What It's Like to Live in New Orleans
Indulge in the rich history of the Creole culture and find out why locals love the Big Easy.Don't be surprised if you hear people describe New Orleans as a "Northern Caribbean city" rather than a "Southern United States city." That's because the inherent culture of La Nouvelle Orleans has its earliest roots in French culture. The city was founded in 1718 by explorers Iberville and Bienville, overlain by Spanish and then modified by infusions of residents from the Caribbean Isles, all before the Americans took over in 1803. And it's why many first-time visitors — and year-round inhabitants — say New Orleans feels more like Europe than the USA.
Known as "The City that Care Forgot," "The Crescent City," "America's Most Interesting City," and, of course, "The Big Easy," New Orleans offers a lifestyle that is worlds apart from the hustle and bustle of most metropolitan areas. Situated amidst Lake Pontchartrain on the north, the Mississippi River on the south and wetlands all around, the city is a bit of an island itself, a factor that has allowed local traditions to grow and develop during the past centuries so that New Orleans has a quirky character all its own.
Part of the culture is reflected in the food, known around the world for its interesting spices and seafood base. From the haute cuisine of the fine French restaurants to earthy fried oyster po'-boys at neighborhood restaurants, the cuisine reflects the diversity and eccentricities of this port city.
The same holds true with the architecture. In the oldest neighborhoods, there are early examples of French and Spanish masonry buildings, intermingled with newer additions including the iconic "shotgun house," houses designed to fit on the city's narrow, deep lots. From the cast-iron filigree of the French Quarter to the Greek revival stateliness of the Garden District and frilly Eastlake double shotguns of Faubourg St. John, the wonderful variety and volume of historic houses make the streetscapes of New Orleans a distinctive and colorful backdrop for everyday life.
And of course, there's the music. Though New Orleans jazz and its early masters are universally known, now the brass bands are getting their due, thanks to the media. Mardi Gras Indians — brightly costumed African-American clubs that parade on foot on Mardi Gras day and "Super Sunday" — have their own beat, as do rappers like Lil Wayne and Mystikal, both New Orleans products. Like the food and the architecture, the music of New Orleans reflects the rich heritage of the city.
So what's it really like to live in New Orleans? Read on to learn more.
French culture is deeply rooted in New Orleans, giving the city a very European feel.
On the Grid. Unlike many historic cities with a wandering street grid (think old Boston), New Orleans has a straightforward street grid that makes it easy to get around — as long as you take into account the curve of the river. That's because the "east-west" thoroughfares follow the shape of the river, curving north or south depending on the giant loops formed by the river thousands of years ago. For that reason, New Orleanians rarely, if ever, refer to points of the compass but use uptown (upriver), downtown (downriver), lake and river instead. For instance, they'll say something like, "My house is on the Uptown, lake corner of St. Charles and Arabella," referring roughly to the northwest corner of the intersection. Or they might say, "I live on the downtown, river corner of Burgundy and Louisa," referring generally to the southeast corner.
Not What It Seems. Perhaps the biggest challenge to getting around the city is learning the idiosyncratic pronunciations the locals use. Burgundy Street isn't pronounced "BER-gun-dee" but "ber-GUN-dee." Reynes Street isn't "RAYNZ" but "ray-NEZ." In the Lower Garden District, some streets are named for Greek muses and their pronunciations are ever debated. More commonly though, Calliope is "kal-ee-OPE" instead of "kuh-LIE-o-pee," and Melpomene is "MEL-po-mean" instead of "mel-POM-uh-nee." The toughest to say AND spell might be Tchoupitoulas — just say "chop-uh-TOO-lus."
A Walkable City. Thanks to the tightly woven fabric of New Orleans neighborhoods, it's easy to live in a house where restaurants, dry cleaners, groceries, banks and pharmacies are just a few blocks away. There is even an Uptown neighborhood with its own single screen movie theater!
Parks and playgrounds dot the landscape, so parents of young children can often push a stroller from their front doors to a suitable recreation spot for their children. And walking, of course, is the best way to get to know your neighbors, appreciate the built environment and cut down on greenhouse gases. Thankfully, the terrain is almost totally flat (New Orleans is in a river delta, after all) so huffing and puffing up or down hill is not required.
Cycling. Thanks to flatness of the land (there is not more than 20 feet of vertical change from the lowest spots to the highest in the city), New Orleans provides an ideal environment for cyclists. Plenty of New Orleanians commute to work on bikes and their ranks are growing, thanks to the construction of bike lanes on many major thoroughfares. In fact, the New Orleans Cycling Coalition has mapped the city's streets and graded them according to their ridability.
