On my first trip to New Orleans, eight years ago, I bought a new pair of sneakers. By the end of a week I had danced in the streets so much I’d worn holes through the bottoms of each of them, straight through to my socks. That, more than Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest or oak trees or gumbo, is my indelible image of the city: The only place in the world where I’ve had such a good time that the shoes melted right off my feet.
I’m not a kismet kind of person, but recently I found those sneakers again, on the eve of a trip back to New Orleans that is the start of a complete 180-degree turn in my life. I had just gotten my dream job as the lucky writer who gets to spend the next year traveling to every destination on The New York Times’s annual 52 Places to Go list — and New Orleans happened to be both No. 1 on the list and the first stop of the trip. It’s a thrilling opportunity, and I’ve been a wreck. I had to quit my job as staff writer at New York Magazine, where I’ve worked since college; box up my entire apartment; and pack for a year on the road.
I’m pretty sure I was crying when I found those sneakers, because I cried a lot that week. And yet I felt calmer than I had in months. Amid the chaos, it was as if a welcoming committee from the very city where I was starting this adventure had arrived in my living room and handed me a Sazerac: “You got this, girl.”
Tourists can get a bad rap among locals, but we have history with the places we go to and love, too. I’ve spent maybe two months, cumulatively, exploring New Orleans. When I landed at the airport for this most recent visit, I already had a hotel that felt like home (The Columns), a least-favorite popular food (sorry, po’ boy fans), a local institution I recommend to all new visitors (Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé) and a favorite leather bar in the French Quarter for getting a cheap 11 a.m. to-go Bloody Mary (Rawhide2010 — though the graphic SM playing on the TV screens at all times probably isn’t for everyone).
My view of the city is in no way a comprehensive one, but it was molded by my tastes (and by the Anne Rice-loving friend from Brooklyn who introduced me to the city). That’s something that the obsessive reporter in me is going to have to come to terms with, as does any traveler to some degree: Try to do everything and you’ll wind up missing the most magical parts of being far from home.
“New Orleans is a feeling,” Angelika Joseph, a singer for the city’s only all-female brass band, The Pinettes, told me while chilling on a sidewalk after a show. “It’s your grandmother’s cooking,” Ms. Joseph, who is known as Jelly, went on. “It’s music, it’s fun, it’s food, it’s partying, it’s a parade all the time.”
That feeling turns 300 this year, which marks the anniversary of when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded the French Quarter. From the sense I got on the ground, though, the tricentennial ranks pretty far below Mardi Gras as a thing the city is excited about. Already on St. Charles Avenue, where I was staying, ladders were set up for the purpose of viewing parades that were two weeks out, and strings of beads from years past were dripping off every oak tree like moss. “We’re so cool, even our trees have bling,” I overheard someone say.
Many people I talked to didn’t even know the 300th was happening. “Should I be excited about it? I guess I’m part of this 300 years celebration in that I was born and raised here, and I’m 54, so of that 300 years I’ve got half a century,” said Curtis Walker, an Uber driver who loves music and recommends the late-night club Seal’s Class Act. “I mean, I’m not getting no money from it. But maybe I’ll get a lot of rides.”
Still, 300 years is a significant milestone for a city that often seems to be at risk of sinking into the sea. That it was so very nearly lost 12 years ago during Hurricane Katrina — or that there’s another one coming — is not lost on residents, who defend their home turf with fierce pride. I experienced that pride a bit when I wrote something offhand on Twitter about how locals were ending conversations by telling me to “be safe,” and that I got the impression that no one walked around after dark. It was a badly worded tweet, though not entirely off base. People were indeed telling me to be safe. New Orleans has a notorious violent crime rate, one that predominantly affects black men, but that sometimes spills over to tourists and residents. (Solo women travelers, as always, should exercise extra caution, no matter the outcry of locals.)
But the city also has, I’ve learned, a very forgiving spirit. The same people who sent me angry messages had turned warm within minutes. One woman I met at the Pinettes show, Renee Lapeyrolerie, wrote me, “Badly worded, not a crime, just a sin lol enjoy the rest of your stay,” and then advised me to put my phone in a Ziploc bag in case it rained.
The city is certainly in the midst of a post-Katrina upswing, with plenty of new dining and drinking spots (the St. Roch food market, Latitude 29, for instance), but there are still boarded-up houses in many neighborhoods and a kind of lingering sadness about the hurricane’s most lasting impact, which was a loss of community. Almost every New Orleans native I met told me about friends and family who fled flooded homes and have yet to be able to return.
Among residents’ other regular complaints are the roads, which often seem to be more pothole than concrete, and the water quality, which had much of the city on a “boil water” advisory (including for bathing) due to frozen pipes just days before I arrived. At the satirical Krewe du Vieux, the first major parade of Mardi Gras season, most floats were rebukes of the Sewerage Water Board, whose failure to maintain drainage pumps resulted in damaging floods this summer. (Other targets were President Trump and the celebrity chef John Besh, who stepped down from his local restaurant empire in the wake of sexual misconduct accusations.)
