Archive for December, 2016

Tootie and I were staying in uptown New Orleans over a long weekend.  I took the opportunity to take a day bike ride downriver.   While I almost never play golf, first in about 1987 and as recently as about 2003 I had played golf at one of the more unusual municipal golf courses in America, twenty miles south of New Orleans in the settlement of Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish, just over the line from St. Bernard Parish.  The place just seemed weird.  Among other things,  instead of a coke machine they had the only beer machine I have ever seen, $ 2.00 for a Bud Light.  Down a one-way road hugging the Mississippi it felt like the end of the world.

Why not bike down there and see if the golf course was still there?  It would give me the opportunity to visit Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish.  The area had had terrible destruction from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.   The national media focused on the Lower Ninth Ward, but Chalmette, the newer suburb just a couple of miles further downriver from the Lower Ninth was in many ways as badly wiped out.    Chalmette is /was white and working class in 1960’s tract housing.

On the way it also would give me the opportunity to ride through a large swath of urban New Orleans.

Back in The Day, it was considered dangerous to go more than about 100 yards to the north side of St. Charles Avenue, in an area locally called Central City.   In about 1982 when we were riding bicycles in this area a cop actually pulled up alongside Tootie and me and told us in no uncertain terms that we needed to get out of this neighborhood.    As Central City becomes safer it is interesting to visit because it is a part of New Orleans I have never seen up close.

New Orleans is a city of distinct neighborhoods.   To bicycle downriver,  Carondelet Street/Bourbon Street/Dauphine Street is one continuous one-way street that crosses many of these neighborhoods in the seven miles to Poland Avenue on the Industrial Canal, where a bicyclist has to cross the bridge into the Lower Ninth.


This was Central City.   As I turned onto Carondelet just a block upriver from Louisiana Avenue, I saw this apartment building; Upstairs I think this was where our friends Dave and Gail lived in about 1980.



I biked along the street, snapping pictures with one hand.





There are beautiful homes along this street, many of which were near-abandoned for years, and are slowing coming back to life.





I saw construction.





Central City used to be the center of Jewish life in New Orleans.



Heading out of Central City, Carondelet Street goes under the Ponchartrain Expressway.



On this Saturday morning in the Warehouse District there was a farmer’s market.n-o-to-chalmette-dec-2016-040

Carondelet Street continued towards Canal Street and the CBD (Central Business District).



Carondelet Street crosses Canal Street,


where it changes name from Carondelet Street to Bourbon Street, and enters the French Quarter.


Most of Bourbon Street is a crowded sleazy tourist trap at night, but in the early morning it is open to car traffic and subdued, wet from being washed down by street sweepers.






As the street progresses downriver it becomes less sleazy.  I passed Cafe Lafitte in Exile, from 1933, claiming to be the oldest gay bar in the United States, patronized by Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.


Lower Bourbon Street is residential and beautiful.   Until her recent death, Congresswoman Lindy Boggs lived on this stretch of Bourbon Street.


Bourbon Street crosses tree lined Esplanade Avenue, which is the border between the French Quarter and Faubuorg Marigny.


Just a block further and Bourbon Street dead ends.


If you go left half a block and take a right, Dauphine Street continues one-way for several miles.



There was modernist architecture and sculptures as Dauphine crosses the wide Elysian Fields Avenue.



Dauphine keeps on through the neighborhood of Faubuorg Marigny and then transitions into Bywater, which many people used to just call the Ninth Ward.




Dauphine Street dead ends at Poland Avenue which parallels the Industrial Canal.    A bike rider has to go onto busy St. Claude Avenue for the drawbridge that crosses the canal.    Downriver from the canal is the Lower Ninth Ward; this portion is also called Holy Cross.   There is a bike path along the levee, where you can see one of the two famous “steamboat” houses, and you can look back over the Mississippi at the CBD.