The terrain is equally friendly for those who cycle for recreation rather than transportation. Atop the levee along the Mississippi, a cycle path extends for miles from Audubon Park in Uptown New Orleans to upriver communities. There is a cycling path in the St. Charles Avenue section of Audubon Park (with a lane for walkers, skaters and strollers adjacent) plus miles of roads for cycling in City Park, a 500+ acre urban forest near Lake Pontchartrain.
The Streetcar and More Options. There's no question, New Orleans' historic streetcars are picturesque. But they aren't just a novelty. Many New Orleanians use the St. Charles, Carrollton and Canal Street lines to get to work everyday or get from point A to point B. Soon these lines will be joined by new routes along St. Claude Avenue (heading down river) and Loyola Avenue (connecting the train and bus stations to the main business district). Red streetcars along the riverfront help weekend throngs migrate from the Warehouse District to Faubourg Marigny without burning shoe leather.
Although the bus fleet was impacted by flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina, bus routes still serve core city neighborhoods and provide on-demand service in those that are more far-flung.The east-west throughfares follow the shape of the river which makes it easy to get around the city, no matter what type of transportation you use.
OWNING A HOME
New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, so no matter what your lifestyle preferences, there's likely a neighborhood that will suit your budget and tastes.
Neighborhoods. After the French sold the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803, Americans overran the original city and built fine homes on large lots in areas like the Garden District. Creoles, meanwhile, concentrated their mansions along Esplanade Avenue, in an historic district now known as Esplanade Ridge.
Later in the 19th century, Irish, German and Italian immigrants joined the mix, many of them seeking new opportunities working on the docks or building important civic structures like the New Basin Canal. Rental housing — in the form of double shotgun houses — was constructed for them in areas like the Irish Channel and Central City.
As the technology for draining swampy lands improved in the very early years of the 20th century, the city expanded into areas once deemed uninhabitable. Mid-City and Broadmoor are two neighborhoods built on drained land and feature Arts and Crafts bungalows as well as homes built in revival styles including Colonial, Mediterranean, and neoclassical.
Builders took full advantage of the high ground on the natural levee of the Mississippi River and, when they ran out of space, sought out ridges formed by defunct bayous. Thus, the Gentilly Terrace and Gardens development arose along the Gentilly Ridge in the 1920s, featuring Pasadena-style Craftsman bungalows and — a first — garages to accommodate automobiles.
Drainage and infill of the swamp bordering Lake Pontchartrain in the 1940s gave rise to communities like Lakeview, Lake Vista and Lakeshore east and west. By the 1960s, when suburban living became popular nationwide, New Orleans East developed, a community within the city limits that features brick ranch houses with tidy lawns. Beginning in the 1990s, warehouses and commercial buildings — no longer needed for their original purposes — began to be converted into condominiums, offering still more variety in housing options in the city's Warehouse District and Central Business District.
Today, homes with a pronounced contemporary edge are joining the mix and feature energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and sustainable design. In Holy Cross in the Lower Ninth ward, the international non-profit Global Green has built such homes and Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" foundation has built a village of cutting edge contemporary homes a mile or so to the north.
The Market. Predictably, location determines what a buyer can expect to pay for a home. The French Quarter, Garden District and Uptown near Audubon Park command the highest prices. But buys can be had in neighborhoods like Gentilly, Lakeview, the Irish Channel, Mid-City, Carrollton and more. A favorite find is a double shotgun in fair condition — buyers like to convert them into single family residences with sparkling new kitchens and baths while retaining their Old-World charm.
Except in the highest dollar neighborhoods, it's rare to find a large yard when shopping for a house. Most homes in the city's 18 historic districts occupy lots just wide enough to accommodate the house — about 30 feet-wide by 125 feet-deep. But in newer areas like Lakeview and Gentilly, lots are easily twice as wide, affording opportunities for off-street parking, a garden and outdoor recreation area.
Going green. Gardens, even a small patch in the front yard, are plentiful in the city, thanks to the fact that the climate lends itself to near year-round gardening. Camellias and Japanese magnolias in the winter, azaleas and jasmine in the spring, Southern magnolias in the summer, and roses throughout the year add visual interest and fragrance to every neighborhood. Tropicals and semi-tropicals abound, including Birds of Paradise, butterfly ginger, bananas, palms and elephant ears.
The downside to the hospitable growing conditions is that it can be a chore to control an overly enthusiastic garden, much less the weeds that take full advantage of the relative warmth and humidity of the environment. Come August, when temperatures and humidity climb to the mid-90s daily, no one wants to be weeding or pinching back annuals and perennials. Some locals simply remove heat-stressed annuals and mulch the beds, awaiting cooler weather in early October.New Orleans is made up of many different neighborhoods, making it easy to find a spot that fits your particular lifestyle.