Walking, French Quarter style 101, Part One

One of the reasons that I started this particular blog was to help decipher what makes the Quarter special enough to be studied for designing cities in the future. No question that living here allows me to see some details up close that might be missed even by frequent visits.
Here is one:
How people walk on city streets runs the gamut from “savvy New Yorker” to “Wyoming cowboy” to “Ohio suburban family” and beyond and let me tell you, these do not always mesh well.
I’ll say firmly at the outset I am not using any of those terms in a derogatory manner. Each style has their reason for existing and their appropriate place. I’m just saying that it is amazing to watch them all coexist on the tiny streets of the Quarter over a New Year’s Eve/Sugar Bowl weekend.
First, here’s some background on me and walking. I grew up first in a walkable town outside of Cleveland that recently won praise as one of the few places where kids still walk to school and, that the city of 52,000 has 9,000 residents per square mile, which (according to some) makes it the most densely populated town between Chicago and New York City. That news was a a happy surprise to me.
However, once I started to travel around the US in the 1980s, I did pick up on the fact that my hometown was definitely different. So, I tell you all of that to stress that I had walked miles daily as a kid and if not on foot, was on bike or skateboard (i.e. human power) maybe 90% of the time and therefore, was not a novice to walking as a primary mode of transportation.

Even so, when I moved to the Quarter with my New Orleans mom, it immediately became clear that I needed to “up my game.” Honestly, it felt like I was dropped into a horse race without blinders or was a salmon swimming upstream for the first few months. Whew! I still remember navigating Royal and Bourbon sidestepping drunks, tourists while slowly making friends with the buskers and workers and realizing I was on display too.
I learned. I learned the hard way, by being pushed off the sidewalk by a tourist suddenly making a veer to the left and I learned from being accosted more than once by The Bead Lady or the Chicken Man, two of our many street characters because I did not see them coming and ended up right in front of them.

or being cursed up and down by Ruthie the Duck Lady as I jumped into her lane as she skated by (I once saw her gaily sing, “MOTHERfucker, MOTHERfucker, MOTHERfucker” with ducks in tow for about 3-4 blocks at the top of her lungs to the horror of the passersby.)

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Umm. this is NOT a vintage picture of me stepping in Ruthie’s way, although this woman has a strong Midwestern vibe…

By the 3rd month, I had almost perfected the route through the Quarter which allowed me to move FAST and yet to see my neighbors and pals on my way to school in the CBD. Let me see, it went:
OUT of the door in the 900 block of St. Philip, stay on the Uptown side to skip the smells from Matassa’s bar
STAY on the Uptown side for the next block to escape the hard looks from the nuns at the Mother Cabrini Day Nursery in the 800 block of St. Philip
SWING over to the downtown side for a block to walk along the McDonogh 15 schoolyard (as seen in King Creole, Elvis’ best movie by the way.)
TURN right down Royal and walk on the lake side to look into the bookstore windows and waste too much time on this
MAKE a right on Orleans (checking the St. Louis Cathedral clock first to my left) to get the advantage of the widest street and see the feral cat population before
HANGING a left on Bourbon to take advantage of the cleanest sidewalks as each business had a guy come and hose the sidewalk first thing and then a
MEANDER to the left at St. Louis to see my pals who worked at the hotels on either side of the street and a
RIGHT on Royal to pass by Sloppy Jim’s on the left and Keil’s Antiques on the right to wave to the bartenders/early am regulars and to Jill respectively.
Bending against the wind on upper Royal, avoiding the grumpy doormen at Monteleone (their peers at the Royal Orleans and Royal Sonesta were chattier) and to see Tony the Grey Line Tours guy out front of the Walgreen’s at Iberville for a daily handshake
CROSS Canal,follow St. Charles to Poydras, firmly holding my piece of the concrete against the businessmen who want the entire seersuckin’ street to finally go
LEFT on Carondelet to L.E. Rabouin High School.
On the way home, mostly I veered off Bourbon in the Conti block and headed down Burgundy to see all of the old people on their stoops along the way. Boy do I miss them.

