A Walker In The Garden District


It was drizzling as I strolled down Magazine Street in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. In this city without a major art museum, the architecture and storefront displays are art in and of themselves, and the window in front of me was no exception — a dazzlingly colorful, sparkly arrangement of chic umbrellas.

And that may be New Orleans in a nutshell. The place is below sea level, plagued by mosquitoes and battered by storms — but it remains one of the liveliest, most seductive cities in America today. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the place, New Orleans is a defiant example of how, if life gives you drizzle, you respond with the world’s prettiest umbrella store.

Stopping in the Big Easy wasn’t a hard sell for Oggi, my husband. Like most foreigners who had never visited, he was curious to see the Cajun capital of jazz and insisted we include New Orleans on our cross-country road trip. Hunting for a fresh slant, we consulted our good friend Daryn, a Southerner who visits regularly and can be relied upon for authoritative advice.

“Go to the Lower Garden District and walk around Magazine and Louisiana streets,” Daryn declared. “That’s this year’s up-and-coming area. You’ll certainly enjoy it more than the French Quarter. You might look for lunch in the Warehouse District, which was last year’s up-and-coming area.”

Well, I wouldn’t be caught dead in last year’s up-and-coming area. Unless it was to see the National World War II Museum, a powerhouse institution dedicated to the History Channel’s favorite war, and a logical stop for those seeking to inject a sobering dose of history into their good times. Occupying a long block where the Central Business District meets the Warehouse zone, this national tribute to American involvement in World War II is fun and immersive — full of tanks, multimedia exhibits and dramatic re-recreations.

From the museum, we simply worked our way south on Magazine, whose shifting architecture tells a story of urban evolution. The northern stretch is full of 19th-century brick warehouses repurposed as a galleries and studios for painters and sculptors — a revitalization that dates to the 1980s, but picked up steam after Katrina.

As the street wended southward, industrial lofts gave way to a residential zone of large pastel mansions with graceful, columned porches. The landscape softened from urban bricks into a verdant fantasy of palmettos, moss-draped oaks and vivid crepe myrtle, and I knew we had found the Lower Garden District. Even the street names were harmonious: Terpsichore, Melpomene, Polymnia, Thalia, echoes of the Greek muses of aesthetics.

With its sidewalks full of bicyclists and its colorful murals, the Lower Garden has an authentic neighborhood feel. Magazine Street is the commercial heart — thick with outdoor cafés, Vietnamese take-out joints that reflect the French colonial legacy, and one-of-a-kind boutiques showcasing local designers. Facades are painted in violet, turquoise and emerald; the wares within are similarly quirky, from decorative perfume bottles to hand-sewn parasols and fishnet burlesque gloves.

Jewish life is more evident in other parts of the city — most notably Uptown and the well-to-do suburb of Metairie — but you might, as I did, run into a few Jewish hipsters sipping coffee with smoked pecan sugar at Mojo, an upscale roaster on a picturesque block of Magazine Street.

And you are very likely to find bagel-and-lox nostalgists and New York transplants at Stein’s Deli, an outpost of New York-style noshing on lower Magazine Street. Stein’s, owned by an East Coast ex-pat, imports its bagels and rugelach from Brooklyn and serves up matzah ball soup and kosher salamis. But in a fusion-style homage to New York, Stein’s also has a lineup of Italian classics — from prosciutto to panini — and a selection of imported cheeses and craft beers to satisfy the most discerning urban foodie.

As we doubled back along the port toward the French Quarter, the wail of trumpets and the thumping of drums filled the humid air. Roving outdoor ensembles provided a soundtrack, and crowds of dancers responded by gyrating in the streets, oblivious to the worsening rain. Here in New Orleans, jazz is everywhere: at the upcoming New Orleans Jazz Fest, a 10-day tribute to Louisiana culture in late April and early May, and even at local synagogues, where a perusal of the calendars turned up a jazz Shabbat at the historic Touro Synagogue and a jazz brunch at Congregation Beth Israel in Metairie.

Perhaps it’s natural that Jewish life has flowered here along Lake Ponchartrain, where the twin passions are good food and a lively beat. Sure, the living here isn’t always easy, but it’s hard to resist the pull of a culture so uniquely festive. Which is why Oggi and I lingered, savoring the Old-meets-New-World ambience on the pastel back streets of the French Quarter, as the sky finally darkened over the Mississippi.