Comparing New Orleans to Miami
I’m a lover of places, sometimes even moreso than people. I find that cities themselves exude unique personalities, above and beyond the ones of the individuals who might happen to occupy them at any given moment. Those people come and go, and naturally bring their own customs and attitudes with them. However, the mood of a city, like the mood of a song or an age in history, has a way of altering these habits and perceptions, if even for a moment, affecting those who fall under its spell, producing a culture in which the residents become mere players expressing an unseen regional rhythm. Perhaps two of the most captivating cities in the US today are New Orleans and Miami; they’re very much alike, but the particular mojos they’ll cast on you are very different.
New Orleans is my hometown. After escaping the post-Katrina difficulties for South Beach two years earlier, I returned for the first time for a brief visit just last week, as part of a road trip that will include Austin and San Diego. Seeing the robust crowds and the new businesses and construction all around me, I felt very much like Rip Van Winkle…a visitor from the past with a lot of catching up to do. There is new construction everywhere, fresh new young faces filling up once dreary commercial spaces, and even a new Borders bookstore Uptown, opened in a former funeral home! Many of the outlying neighborhoods most heavily damaged by Katrina have at long last been attended to, if not fully renovated. Though the social problems from before led me to feel less anxious to return than I might otherwise have been, the city still managed to grab me again as soon as I set foot on its streets.
NEW ORLEANS IN A NUTSHELL
If your opinion of New Orleans were to be formed entirely by the media, you would envision it as a tattered city whose political corruption was superseded only by its gun violence. While these reputations are well-deserved, it’s quite possible to live comfortably here without falling prey to either of these ills.
The Crescent City has its own jazzy groove that draws you into it as soon as you descend upon its city limits, quite a few beats slower than Miami’s dizzying conga, making its difficulties feel a world away. You may notice as you travel the surface streets that the traffic—what there is of it—is much less hurried, as it would have to be, seeing as how the pockmarked roads would prevent you from having it any other way. Coming from Florida, where tailgating is an honored tradition even in the smallest of towns, you feel like you can finally heave a sigh of relief.
Likewise, another thing that grabs you about the place is the sense of aesthetics. There is an art incorporated into the every day: the architecture, the decor, the food, the speech, the jazz and blues filtered in continuously via the local public radio station, WWOZ. The very decay of the once-opulent buildings looks as though it had been painstakingly created as part of an elaborate movie set. There are 20-foot high ceilings, ornate moldings, an attention to detail hardly seen in today’s more functionally-oriented world. This is not the past as you’d learn it in sterile history books: New Orleans’ history is dripping in decadence and its style conveys that sense of excess throughout.
A third thing you notice is that eccentricity is cherished here. If Miami is weird, New Orleans is downright perverse. People ride around on bicycles with zebra stripes on them. They make art out of discarded baby dolls. They create their own sense of fashion, which often looks like something grabbed off a rack at a 19th century garage sale…kind of post-Goth meets Raggedy Andy. No matter what their day job, nearly everyone has one kind of creative bent or another. Theatre thrives here; musicians abound—anything from Klezmer to Dixieland. Whereas in South Beach, status is about what you drive and how much money you make, in New Orleans, it’s hipper to be off-beat, creative and penniless…although the post-Katrina housing shortage has made that all the more difficult these days with sky-high rents.
The city is furthermore immensely walkable; assuming you had the stamina, you could easily make your way on foot throughout the length of Uptown New Orleans, across the Garden District, the downtown area, the French Quarter, Esplanade Avenue, and into the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods downriver.
Here, the long-term takes a backseat to the present moment, and the historic surroundings spark the creative imagination, recapturing a time before rat races in which humanity achieved spiritual transcendence through nature, artistic and literary pursuits. To that end, it is an excellent place to find your muse.
WHERE TO STAY
Some people who come to New Orleans want to lose themselves in the sophisticated tranquility of the city, while others crave more of a party atmosphere.
For my four-day stay, I chose the quiet and secluded St. Vincent’s Guest House. Nightly room rates for private rooms are $59, but if you’re staying more than a few, they’re negotiable. There are also dorms available.
St. Vincent’s is a reincarnated 19th Century orphanage, up to the elbows in ghosts and ethereal ambience. A monolithic compound with an enclosed courtyard and swimming pool, there are verandas and hidden nooks galore. It’s located just down the street from many Magazine Street attractions, which include antique stores, funky shops and cool places to eat, like Juan’s Flying Burrito. The French Quarter is about 20 minutes away on foot, and about 10 minutes by bus.
Across the street is a coffee house, and the guest house also has its own in-house restaurant called The Garden’s Edge, where you can get hearty breakfasts and lunches for under $6.
The main drawback to the guest house is that the staff isn’t particularly outgoing or attentive, and appears to be manned by residents working off their rent. But I’d been forewarned of that via some reviews I read, and accepted going in that it was a price I was willing to pay in order to enjoy the atmospheric digs at a reasonable price in the unparalleled beauty of the Lower Garden District.
If, on the other hand, you want a little more liveliness in your budget accommodations, you may prefer to bunker down at the India House (124 S. Lopez St at Canal St) in Mid-City. I’d decided against booking my stay there after reading on their website that guests must be students (Will students of life suffice?) or foreign travelers. However, I later heard that policy isn’t always aggressively enforced.
Rob, a 23-year-old backpacker from Chicago I later reconnoitered with in Austin, offered the following description of his recent experiences at the India House, and at another New Orleans hostel, Marquette House at 2249 Carondelet:
(above) India House Hostel, A Popular New Orleans Party Pad
If you’d like some fancier digs that are still conveniently situated and comparatively inexpensive, The Ambassador Hotel (535 Tchoupitoulas St) will provide you with that sense of elegance without the premium pricing.
