The new city of Or­leans is turn­ing 300

It’s much more than a party town, and a visit should in­clude ex­plo­ration of its slave trade past

Waterloo Region Record - - Travel - AN­DREA SACHS

On St. John the Bap­tist’s Day, seven spirit-seek­ers and three medi­ums gath­ered around a ta­ble in­side a 200-year-old haunted house in the French Quar­ter of New Or­leans.

Can­dles flick­ered on a wine-coloured table­cloth. A cat mewed. Marie Laveau, the 19th-cen­tury voodoo queen reimag­ined as a doll, stood qui­etly in the cor­ner, bear­ing wit­ness to the séance-in-progress.

One by one, the guests reached out to their de­ceased loved ones. The medi­ums re­ceived vi­sions of green olives (a mes­sage from a mother fond of them), em­broi­dered cloth (from a great-grand­mother of Latin-Amer­i­can de­scent) and a limp­ing an­i­mal (a fam­ily’s golden re­triever that had been hit by a car). When my turn ar­rived, I did not shake the fam­ily tree or poke empty dog beds. In­stead, I at­tempted to rouse a fig­ure who has been gar­ner­ing a heap of at­ten­tion this year in New Or­leans.

“I would like to speak to Bienville,” I told the trio of women, ut­ter­ing the sur­name of the French-Cana­dian who es­tab­lished the port city in 1718. “I want to know what he thinks of New Or­leans now.”

The medium Juliet spoke from her po­si­tion be­hind a black lacy cur­tain that par­tially ob­scured her face and body.

“I saw him shak­ing his head,” she said. “He is in shock and dis­be­lief that, af­ter 300 years, we are still here.”

Voodoo Queen Bloody Mary, who ran the séance, said that she had once tried to find Jean-Bap­tiste Le Moyne de Bienville in Paris’s Mont­martre Ceme­tery, but failed to lo­cate his re­mains. (She was look­ing in the wrong rest­ing place.) On this oc­ca­sion, Bienville ma­te­ri­al­ized with lit­tle prod­ding. Lucy the dog took longer to show up.

So, why was Bienville so quick to re­turn? Per­haps he was cu­ri­ous about all the fuss the city is mak­ing for the tri­cen­ten­nial, with spe­cial art ex­hibits, cel­e­bra­tory cock­tails and fes­tive sig­nage on buses, lamp posts and lawns. Maybe he wants to don ropes of Mardi Gras beads and dance on 300 years of his­tory, some of which he made.

If he does de­cide to join the party, he will find him­self on a crowded stage. New Or­leans has ac­cu­mu­lated a lot of char­ac­ters over three cen­turies, and not all re­quire a medium to con­tact.

Soft, soggy, swampy. The area’s boggy ter­rain was bet­ter suited for spot­ting ga­tors than es­tab­lish­ing an ur­ban cen­tre. But that didn’t stop the French. The col­o­niz­ers first started sniff­ing around the Louisiana coast in 1682, back when its pri­mary in­hab­i­tants were Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Decades later, the French es­tab­lished La Nou­velle-Or­léans on the east­ern banks of the lower Mis­sis­sippi River, a move that many con­sider a folly.

“It’s a very strate­gic site for a city,” said Richard Cam­panella, a ge­og­ra­pher and pro­fes­sor at the Tu­lane School of Ar­chi­tec­ture. “It made sense at the time.”

I met Cam­panella in his of­fice, where he rat­tled off a whiplash ver­sion of the city’s his­tory. The French ran New Or­leans till the 1760s, fol­lowed by the Span­ish (1762-1800), then back to the French. In the early 1800s, Pres­i­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son ex­pressed in­ter­est in pur­chas­ing New Or­leans. Napoleon, dis­tracted by a slave up­ris­ing in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and ten­sions with Eng­land, sold Louisiana for $15 mil­lion. In 1803, the coun­tries signed the Louisiana Pur­chase, and the rest is U.S. his­tory.

“This was the dawn of the Amer­i­can Era and the An­te­bel­lum Age,” Cam­panella said, re­fer­ring to the South as it grew and ex­isted prior to the Civil War.

We hopped in his car for a tour. To get my bear­ings, he mapped out the city: south is to­ward the river; north is to­ward Lake Pontchar­train; east is down­town or down­river; and west is up­town or up­river. He told me that most lo­cals pro­vide direc­tions based on bod­ies of wa­ter, not com­pass points, so I should learn my Pontchar­train and my Mis­sis­sippi be­fore set­ting out.

On the drive, he pointed out sig­nif­i­cant sights, with com­men­tary: Mag­a­zine Street (“At five miles long, it’s one of the great Amer­i­can streets”), By­wa­ter (“it is the Wil­liams­burg of New Or­leans”), City Park (“the fifth­largest in the coun­try”), Old Ur­su­line Con­vent (“You could drop it into the out­skirts of Paris and you wouldn’t even bat an eye”).

