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.
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.
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