Magazine Street: New Orleans' Home-Town 'Hoods
by Leon Schwarzbaum
Most tourists head for the French Quarter when visiting New Orleans. There, where "Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler" (Let The Good Times Roll) is the order of the day, visitors wine and dine in the confines of the original French settlement. On such famous streets as Rampart, Basin and Bourbon, they dig the jazz scene, sometimes in bars made notorious by jazz and blues composers.
But locals and visitors who want to savor the "home town" neighborhoods of the Big Easy, or Crescent City, as New Orleans is called by natives, head to Magazine Street. For six miles, parallel to the Mississippi River, uptown (upriver) from Canal Street at the edge of the French Quarter, to Audubon Park, Magazine Street evokes images of New York's East Village and Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue, as well as others.
Starting in the central business district (CBD), the Magazine Street bus takes passengers through the Warehouse Arts District, the Irish Channel, the Lower Garden District, the Garden District and Magazine Uptown. Knowledgeable diners know that, along the bus route, sit some of the city's best bars, cafes, restaurants, markets, bookstores, galleries and antique shops. And many of the most interesting and off-beat establishments.
The old abandoned riverside warehouses in the Warehouse Arts District were reclaimed following the 1984 World's Fair. Developers teamed with preservationists to create a new neighborhood. Studios, galleries, museums office space, auction rooms, apartments and condos now occupy the once-gloomy warehouses. Where at one time nothing moved in the streets at night, a mix of visitors and residents now keep the cafes and restaurants busy into the wee hours. Get off the bus (you can buy a day pass) and visit the Contemporary Arts Center and the Louisiana Children's Museum. TV chef Emeril Lagasse's signature eatery, Emeril, on Tchoupitoulas Street is joined by chef Daniel Bonnot's Bizou and Mike's on St. Charles Avenue, setting a high standard for the district's restaurants. New Yorkers have compared the WAD to their SoHo, but natives say, "Ours is better."
The Irish Channel community was settled by Irish and German immigrants in the 1860s. (The "Irish" Roman Catholic Church is across the street from the "German" Roman Catholic Church.) Located between Magazine Street and the river, the neighborhood residents today are primarily Hispanic and African-American. Although most of the visible signs of the former Hibernian founders remain, Parasol's Restaurant on Constance Street is the starting point of the annual St. Patrick's Day parade. The Channel still maintains a small-town ambiance.
The Garden District, created by wealthy society families, is still the home of the wealthy, as a walking tour of the streets lined with restored antebellum mansions will confirm. Claimed by many to be the most elegant of New Orleans' neighborhoods, it is home to some of the city's best-preserved antebellum mansions. Novelist Anne Rice lives in the district and has also converted the former St. Elizabeth's Orphanage into a showplace for her doll collection and a residence for members of her staff and family. One of the city's historic above-ground cemeteries, Lafayette No. 1, was established in 1833 at the intersection of Prytania Street and Washington Avenue. Across the street is Commander's Palace, arguably the city's restaurant showplace.
The Lower Garden District evokes New York's Greenwich Village and L.A.'s Melrose Avenue, as well as other hip venues, because the LGD has been called "the hippest neighborhood in all of America." Greek Revival mansions, some restored but others wearing their age with difficulty, line streets named Calliope (pronounced "CalYOOP") and Terpsichore (pronounced "TeypsiCORE").
You'll notice a change, beginning at Race Street (named, not for ethnic reasons, but for the turn of the century race track that no longer exists there) the street becomes, to locals, Magazine Uptown. For antique shoppers, Magazine Uptown is the closest place to Heaven one can reach while still alive. The finest contemporary art, photography, potters' creations, prints and general galleries share street frontage with a variety of food and drink purveyors. Knowledgeable Orleanians eat and drink at an assortment of fine restaurants, cafes, fast-food (po' boy shops, oyster bars, sno-ball stands - you name it and you'll find it) and markets (fish, delicatessen, health foods, fruits and vegetables, bakeries - again, you name it ...).
In Magazine Uptown, you'll find offbeat art, vintage clothing, open-air coffee shops and an assortment of shops offering goods and services usually found in such venues. Browsers are welcome, and many Orleanians spend a day or two each month looking for the rare glass plate or piece of porcelain they need to fill out a set. Try on a World War II jacket or a gown from the Fast Fifties. Sit in as collectors bid against each other, sometimes bagging a "steal" and other times overpaying, spurred on by the excitement of the action.
All along the way, you'll find restaurants serving such delicacies as "Onion-Mum" (an onion, pronounced, "ownYOWN", is cut into a rosette and fried to form a golden chrysanthemum) and boiled (pronounced "berled") crawfish. The latter, sometimes called "mudbugs" by local wags, are eaten by sucking out the tail meat and then, connoisseurs tell me, sucking out the heads. Fortunately, daiquiris of all flavors and intensity are popular and can lessen the tension of savoring a Louisiana treat.
Magazine Street ends at Audubon Park and Zoo. For a delightful end to the day, walk through the well-maintained park to St. Charles Avenue, and take the trolley back to Canal Street. You'll pass some of the finest Garden District homes, churches, synagogues and small shops. You will have had a day of sightseeing in parts of New Orleans most visitors miss - the real New Orleans.