What is thriving is the arts scene. There are, of course, world-class art museums, the slavery-themed Whitney Plantation Museum, and the international arts fair Prospect 4 (which ends on Feb. 25), not to mention the wig artists at Fifi Mahony’s in the Quarter. But it’s school-level performing arts where the most exciting work is taking place. I got a chance to visit ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, a public arts magnet middle school in the Garden District, as their marching band got ready for Mardi Gras. They were as impressive as any professional musicians you’ll find on Frenchman Street. “A lot of these kids, their parents weren’t in a band because of the migration to other states,” said Tenell Moore, the band director. “So we’re building new ‘bandheads,’ what we refer to them in New Orleans. We’re pushing hard to get it back.”
It’s working. Out in the Seventh Ward at a booming local spot called Bullet’s Sports Bar, with no other businesses in sight, the Pinettes played to a packed Friday night house that included the New Orleans funk legend Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John. “My friend said, ‘Come out and hang out with some sisters,’ and I couldn’t believe how many white people are here. I was like, ‘I’m going home!’” he said. “Forget it, the Pinettes are the real deal. Overlooked way too long in New Orleans, maybe because they’re women.”
The group was formed at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-female high school, and in 2013 won the Street Kings brass band competition. (Event organizers had to take a marker and cross out “Kings” and write in “Queens.”) Natasha Harris, the saxophonist, told me that none of them are full-time musicians: “We all have families, we all have jobs, we’re college-educated women, but we do this because it’s our passion.” They often have to perform without their full roster because there aren’t enough women instrumentalists around to act as substitutes for members who can’t make certain gigs. “Our hope,” Ms. Harris said, “is that middle school girls will come up and continue their passion, or that women will see us and realize it’s never too late. Pick that horn back up, keep it going.”
Elsewhere, on St. Claude Avenue, I met another group of women at a nonprofit called Dancing Grounds who are trying to spread the empowering message of twerking. Jazz Johnson, who teaches a class called Twerk Party, moved back after years of dancing professionally in New York City, because she wanted be a corrective for a school system that stopped nurturing the arts after Katrina. “The kids, a lot of the ones I work with, they’re failing and all they keep doing is drilling them and giving them tests,” she said. “You take out the arts, it’s like, where’s the passion?”
The city’s true currency, though, will always be its people, and while this may sound like lazy reporting, I found no better way to meet New Orleans natives than by riding in Lyfts and Ubers. In a predominantly service economy, ride sharing has become one of the most desirable jobs. “When Uber came to town, I fell in love with it,” Curtis Walker said. He had worked as a cook in a hospital (the city’s other thriving industry) and after a week of driving had doubled his take home pay. He quit immediately.
In contrast to New York, every person I said hello to on the street not only said hello back, but also stopped and wanted to talk for a while: “All right, Miss Jada. Be safe.” One evening, walking in the Garden District, I happened upon George Kapowich, a white retired college professor, having a chat on his porch with Alfred W. Wesley, Jr., a black retired gardener who used to work for him. “One of the things that every newcomer says when they come here is, ‘Everybody talks to everybody here,” Mr. Kapowich said. “Race, age — none of that matters.”
“True dat!” Mr. Wesley said. “You’ve been knowing me 35 years. Serious!”
Another day, I went to the historically black neighborhood of Tremé and came upon Marion Colbert sitting on a bench by her door. Known as Miss Mary, she turns 90 in July and told me that every year the neighborhood throws her a birthday party in the street. “I can’t walk like I did no more. I got diabetes, arthritis and glaucoma, but I’m happy,” she said. “I can still see and talk to people. I don’t need millions.” Every once in a while, she would call out, “You have a nice day, honey,” to whomever happened to be passing by.
“Thank you, have a beautiful day,” one woman replied.
“Oh, it is,” Ms. Colbert replied.
The night of Krewe du Vieux, I got to take one of my Lyft drivers, Michael J. Hill, to an after-party at The Pearl, a kitschy underground event space in the Marigny district filled with all manner of odd objects, including a sculpture of a full-size ostrich. Mr. Hill, who “just made 50,” as he put it, is a traveling barber when he’s not driving share rides, and wanted to pick me up on his tandem bicycle, until it got two flats on the way to the parade. He walked into the party and made quick friends with a woman wearing nothing but a clear shower curtain and a thong, plus other costumed folk, almost all of whom were white. “You’re learning about New Orleans,” he told me. “I’m learning about this for the first time!” Then he had to go home, because the next day was Sunday and he’s a church elder.
Right before I left for New Orleans, my father, a Chinese scientist who lives in New Mexico, where I grew up, emailed me scanned pages from a guidebook called “Roadfood” by Jane and Michael Stern. It included definitions of terms like jambalaya and étoufeé, just in case I didn’t know what they were. It was a very “my dad” kind of thing to do. My whole life, he’s listened to zydeco music and tried to perfect cooking catfish. He introduced me to the 1986 thriller, “The Big Easy,” when I was far too young for it. This month, he told me he’s never been to New Orleans, which broke my heart. He works hard, has rarely had a vacation longer than 10 days, and just never made the time. My new dream is to take him once my crazy year is complete.
I won’t be bringing those sneakers, though. I threw them out.
Jada Yuan is the 52 Places Traveler columnist, traveling to each and every place on our 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. Her next stop will be Chattanooga, Tenn. Follow her trip at nytimes.com/column/the-52-places-traveler.
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