much hasn’t been addressed. At all. We’re talking abandoned hospitals. Street after street of homes missing roofs, or outside walls.

Clearly I’m no expert, but I still can’t get over how damaged and wounded things are nearly 8 years out.  A guide at a mansion we toured in the Metairie suburb of the city mentioned with a quiet, offhand rage the plight of a friend of hers who still hasn’t gotten an insurance settlement on her storm damaged home yet. In my mind, the post-Katrina situation was and remains the shame of the nation. The people of New Orleans deserved (and deserve) so much better than they got (and are getting) from the rest of the country following the storm.

Still, the feeling on the streets was better.  We visited in 2009 for a friend’s wedding, and it was pretty grim. Tense. I remember signs posted on community bulletin boards in neighborhood cafes and coffee shops in the Marigny neighborhood detailing recent area crimes -muggings, knifings, and shootings- cautioning people to not be out and about after dark alone. People weren’t smiling, and even the French Quarter was relatively deserted. Our friends had the entire second floor of a restaurant along Bourbon Street rented out for the dinner following their wedding, and I remember standing on the balcony watching the tiny, tiny trickle of people walking down that street and telling my husband that this was a pale ghost of what being on Bourbon Street should be like. Mind you, I don’t actually love the crowds and the rude behavior so many folks get up to while they’re there, drunk on their own daring, but I knew the lack of those crowds had to be hurting a city that seemed like it was pretty much on its own when it came to recovering. So even though we mostly avoided the French Quarter while we were there this time because the crowds are now BACK, it was good to see them back, too.

Another sign that the crowds are back? The hotel my husband and I like to stay at was booked. That’s why we decided to give airbnb.com a try. Unlike our guest room stay in Memphis, in New Orleans we had an apartment all to ourselves. Located in the Faubourg Tremé area and just steps from the Mahalia Jackson theater where we saw Leonard Cohen perform while we were in New Orleans, the apartment was pretty fantastic. One of four in an old Creole style building, it was owned by a burlesque dancer and decorated with all sorts of memorabilia from her career.  It was comfortable, parking was a breeze, there was a great coffee shop steps away, and the price was beyond reasonable. A huge win.

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In Faubourg Tremé, steps from where we stayed.

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Exterior of the apartment we rented via airbnb.com in New Orleans.

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The apartment’s living room. It was shotgun or dog-trot style, with all of the rooms connected to one-another.

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I think the apartment we stayed in was originally built in 1825. It’s a toss-up which I liked better, the 13 foot high ceilings, or the incredible wood floors.

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Growing Our Garden, or It’s time for Plant Sales and Auctions!

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Some of the perennials for sale at the Chadwick Arboretum Plant Sale & Auction.

It’s been an exciting couple of days for my husband and I, garden-wise. Earlier in the week, we got to enjoy the distinct pleasure that is our town’s Garden Club Plant Auction. Held in the rec. room of a church, it is an annual event we’ve come to really love over the past 7 years. (Here’s a post about it from last year: https://withthemoonontheirwings.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-annual-garden-club-plant-auction/) We didn’t go totally insane this time, but we picked up a few exciting new daylily varieties:

  • Bold Tiger
  • Siloam Double Classic
  • Double Minded
  • Indy Rhapsody
  • Jan Zoo

If they’re half as pretty as a fast google image search leads me to believe, we scooped up some gems!

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Scoping out the heirloom tomato options…we always try to get there during the first hour that the sale is open (early!) to get the best selection.

Yesterday we attended the plant sale and auction benefitting the Chadwick Arboretum at OSU. This is another annual tradition. Every year, we get all of our vegetables from tables sponsored by the ag. students and the Master Gardeners. This year we also picked up:

  • Royal Catchfly & Blazing Star plants from the plant pathology students (both are native varieties that attract butterflies and hummingbirds, we have some in the garden already that we picked up a few years ago. They’re so loved by our aerial garden visitors that we had to add more)
  • Several kinds of basil, 2 curry plants (super odorific without being in bloom or needing to crush any leaves, just intoxicating!), and even a Hemingway mojito mint plant from another group (I know, I know, MINT! I’ll have to pot it for sure, but I couldn’t resist the story: apparently, an enterprising gardener with a light-fingered streak pinched some springs off plants at Hemingway’s home in the Keys and was able to root it. Yep, the mint I now have is descended from the mint Papa Hemingway once made his mojitos with…or at least, so the story goes! Come on, that’s kind of awesome.)
  • a native Cardinal Flower plant. Like the catchfly and the blazing star, we had to add more because the bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love it so much.
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NPR’s Ann Fisher with guest Debra Knapke broadcasting “All Sides” from the plant sale and not missing a beat while I gawked and waved at them.