THINGS TO DO
Most people who visit New Orleans head straight for the raucous nightlife of Bourbon Street, where they frequently get overcharged for drinks and hustled and hassled by business owners and street people alike. Tip: If someone says they’ll bet you $20 they can tell you where you “got dem shoes at”, tell them “on my feet on Bourbon Street” and keep walking. While it is worth a gander just to say you’ve done it, the nightlife is actually more enjoyable in the local hangouts along Decatur Street between Jackson Square and Esplanade Avenue. Frenchmen Street in the Marigny is another thriving area, full of affordable restaurants and jazz clubs. While there, be sure to check out The Spotted Cat (623 Frenchmen), a down-home bar with lively local music, as well as the Apple Barrel closeby at 609 Frenchmen. For a complete listing of other local live music venues, such as the world famous Tipitina’s Uptown and The Maple Leaf Bar in Carrollton, check out the local weekly rag, Gambit Weekly.
For food, when people think of New Orleans, it’s often fried shrimp poboys, muffalettas and red beans and rice that come to mind, which is available in abundance at places like The Praline Connection(542 Frenchmen St), Coop’s Place (1109 Decatur St), and Fiorella’s (45 French Market Pl), but what many people overlook is the city’s rich assortment of cheap ethnic cuisine. Mona’s Cafe on Frenchmen serves up some delicious Mediterranean masterpieces.
In the Quarter, stop by Angeli on Decatur (1141 Decatur St)—a delicious “diner with a twist”, where you can find unusual pizzas, gourmet sandwiches and salads for a song. Uptown, Nirvana (4308 Magazine St) specializes in Indian food. Also Uptown is a wonderful authentic French bistro called La Crepe Nanou (5002 Pitt St), which offers a selection of fine wines and Parisian faire at decent prices. The atmosphere is always bubbling with dedicated locals, and on the walls hang the darkly imaginative paintings of 19th century buildings and people, created by bartender Jason London Hawkins. Sushi is also plentiful and can be found everywhere, at much more reasonable prices than what you’ll find in Miami. Popular Japanese restaurants include Wasabi at 900 Frenchmen, and Ninja, located in the Carrollton neighborhood at 8433 Oak Street, while in Mid-City, Little Tokyo (310 N. Carrollton) tantalizes local palates. The list is endless!
Java is another bedrock of New Orleans life. Funky coffee houses abound throughout the city, with the greatest selection in and around the Marigny neighborhood, providing a sense of community noticeably absent in South Beach. One of the local institutions is Flora’s Gallery & Coffee Shop on Royal and Franklin, where philosophical, artistic and political quandaries are resolved amid bagels and cafe au lait.
After rich food and drink, the other thing New Orleans delivers in spades is its earthy spirituality. If the supernatural calls, don’t be taken in by the touristy voodoo shops in the Quarter. The real deal is the Island of Salvation Botanica on Piety Street in the Bywater. Its unassuming proprietress, Sallie Ann Glassman, is an ordained Voodoo priestess and tarot artist, and gives amazingly accurate readings in her shop—be sure to reserve well in advance, though, as her schedule is always quite full.
Yet another mainstay of New Orleans life is its many art galleries. Check out Dr. Bob’s Folk Art Gallery located at 3027 Chartres St. in the Bywater neighborhood for some eye-grabbing bottle-cap decorated signs, paintings and Voodoo-inspired collage art. Famous for his “Be Nice or Leave” mantra, he is a local favorite among those in the know. An additional folk art painter of renown is Nicaraguan-born Nilo Lanzas, whose works grace the walls of Berta and Mina’s Antiquities Gallery at 4138 Magazine St., Uptown. Also, be sure to stop by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, at 925 Camp St. in the Central Business District. Barrister’s Gallery (2331 St. Claude at Spain St) is still another hodge-podge of funky creations, and also houses an experimental cinema. Also of note is Michalopoulos, at 617 Bienville St. in the French Quarter.
(above) Yesterday’s junk is folk art fodder in New Orleans.
STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
Both New Orleans and Miami are defined by a sense of passion and hedonism, a kind of earthy spirituality. While Haitian Voodoo gives one city much of its flavor, the other is more closely influenced by the religion’s Cuban version, Santeria. Of the seven deadly sins, the one that best suits New Orleans is probably gluttony, while Miami is more synonymous with lust. Both have an electricity in the air and possess an unapologetic zest for life. Whereas Miami’s vibe is sexier, more competitive and formal, New Orleans is more of an equal-opportunity party place. While the Big Easy impresses with its leisurely work-to-live mindset and faded glory, the Magic City wows you with its dazzling colors, light, cultural diversity and neon deco landscape, giving you the feeling of being on an island on the edge of forever. There are some areas in which South Beach plainly outshines its Louisiana cousin. New Orleans’ attention to its past has at times come at the expense of its present and future, producing a cesspool of complacency, occasional incompetence and poverty always just an arm’s stretch from its charming neighborhoods. Miami, on the other hand, while suffering from some of those same conditions, nonetheless has a much more efficient, better-funded local infrastructure in its beach community, which creates an overall better quality of life, albeit a substantially more impersonal one. The two cities are like bookends, the strengths and weaknesses of which compliment one another; one is a model of Cuban entrepreneurial spirit, while the other calls us to revel in the pleasures of the present moment.
Therefore, when faced with the question of whether to visit South Beach or New Orleans, the answer is simple: go to both! Of course, I’m not going to let you off that easy. Next week, I’ll be writing about my time in Austin, Texas, a city with inviting qualities of its own…
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