When I was 15, my mom moved me to the French Quarter from suburban Cleveland Ohio (via a short stop in Mandeville). We had spent many summers in New Orleans and my mother, who had grown up in the Garden District, seemed to always find her way back to the Quarter when we came to town, even with the clear-as-bell disapproval from her parents. We never spent any time Uptown; somehow she had few memories of life there and less interest in showing it to us.
So, when we moved to the Quarter, she was in her own heaven and at the same time, loosened her hold on me, so it is pretty obvious why I initially liked being there. But soon I realized this was a special neighborhood of deep history and lively city street activity and that it suited me personally. I roamed every day and some nights and met shopkeepers, proper ladies, street-walker, schoolteachers, hustlers, nuns, old old people who sat on their stoops on sunny mornings, workers who told me gossip while they swept, artists who started the day with a drink at the dark bar nearest to their room, transient people who told very little about themselves and many more Herbert Asbury and Frances Parkinson-Keyes types.
I learned to have tolerance; that was not something that had been shown to me in suburban Cleveland, even though my mother heroically tried to overcome that culture with her own New Orleans attitude. I also learned about the entire city and its history both old and newer. Like the immigrants and states and nations and all of the companion events sweeping over us, as they do…
So I write about the French Quarter because I think it represents some of the best things about city life and has some fractures that, if we mend them, we could once again have a completely dynamic city center that everyone uses at some point.
So when a colleague this week said with a laugh (about the French Quarter) as we were discussing neighborhoods , “Oh that’s not real New Orleans”, I heard it with a pang. I realize again and again when I tell people I am writing about the Quarter, many think why? How is that valid?
I think it is for the reasons above and for these:
Small businesses are the real life of any region; they show ingenuity and application in a single space. I learned about what we made and what we valued here from watching those businesses.
Food is a significant part of our city diary. Check out the offerings that span the culture in that one neighborhood.
Conversations teach: Sit in a spot in 3 or 4 different times in a single week. You will see a cross-section of the city go by and hear some amazing conversations.
24 hours, 7 days a week. It has that going for it.
Public space is necessary: Tahrir Square showed us the significance of the use of public space. We may never have to resort to that (well let’s not say never), but our public square is around 120 blocks large and sits along the river, waiting for you to use it. If and when you need it.
As for tourists, they are some of the lifeblood of the city’s economy along with the port. I know almost nothing about the port, but I talk with America and share thoughts and disagreements constantly as they come to admire our city. I wish we had better things to offer in the Quarter for all of us to mingle and know each other, so that is also why I work to make it better. And don’t forget many of those tourists are interested in more than beads and hurricanes, they might actually offer something. Lucky for us millions come to visit us.
And finally, because it’s the right scale. I can walk the entire Quarter in a few hours (and have done it many times). I can find parts that are quieter than City Park, livelier than Frenchman (well on a Thursday; nothing compares with Saturday there), more beautiful than St. Charles (age has its advantage), more radical than Bywater and so on. I don’t mean to compare but for those who ask why the French Quarter, I guess I have to.
Those blocks signify New Orleans, my own family’s history, my history, the bad and good of city life, and the potential, too.
I hope that helps.