This event just grows and grows a little more every year, it seems. In addition to all of the lovely plants, there were craft booths and a rummage area. I got a nifty plant stand from the rummage sale that I’ll share later. New this year? Ann Fisher, a local NPR personality, was broadcasting live from the sale. We wandered by the broadcast table and I waved like the spastic nerd that I am. Nope. Not even a little cool.

Also? There was this:

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My husband and the walking lilac flowerpot.

I’m still not actually entirely clear why this lovely lady was strolling around in the center of a giant flowerpot full of lilac stems, but really, does there need to be a why??? Somehow it was to support the Arboretum, but I just thought she looked great. She very graciously posed for a pic when we giddily asked her to.

Then it was time for the auction! We’ve picked up some unusual specimens (like our Little Woody Redbud tree) and we’ve also picked up some very cheap ones (large Prairie Fire Crabapple tree for $15, I’m looking at you!) from the Chadwick auction over the years. Sometimes we’ve even been able to get cheap unusual specimens, which is definitely the sweet spot. Our yard has little room for larger scale items at this point, so we promised ourselves to be very focused and targeted in our approach. And we actually managed it!

Looking over the plant list ahead of time, there were 2 items that really stood out to me. And those ended up being the 2 items we purchased. Sure, we bid on other stuff, but once the prices went beyond a certain point, we just shrugged at each other and let them go. Not these 2 items, though. We were determined. In the end, it was a bit of a nail-biter. You see, the auction will carry on through rain, but must stop at the first crack of thunder or flash of lightning. Both items were near the end of the 100 specimen auction, and we were racing a storm to get to them. Just one item after we won the second of the two items we really wanted, Boom! The auction was ended early because of the storm. Whew! We were lucky!

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Early portion of the auction, before the storm clouds rolled in and the sky went dark.

So what were the 2 specimens we won?

  1. a Sunrise horse chestnut tree (Aesculus x neglecta ‘Erythroblastos’). This variety of horse chestnut is apparently notable for the fact that when the leaves emerge in spring, they are a bright salmon pink. They stay a striking pink for a few weeks before turning orange and yellow and then green. How cool does that sound?!?! It’s already green, so I’ll have to wait until next year for the show. Trying to figure out where to put it, exactly…although they can get tallish, I’ve also read they can be grown as an understory tree, which, if true, opens up more options in our yard…
  2. a compact, columnar variety of Chinese Fringetree called ‘Tokyo Tower’ (Chionanthus retusus ‘Tokyo Tower’). I love fringetrees! Both the Chinese and the native varieties are quite striking when in bloom. We added a (tiny) native fringetree to our garden last year. Even though it is small and slow-growing, it’s starting to bloom now and it’s beautiful. When I saw this variety on the plant list, I was thrilled. I love columnar forms, and this one has an especially small footprint.  Supposedly it’ll get to a height of about 12-15 feet while only having a 3-5 foot diameter. Perfect for our space.
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Enjoying a spin through Chadwick Arboretum after shopping the plant sale. Pics from that to come soon, it was gorgeous. The Buckeyes were all blooming and that is a beautiful sight.

Reckless Blooms

Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

040Ah, the lilacs are in bloom! What a pleasure! I love their reckless beauty, I love their scent wafting in through the opened windows, I love clipping vases full of them to bring inside, I love their color and the memories they bring. As a child, my family would visit Lilacia Park in Lombard, Illinois. The joy of the sheer sensory overload of being there during the lilac festival has stayed with me ever since. Lilacs were the first flowers I fell in love with. How appropriate that lilacs, in the language of flowers, represent youthful innocence and first love.

