"Lots of American places used to make things," said David Simon, the creator and producer of the New Orleans-set HBO series Tremé, in an interview with the New York Times a while back. "Detroit used to make cars. Baltimore used to make steel and ships. New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments."
As you make your way down south for this year's AARP Life@50 National Event, that, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about this historic city on the Mississippi.
And the best moments are often the least expected. Like coming upon an intimate but boisterous "second line" funeral parade in a far-flung neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. Or watching a band riffing in a living-room-size club when a nationally known musician hops up on stage to play a few songs. Or when a prim Southern belle at the restaurant table next to you reaches over to show you the proper way to suck a crawfish head.
Adding resonance to these moments is this: They're occurring in a city that's alive and thriving seven years after Katrina and the failed levees. That generation-defining event left many to wonder if New Orleans would ever come back.
Well, it's back. A sizable part of the city has rebounded nicely from the devastation, and some neighborhoods are doing better than before the storm. (That said, many poorer, low-lying, hard-hit areas still face a long slog to recovery.) The "bathtub ring" that marked where the floodwaters stood — a linear brown smudge that served as a daily reminder of catastrophe — finally washed away three or four years ago. And restaurants and hotels are sprucing up and getting ready for the Super Bowl next January.
A primer for newcomers
If you're headed to the city for the first time — or the first time since Katrina — understand that the storm's moment is receding. The city's historic idiosyncrasies are again topping the bill. Architecture, music and food all define this unique city. And all are worth exploring.
Start with architecture. The city's center, both geographically and spiritually, is the French Quarter. Technically, the neighborhood isn't French — the bulk of the buildings were constructed after 1803, when Louisiana became an American territory. But the heavy influence of the French-Spanish-Creole culture persisted until nearly the eve of the Civil War, and so the French Quarter is filled with narrow streets lined with balconies and galleries intricately adorned with wrought- and cast-iron railings.
The best way to make sense of it all? Take a walking tour with a knowledgeable guide. The nonprofit Friends of the Cabildo offers two-hour tours daily (except Monday) from their shop fronting Jackson Square.