In Treme, we passed a church and his pro­fes­so­rial tone turned giddy. “Oh look at that,” he ex­claimed. “It’s a fu­neral. I won­der if there is go­ing to be a jazz fu­neral af­ter­ward.”

Un­for­tu­nately, we didn’t have time to idle by the steps. We were barely through our first cen­tury. On­ward to the an­te­bel­lum, which you must learn is from the Latin ante (“be­fore”) and bel­lum (“war”).

Back at Tu­lane, I switched cars (mini­van), guides (John McCusker) and fo­cus (mu­sic). The New Or­leans

na­tive runs sev­eral ex­cur­sions, in­clud­ing the “Cra­dle of Jazz” and the “Ka­t­rina Eye Wit­ness Tour.” (The for­mer Times-Picayune pho­tog­ra­pher is the eye­wit­ness in the ti­tle.) En route to Louis Arm­strong Park, McCusker, a cool cat in a straw fe­dora, ex­plained the his­tory of jazz, a mu­si­cal mutt of blues, rag­time, dirges and marches.

“It was a new tra­di­tion that grew out of other cul­tural tra­di­tions that in­ter­sected,” he said.

In Congo Square, in­side the park, McCusker tapped into jazz’s fore­bears, the slaves who gath­ered on Sun­days to sing, dance and play their an­ces­tral mu­sic from West Africa. A sculp­ture de­picts the ju­bi­lant scene: the women, swathed in head scarves called tignons, mov­ing their mouths and legs to the beat; the men pound­ing on drums and pluck­ing on stringed gourds.

“The grand­fa­thers of jazz hadn’t even been born yet,” he said.

Many of those grand­fa­thers — Jelly Roll Morton, Sid­ney Bechet, Louis Arm­strong — lived in New Or­leans, and McCusker deac­cel­er­ated by sev­eral sites where they once per­formed or resided.

“This is the only va­cant lot on the tour,” he said, as we looked through the car win­dow at the for­mer home of Bechet, the leg­endary sax­o­phon­ist and clar­inetist.

To nudge our imag­i­na­tions, McCusker turned up “Cake Walk­ing Ba­bies” on the car stereo.

“OK, here is where the fire­works start,” he said. “That’s Sid­ney, that growl thing.”

We braved the heat to check out Sto­ryville, the city’s red-light dis­trict from 1897 to 1917, and the black vice dis­trict, which was ac­tive from the 1880s to the 1950s. The lat­ter is home to a quar­tet of build­ings whose shabby states be­lie their ear­lier vi­tal­ity. (Preser­va­tion­ists are do­ing their darn­d­est to pro­tect the struc­tures, which in­clude the Ea­gle Sa­loon, where Buddy Bolden per­formed, and the Karnof­sky Tai­lor Shop, whose Jewish own­ers pro­vided Arm­strong with a sec­ond home.) We stood out­side the boarded-up Iro­quois The­ater, a movie palace and jazz con­cert hall that catered to African Amer­i­cans.

“This was the first stage Louis per­formed on,” he said.

For his de­but gig, the 11-year-old trum­peter pow­dered his face in flour and com­peted in a tal­ent show. The boy won­der won.

In Cen­tral City, all the stars col­lided. “This is the neigh­bour­hood where jazz was born. Not Treme. Not the French Quar­ter,” he said. “This has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of jazz pi­o­neers who would go on to take the mu­sic to the rest of the world.”

Seven names rolled off his tongue. To hon­our the mo­ment, McCusker pressed play on “Strut­tin’ With Some Bar­be­cue,” and let Louis take us home.

•••

Her name was Mary Har­ris and though she was 86 years old, her mem­o­ries were vivid. She clearly re­mem­bered her child­hood — how she used to haul in the kin­dling and light the fire and hold the fan that shooed the flies away from her masters’ food.

“It wasn’t hard work,” she re­called, “but my arms used to get tired ’spe­cially at din­ner when they set so long at the ta­ble.”

Mary, long gone, ac­com­pa­nied me on the guided tour of the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion, about 70 km west of New Or­leans. I wore her story around my neck, on a card dan­gling from a braided lan­yard.

Sev­eral plan­ta­tions along the river in­vite vis­i­tors in­side the op­u­lent Fabergé eggs the wealthy planters called home. And in New Or­leans, Le Musée de F.P.C. shares the ac­com­plish­ments, and hard­ships, of free peo­ple of colour, many of whom pros­pered in the port city known for its thriv­ing slave mar­ket. The Whit­ney mu­seum cov­ers sim­i­lar themes but turns the lens on the slaves and rel­e­gates the own­ers, the Hay­dels, to the side­lines.

