New Orleans mirrors San Francisco on the bayou

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday February 26, 2014
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New Orleans' Garden District boasts many beautiful homes<br>with manicured yards.<br>(Photo: Matthew S Bajko)<br><br>
New Orleans' Garden District boasts many beautiful homes
with manicured yards.
(Photo: Matthew S Bajko)

Descending into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport one is treated to a bird's eye view of how precariously situated the Big Easy is between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

For planes arriving from the West Coast, the flight path runs parallel to Interstate 10, built on stilts through Bayou Piquant, and the airfield itself appears to emerge out of a bog. It is hard not to recall the deadly flooding Hurricane Katrina unleashed on the Louisiana city.

Another jarring sight is seeing the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as you first enter into New Orleans' central business district. The covered sports arena today shows no signs of the damage it suffered during the 2005 storm when thousands of New Orleanians who had sought shelter inside languished there for days.

A first-time visitor to the city, I wasn't sure what sort of scars from the catastrophic events of nearly a decade ago I would encounter during a weeklong visit in early November. I was in town to attend the annual scientific meeting of the Gerontological Society of America as one of the 2013 MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship participants.

In the tourist-heavy areas of the French Quarter and the Garden District there are few visible signs of the destruction wrought by Katrina. In fact, due to their location near an oxbow in the Mississippi, they were relatively unscathed.

Over the decades the silt from the mighty river built up an earthen barricade that keeps the Mississippi's waters at bay. A walking path atop the berm leads from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street east toward Jackson Square and the famous facade of the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis, King of France with its three steeples hovering over the French Quarter.

"It protected the French Quarter from flooding during Hurricane Katrina. The Garden District also escaped major flooding," said New Orleans native Libby Bollino, a guide with Big Easy Tours, during a walking tour of the Garden District.

Exploring the two riverside neighborhoods, with an abundance of coffeehouses, local shops, and vast array of restaurants, New Orleans resembles a bayou version of the City-By-The-Bay. One need only gaze at the streetcars running up Canal Street and Saint Charles Avenue to encounter rolling reminders of San Francisco and its trolley cars along Market Street.

The city's aquarium features displays on local sea life in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Caribbean and South American waterways. It is home to a white alligator, otters, and penguins and will introduce a new Maya Reef turtle exhibit this year. (Tickets cost $22.50 for adults, $16.00 for kids age 2-12.)

Explore the culture of the Gulf South at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center in the heart of the French Quarter. Most of the exhibitions are free, while docents lead hourlong tours of the seven buildings housed at the site. ($5 for adults, 533 Royal Street,

The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve's French Quarter Visitor Center offers free exhibits about local food and culture, as well as walking tours at 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays of the surrounding Vieux Carre, or old square, and its distinctive architecture. (The 25 tickets for the tours are distributed at 9 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis at 419 Decatur Street,

Guided tours of the Garden District provide a nice introduction to the history of the Crescent City. The two and a half hour excursion takes visitors into the heart of the "American" section of New Orleans, so dubbed for the suburban layout of the area built in the 1820s for non-Creole residents who felt unwelcome in the French-speaking quarters of the city.

It includes stops at Anne Rice's former mansion, the home where Jefferson Davis died in 1889, and the current abodes of actors John Goodman and Sandra Bullock. ($25.95 discounted adult tickets can be purchased at

Another featured house is the Italianate mansion at 1448 Fourth Street completed in 1895 for Colonel Robert H. Short. A gay couple, interior designer Hal Williamson and Dr. Dale Le Blanc, currently owns the house, famed for its corn-stalk wrought-iron fence.

Kitty-corner is the beautiful Sully Mansion Bed and Breakfast, designed by renowned architect Thomas Sully in 1890 for the Rayne Family. The three-storied Queen Anne-style home offers eight guest rooms with rates ranging from $124 to $242 per night. (

The tour winds down shortly after a quick stroll through Lafayette Cemetery. Across the street is the turquoise and white Victorian home of the famous Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Avenue). Serving up local fare since 1880, the restaurant has a strict dress code (though the rules are more relaxed during the day) and is known for its two-course lunches starting at $16 and 25-cent martinis.

Antique oyster plates on display at a New Orleans shop.

(Photo: Matthew S. Bajko)

If not wearing the proper attire to grab a table, the tour company will return you to the heart of the French Quarter just blocks from Jackson Square. The outdoor plaza in front of the St. Louis Cathedral is surrounded by some of the city's best restaurants and myriad shops.

Grab one of the city's signature sandwiches, a po-boy, at Johnny's (511 St. Louis Street). Rub elbows with tourists and students from nearby Tulane University as you wait in line in this cramped New Orleans mainstay since the 1950s. Waits during peak lunch hours can stretch up to 20 minutes as the kitchen crew assembles a wide variety of po-boys, from catfish or alligator to crawfish or oyster. (Prices range from $5.95 to $12 or more for the seafood varieties.)

Fancier surroundings can be found at The Original Pierre Maspero's (440 Chartres Street), part of the Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts' collection of local restaurants. Housed in an historic structure built in 1788, the dining establishment's menu features local staples such as remoulade, crawfish etouffee, blackened jambalaya and shrimp and grits. (Dinner and drinks with dessert averages $45 per person.)

For a more out of the way dining spot in the French Quarter check out Eat New Orleans (900 Dumaine Street) where gay chef-owner Jarred Zeringue dishes up a locally-sourced menu influenced by his southern Louisiana upbringing. It is BYOB, with no corkage fee for the first bottle of wine, and a popular brunch spot on weekends.

Eat is nearby the French Quarter's gay bars, many clustered around the 800 block of Bourbon Street, such as the Bourbon Pub and Parade, Cafe Lafitte in Exile, and Oz dance club. Nearby on Burgundy Street are the 700 Club and leather bar the Rawhide, notorious for its sex-friendly back room area.

During my visit it was particularly strange to wander along the straight section of Bourbon Street and find wall-to-wall revelers yet encounter sparse crowds at the gay venues. The busiest night at the gay bars was Saturday when I stumbled upon a roving bar crawl fundraiser for New Orleans Pride.

The most popular times to visit the city for LGBT visitors are during Southern Decadence over Labor Day weekend, Halloween, New Year's, Mardi Gras in late February (Fat Tuesday is March 4 this year), and Pride in late June.

For more information about the city's LGBT scene and gay-friendly accommodations, visit