I am convinced Chalmette may be the most culturally distinct suburb in America.    It is an epicenter of New Orleans working class culture.   In addition,  St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish have a subculture of Islenos, descendants of immigrants from the Canary Islands way back in the 1780’s.    Until about thirty years ago many spoke eighteenth century Spanish.    There are a lot of Spanish surnames here.   I stopped for a doughnut and coffee; the New Orleans accents were memorable but I did not hear any Spanish.



The main drag of Chalmette is Judge Perez Drive, originally named for political boss Leander Perez (1891-1969) who took corruption and racism to new heights, even by the standards of Louisiana.

The Parish felt bad about it, and in 1999 re-named the highway for a DIFFERENT Judge Perez.   Apparently there was more than one.



I looped by bicycle through Chalmette neighborhoods.   Most appear reasonably re-developed, although the population of Chalmette is down by half since the 2005 hurricane.










Chalmette neighborhoods end near the Meraux refinery.



The development thins out and there is actual countryside.




Because of the levee, one forgets that one is right alongside the Mississippi, until surplus U.S. Navy vessels docked in the river loom over the landscape.



There was not much further to go to see if this golf course still existed.     At the St. Bernard/Plaquemines Parish line, this huge levee gate reminded us that in the event of The Big Storm we were on our own on the other side.




The entrance to the municipal golf course was adjacent to a neighborhood of relatively large houses that look like they were built in the 1970’s.   Both the neighborhood and the golf course must have flooded during Katrina.    More than half of the houses looked abandoned and unoccupied and the golf course was just a field of waist-high weeds.




But life goes on.   With multiple trucks and pieces of equipment, a movie crew was parked all over this neighborhood.  With empty houses and Spanish moss it would probably be a good set for a horror movie.


I turned around and bicycled back to Chalmette to eat lunch at Rocky & Carlo’s,  a place I had visited in Chalmette way back in the 1980’s.

The gumbo was disappointing.  But the restaurant seems to be family run and it indeed does have personality.









People in Chalmette must have a good time.   Note these guys sitting at the bar are in uniform but it is not the fire department; it is the Shriners (Jerusalem Temple) Dune Buggy Patrol.   Just another Saturday.




On the way home, I broke new ground by riding through territory I had previously been terrified to tread; down Marais Street on the north side of St. Claude Avenue.   They seemed to have the Christmas spirit.


I came back uptown and cleaned up.   Later that evening Tootie and I biked to a restaurant called Bistro Daisy and had an amazing meal.



Biking back home that evening Christmas lights were ablaze.


I drove the Honda towards Down East, into that vast coastal plain of eastern North Carolina.  Pretty much at random I parked the car at a CVS just outside of Farmville.   Yes, just last week I was in Farmville, Virginia (population 8,500), and for some reason this week I ended up in Farmville, North Carolina (population 4,500).

Right across from the CVS was this modernist motel.  I fear that these kind of places will be torn down soon; I think nobody appreciates them but me.p1060282-1



Farmville has a nice downtown, except that it has the problem that other towns like this have; what to do with these buildings in 2016?









Farmville even has an art-deco movie house, although apparently only used occasionally.



I biked out of Farmville across the coastal plain.    Many North Carolinians do not live in towns, they live out: out of town, out along highways;  in houses, manufactured housing, and what we used to call trailers.












Greenville is isolated (85 miles east of Raleigh, 120 miles southwest of Norfolk, 110 miles north of Wilmington, 80 miles or more to any beach), but arriving by bicycle from the east, Greenville (population 89,000)  feels like The Big City.  It is the home of East Carolina University (28,000 students) that includes a teaching hospital and a medical school.   I often remind my readers that while much of America looks decaying,  five institutions in America usually appear over-funded: rich residential neighborhoods, the military, the court system, universities, and health care.    After bicycling past miles of people living in trailers, suddenly I am thrust upon the buildings of the ECU medical complex, which fits into two of those over-funded categories.   Many or most of the buildings look quite new.  In some ways Greenville looks like a boomtown.