“We’re one of the few plan­ta­tions telling the story of slav­ery, of how it was,” said Matthew Ward, a guide and PhD stu­dent in his­tory at Louisiana State Univer­sity.

From from 1752 to 1865, the plan­ta­tion pos­sessed more than 350 slaves, who toiled in its indigo, rice and sugar-cane fields or in the Big House as do­mes­tics. Mary was not one of the Whit­ney’s slaves — her oral his­tory was col­lected through Fed­eral Writ­ers’ Project in­ter­views of in­di­vid­u­als who had spent their child­hoods en­slaved — but I could safely as­sume the plan­ta­tion had sev­eral of its own Marys.

Af­ter hand­ing out um­brel­las as sun pro­tec­tion, Matthew led us in­side the An­ti­och Bap­tist Church, where we were not alone. Dozens of stat­ues de­pict­ing chil­dren born into slav­ery sat on pews and stood in loose clus­ters around the al­tar and in the aisles. Their sculpted faces were full of ex­pres­sion; some looked de­fi­ant, oth­ers with­drawn.

Out­side, the Wall of Honor, one of three memo­ri­als on the prop­erty, was a silent roll call of the Whit­ney’s slaves. The first gran­ite slab was empty, a trib­ute to the men and women who did not ap­pear on the ship man­i­fests but de­serve recog­ni­tion. The other pan­els were cov­ered with first names, coun­tries of ori­gin, dates of birth and skills.

I caught up with Matthew as he was ex­plain­ing how, af­ter the United States abol­ished its in­ter­na­tional slave trade, slave own­ers re­lied on breed­ing to fill their ranks. As an ex­am­ple, he men­tioned Ju­lia Woodrich’s mother, who gave birth to 15 chil­dren. Phys­i­cal con­di­tion de­ter­mined price, he said. A 16-year-old Cre­ole named Suzette was sold for $1,125; a man with a her­nia was worth $200.

“The bod­ies were only as valu­able as the labour they could pro­duce,” he said.

At a large iron bell, Matthew en­cour­aged us to yank the thick rope “in hon­our of all of the en­slaved peo­ple who lived and died on the plan­ta­tion.”

There were 15 peo­ple in my group, and the bell tolled 15 times.

•••

To get a jump-start on the next cen­ten­nial, I squeezed up as close to the Mis­sis­sippi as pos­si­ble with­out fall­ing in.

“The river­front is the 21st cen­tury,” said Sean Cum­mings, a New Or­leans real es­tate de­vel­oper I had met last sum­mer in By­wa­ter, a neigh­bour­hood ben­e­fit­ing from his at­ten­tions.

I could tick off sev­eral of his projects from Cres­cent Park, the 1.6 km-long green space that opened in 2014 and goes with the flow of the Mis­sis­sippi. I fol­lowed the path from By­wa­ter, through the Marigny river­front and to the lower edge of the French Quar­ter — specif­i­cally, the takeout win­dow at Café du Monde.

To reach my chicory cof­fee, I had to climb up and over the rail­road tracks on the Pi­ety Street Bridge, the rain­bowarched over­pass cre­ated by David Ad­jaye, lead de­signer of the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture in Wash­ing­ton. I had to swing on the swings at Man­dev­ille Wharf. And I had to re­sist the temp­ta­tion — twice — to jump the fence and stick my toes in the sandy beach.

From the French Quar­ter, I cir­cum­vented Gov­er­nor Ni­cholls Street Wharf ter­mi­nal and jumped back on the river­side trail to Wold­en­berg River­front Park. Here, my al­le­giance to the tri­cen­ten­nial was re­warded with a gi­ant NOLA 300 sign. I cel­e­brated by div­ing into a 90-foot-long string of wa­ter spouts.

On a Sun­day af­ter­noon, I cy­cled to a Sec­ond Line pa­rade in Up­town. The brass band and ju­bi­lant rev­ellers pulled me into the cur­rent. For blocks, we com­manded the streets, forc­ing cars to wait or de­tour. I walked be­tween two men pulling a cooler filled with beer and a guy singing on a loop: “skip, hop, skip­pity, hop, hop.”

I looked up and spot­ted three wiry kids danc­ing on a con­struc­tion site. They reap­peared on the rooftop of a restau­rant. As we neared a ceme­tery, I watched them scram­ble onto the grave­stones and let loose. I couldn’t see him, but I sensed Bienville was groov­ing right along­side them.

AN­DREA SACHS THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At Cres­cent Park, part of New Or­leans’ river­front de­vel­op­ment, trail-users can pass a sliver of beach on the Mis­sis­sippi.

AN­DREA SACHS THE WASH­ING­TON POST

At the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion Mu­seum, about 70 km west of New Or­leans, sculp­tures of chil­dren born into slav­ery fill the An­ti­och Bap­tist Church, one of the stops on the guided tour.

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