Gild My Ride, or Why the Stax Museum is Awesome

We made sure to leave plenty of time to tour the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on our last morning in Memphis. Driving into the parking lot we immediately knew we were in for something special: it was immaculate and there were speakers blasting some very danceable soul tunes throughout the lot.  And the speakers had great sound quality to boot. They were robust and clear, not sad and tinny. This was not going to be your average museum, kids.

281 Stax started out as a small Memphis record store housed in a former movie theater. It grew into an amazing record label, launching the careers of artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Luther Ingram, Albert King, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the MG’s and more. You might not have realized it, but trust me, you’ve heard a lot of songs from the Stax catalog. The museum covers Soul as a musical genre, so there is plenty on Motown Soul legends, too.

This museum was fun! And jammed with history. Tours start with an excellent short documentary about Soul. I especially loved seeing the footage of several legendary Soul icons talking about how much they’d looked forward to the Grand Ole Opry growing up, about how their whole family would stop everything to tune in to the show. There was something unexpected and delightful about hearing Isaac Hayes sharing his love for the Grand Ole Opry. My mind just hadn’t equated Bill Monroe and Shaft in quite such a fashion, you know? The role of Country and how it influenced genres like Soul and Rock actually seems pretty obvious if you listen to the music, but I don’t feel like I hear Country getting the credit it deserves from people my age (or younger). Somehow that connection seems a bit lost, and it was refreshing to see props given equally to Gospel, Country, and Blues as foundational elements of Soul.

Following the movie, visitors guide themselves through the museum at their own pace. On exhibit are many expected sights.  But in addition to things like stage costumes and instruments, there are plenty of thoughtful, less-obvious extras. There’s an entire old one room southern baptist church that was taken apart, transported from the Mississippi countryside, and then rebuilt inside the museum.  Above the pulpit inside the church a television plays vintage footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe rocking out gospel songs on her electric guitar… in a very similar church.  It’s a space and a moment that brings the Gospel roots of Soul into sharp, surprising, and palpable focus. I love that they dedicated the space that they did within the museum to bring that point to life.

That’s one of the signatures of this museum: bringing things to life and putting them into historical context in a very inviting, tangible fashion. Another such moment? There’s a room decked out with lights, a large dance floor, and a disco ball where old episodes of Soul Train are projected floor-to-ceiling on one of the walls. Nearby signage talks about the synergy between radio, television, concerts, and the music, and about how each provided inspiration for the other. Further on there’s an amazing space where you can pop on some headphones and listen to the entire Stax catalog…well, not all at once. But still. Awesome.

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Isaac Hayes memorabilia.

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Check out one of Tina Turners’ stage costumes!

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Dance along with the Soul Train footage if you’re feeling bold.

The Cadillac.

The Cadillac.

 

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Record store boy heaven.

This place takes you on a real journey: you find yourself dancing to the amazing music, awed by eye-candy like the pimped out splendor of Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac, and then choked up by straightforward reminiscences like one shared by a DJ from the first black radio station in the United States, Memphis’ own WDIA, about how he helped get segregation laws that prevented black ambulance companies from helping anyone in need, regardless of color, changed (because of segregation, the black ambulance workers weren’t allowed to cross color lines even in cases of dire emergencies) after talking about the issue on air.

The balance between lighter, pop-culture stuff and heavy, profound social history is managed deftly. To be able to go from novelty oven mitts (“If it’s too hot to handle, it must be from Stax”) to one of the white members of the biracial Booker T. and the MG’s talking about the impact Doctor Martin Luther King Jr’s slaying had on their band is a tall order, but the Stax Museum pulls it off.  This is history that doesn’t feel medicinal. It’s vibrant and immediate.

So what I’m saying is, get yourself to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It is small but mighty.  Your time will be well rewarded. Plus, admission is totally reasonable, the stuff in the gift shop is fun, the bathrooms were pretty lovely, and, as noted earlier, even the parking lot was cool.

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I leave you with footage of the aforementioned gilded Cadillac that belonged to Isaac Hayes. This thing was decadent, and I don’t know when I’ve ever looked at a car and thought, “I want to get in that car barefoot and go cruising”. Hold on til the end for the wicked great sign…