Downtown, near the central campus, there were lots of new tall buildings.



I am sure that Greenville can be a really pleasant place to live, but it is not a great place to look at.   Some of the blame can come from the NCDOT, who over the past sixty years have built bypass upon bypass.   Wide four lane roads with fast cars prevail.    I had a decent lunch downtown before heading back towards Farmville.

I had already eaten lunch two hours earlier when I got back to Farmville.   Still, there were two barbecue places in Farmville that bear remembering for next time.   Both appeared open and functioning.




High Bridge Trail State Park is a thirty-one mile long east-west rail trail in rural Virginia.   The trail crosses through the town of Farmville around its midpoint.

I sold this as being “an hour had a half” straight north of Chapel Hill, but it is 120 miles and at least two and a half hours drive to Farmville, Virginia.    This area of the state is distant from any major city.  We drove our Honda with two bicycles in the trunk but did not get to downtown Farmville until about one o’clock.  And we had to have lunch.  We compromised by putting the bikes together and riding west down the trail for fifteen minutes, then turning around and riding back into town.   We would then do the other direction after lunch.  We split a sandwich at Charley’s Waterfront Cafe in Farmville’s surprisingly vibrant downtown.   The downtowns of the majority of small towns in rural America look depressing and vacant.   There is a consistent thread that makes such a downtown look healthy: the presence of a college or university; here is Farmville it is the public Longwood University.

After lunch we biked east down the rail trail.

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About five miles east of Farmville the rail trail crosses the high bridge.  Built in 1852 the former rail bridge is 160 feet off the ground at it highest point above the Appomattox River on the former rail line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  Wikipedia has a nice picture drawn in the 1850’s.



Riding across the bridge we hung out on a beautiful day and admired the view.


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We biked a little further and then turned around and rode back to our car in Farmville.   On the car ride home we saw this interesting drive-in just outside of South Boston VA.


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You can drive to Fayetteville NC from Chapel Hill in a little over an hour.   It is the home of the large army base Fort Bragg and is a very different place than Chapel Hill.  You can sense a different worldview.  Following my urbanist tendencies, I headed downtown, looking for a place to park the car for a few hours while I took a bike ride.  I found a space downtown at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum.




Fayetteville is actually one of the oldest cities in North Carolina. The vast majority of neighborhoods in this city of 200,000 consist of miles and miles of disconnected housing developments and strip malls.   Even on a Sunday when traffic is light, bicycling from place to place is difficult.  But the immediate downtown is O.K.  I have come here to bicycle several times in the past twenty years, and I have watched as the city has successfully fixed up downtown buildings, and more recently, in finding service businesses to fill up the mostly empty spaces.   There is some nice mid-century lettering, even if the original businesses no longer exist.




Market House dates from 1832.



Not that many years ago someone renovated and reopened the Prince Charles Hotel but the business only lasted a few years.   According to the Fayetteville Observer, a Durham developer bought the vacant building in late 2014 for only $ 200,000.00, It is now abandoned and waiting for its new owner to make something happen.  Criminally, the Republican state legislature recently cancelled tax credits for historic properties, which makes such renovations much less attractive.




One can only bicycle around the ten or fifteen blocks of downtown Fayetteville for so long.   So, I chose as a destination the small town of Parkton, fifteen miles to the south, and bicycled down there and back.    Much of the way it was a singularly unpleasant bike ride, in that streets of one subdivision are unconnected to streets other subdivisions, and a bicyclist is constantly being forced back onto major highways.

Eventually things opened up and I was bicycling on small country roads through open fields.   There are some hills in the city of Fayetteville but once out near Parkton, the land flattens out in the Down East coastal plain.



Parkton is a pretty small place.  It does have two actual operating retail businesses, one of which is a Family Dollar.   I was surprised they have their own police department.   With their three police cars I thought of Mayberry.



On the way back to downtown Fayetteville new housing developments spring from the flat plain like weeds.