Let me say that I got so good at moving through (head down and a few extra hops to get ahead when moving back to the sidewalk from the street) that I actually have walked past my own mom heading the other way with HER head down and her keys in hand and only knew I had done it when friends with me said, “hey wasn’t that your mom back there?”

So all of that to lay the groundwork for why this three-part post about walking on city streets.

Here are the generalities in no particular order:
•There is a difference from walking in the Quarter on any weekday from any weekend. The amount of truck traffic during the week is so much higher and I have noticed that the presence of trucks tend to push people to the wall side of the sidewalk. They also watch the street crossings a little more carefully. AND since the number of mule-drawn buggies is exponentially increased on weekends, it also has the impact of slowing traffic and encouraging too many people to walk in the still auto-trafficked streets and puts them in danger.
•Europeans are never surprised when you pass them from the side.
•Many people do not take in account the barriers they will have on a sidewalk until the very last moment.
•Amateur photographers are uneasy when you pause on the sidewalk to let them take the photo and often will stop taking pictures when you motion for them to continue, even as you explain you don’t mind waiting for a minute. In fact, they often grow resentful-that is, except for many Japanese tourists; they appreciate it and wave or nod in thanks when done.
•A point shared by my neighbor and pal Evelyn-smart phone photography has encouraged endless indiscriminate photography and has seriously amped up the people standing in the middle of the block looking at the balcony through their electronic eye.
•Additionally, smart phone mapping has reduced the number of people who ask for directions or who orient themselves before heading out to tour and added to that clump of people on every street corner, looking down at their electronic mother. Honestly, I think all hotel and retail folks should be trained to encourage people to come in and ask questions and to use their smart phones in there rather than risk robbery on the street.
•The Segway tours are (mercifully) coming to an end it seems and we have returned en force to walking tours with gallant guides who remind their charges to leave room for passersby. Good- because those Segways were just accidents waitin to happen.
•Bicyclists riding the wrong way for more than a half of a block are a menace to everyone.
•We need to add permanent signs for drivers saying “leave 3 feet to the right” for cyclists and to stop at intersections only when a red octagonal sign signals you to stop.
•No one in Louisiana knows to stop when someone is in a crosswalk.
•People’s inability to navigate city streets can be foretold in their line-forming talent (or lack of it) in stores or in their level of parallel parking skill. (Walking is really about firm decision-making and spatial perception, in other words.)

•The idea of closing Royal during the day and Bourbon at night is very good and should be increased. Get delivery trucks in before 10 am and expand the pedestrian only streets to a few Uptown/Downtown streets. I truly doubt that any of the businesses on either have
suffered because of lack of auto traffic, and would say they actually see a significant benefit. •Wilkinson should be Busker Alley for the evenings as my pal, the Grand Duchess has suggested, and maybe even add Decatur between Bienville and Iberville as another busker area in the evening. Close them, paint musical symbols on the street and allow performers to work for 4 hours before moving to another spot. Allow some street food too on those streets, get rid of the few parking spots and add permanent stools for perching and maybe even some garden beds there.
• They should have more street-facing short benches on Royal and Chartres for people to take a breather. Put markings that they cannot be taken over by buskers or they will incur a 100 dollar fine.
• Add slightly elevated wood lifeguard style chairs on some corners for cops to sit in during evening hours. Incentivize homeowners to add cameras and connect them to Project Nola.
• Add some shade trees in large buckets every few blocks on either side of streets.
• Give awards to those businesses that offer dog bowls, outside seating or that take off the “don’t” signs on their gallery posts. And those with embedded spikes on their steps-shame on you. Just put a strong light or flower pots there instead or, even better, SIT there in the evening and then just hose them off in the morning.

Part 2: What William Whyte and Jane Jacobs taught me about city streets.

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About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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