Although my time as a French Quarter resident wasn’t the literary romance I’d hoped for, resulting in anything but a happy ending, I’m still glad I can say I lived in this quirky and historic neighborhood for a summer. A single season isn’t very long to gain an insider’s perspective, but I did learn a few things. Here are my Top Ten. (Disclaimer: Subject to change upon further reflection!)
1. THE FRENCH QUARTER IS A TEEMING RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD UNDER THE TOURIST VERNEER, BUT IT’S A DIFFICULT CLIQUE TO CRACK
Despite the millions of tourists who make a beeline for this 13-block expanse, the French Quarter is at its heart a residential neighborhood and its denizens constantly fight the city to keep it that way. Still, I didn’t meet a lot of my neighbors, and I get the feeling it takes longer to be accepted here than anywhere in the city. It’s a curious mix, too. There seems to be a polar split between wealthy owners of luxurious renovations with private garages and service workers and other low wage earners who don’t own a vehicle and bike or walk to work, the store, etc. If you work the bars and restaurants, its convenient to live there and stay put. The lack of parking and easy egress seems to keep away your average white collar worker, thus keeping down rents on the low end for anyone living outside the 9 to 5 work week.
2. IF THERE ARE HIDDEN GEMS IN THE FRENCH QUARTER, THEY’RE WELL HIDDEN
In my time there, I walked and biked every street in the French Quarter countless times, always searching for that mysterious, undiscovered spot. They don’t seem to exist. This small area is densely packed with curious tourists, so there seems to be few ‘best kept secrets’ in this part of town (though they abound elsewhere.) I’m sure there a few guarded secrets revealed to you once you make the right connections, but, as I said, I wasn’t there long enough to run with the ‘in crowd.’
3. COOP’S PLACE IS THE BEST DIVE IN THE FRENCH QUARTER
I’ve been told that Coop’s was once a hidden local gem, but apparently word got out, for the line stretches out the door most nights in this authentic and undeniable dive. Don’t come for the ambience or comfortable seating. But the jambalaya, red beans, friend chicken, and fried seafood po-boys are some of the best in the city. And it’s relatively cheap (though the cheapest po-boys will always be in gas stations, and you’re not a local until you’ve bought lunch or dinner with your diesel!)
4. CAFÉ ENVIE IS THE BEST COFFEE SHOP IN THE FRENCH QUARTER
There are quaint gift and antique shops and seedy bars with local color . . . and stench . . . on every French Quarter block. At least a half dozen dive bars lined the block where I lived alone. However, the coffee shops tend to be corporate, such as couple of Community Coffees, or tourist focused, such as Café Beignet. Café Envie is the one place that really fits the bill as a local haunt. The coffee is excellent, the atmosphere inviting, the staff friendly, and the food fresh and excellent. They are open late and serve alcohol, as do many Marigny and Bywater coffee houses, but it was work and wi-fi that lured me in—not because it was merely the best nearby option, but one of the best spots in the city. I will miss living a block and a half away.
5. PARKING ISN’T AS BAD AS WARNED . . . BUT DAMN CLOSE!
I was warned that French Quarter parking would be impossible to find, but that’s not true . . . entirely. You can find parking in the French Quarter, just not all the time. Of course, summer is off-season and I’m sure this gets worse in late winter and spring. I only had to park off site a couple of times, but this was because I learned to plan my parking carefully, which leads to the next point . . .
6. IF YOU DON’T PAY FOR A SPOT, YOUR LIFE WILL REVOLVE AROUND PARKING
This is not a park and forget it place. There is street cleaning twice a week, so you must be constantly aware of where you’re parked. I learned it was best to park on a ‘Tuesday’ street (Remember: Tuesday to the river and Thursday through the river) so I only had to worry Monday night or Tuesday morning. Even doing this, though, streets are poorly marked and regulations not always apparent, as I learned being towed in my first week, so I found myself biking past my truck to check it daily just in case I was inadvertently illegally parked. There are also spots you can park at night, but must move by morning, as slipped my mind my last week there, resulting in another tow.
But most of all, you have to plan when you leave and return. I believe this is why there is the juxtaposition of the wealthy and service workers. You either have enough money to own a space or not work, or you have a job you can walk to because you just can’t just expect to find a spot returning home at 5:30 every day. Early mornings and early in the week are good times to stray. Don’t expect to find a space at night until after midnight and don’t dare go anywhere on the weekend because every nook and cranny fills up.
Then there’s the city’s policy on resident parking, which is mind-boggling. During the day there is a two hour parking limit in resident spaces, which discourages but does not preclude non-permit parking. This is why early mornings and early in the week are best to run errands or visit another part of town–tourists are scarce. Yet visitors during the day don’t drink as much, and I’d rather have to park far away and walk during the daylight because of non-restricted parking, so why not lift restrictions then? Instead at night when everyone pours into the French Quarter to get tanked, the city lifts regulations and allows a parking free-for-all, encouraging visitors to drive in to drink, thereby forcing residents to park far from home and stumble around the French Quarter alone at night. In the dark. Brilliant!!!
7. THE FRENCH QUARTER NEVER SLEEPS
My constant parking worries forced me from sleep several times at five or six in the morning to relocate. As I passed those half dozen bars on my block, most were still rocking! As I pointed out before, it cracks me up that the one Wal-Mart in the metro areas closes at 10pm but many French Quarter bars and restaurants are open 24 hours!
8. ESCAPING THE FRENCH QUARTER EVERY COUPLE OF DAYS IS VITAL!
Like I said, the French Quarter never sleeps. There’s a constant kinetic energy that is both invigorating and draining, and there’s not much greenery to revive a battered psyche. Since you have to plan your driving carefully you best own a bike and hop on it ever couple of days to head Uptown or to one the major parks (City or Audubon) to breath deeply and let your blood pressure fall. Perhaps it’s just the country boy in me not ready for city living, but I read this tip on another blog before moving to the French Quarter. This lady compared it to living in the heart of Paris or Manhattan, and her advice to flee to green space frequently proved prophetic.
9. TOURISTS REALLY ARE OBLIVIOUS AND ANNOYING
I’ve always found it pretentious when people like me who love to travel hate on the tourists who visit their own cities. (I know, I know, you don’t travel like a tourist.) However, Bourbon Street’s very appeal is for people to act obnoxious and shed all inhibition, making a fool of themselves like they never would at home. Then, in oblivious irony, they run back and tell people how crazy New Orleanians are, projecting their own bad behavior onto the residents who avoid Bourbon like a plague.
That being said, the majority of tourists are fairly normal and respectful, but there’s a sizeable minority that are completely clueless and always swarming, so you have to constantly be on guard. I was amazed at how consistently people would walk in front of my truck or bike without even looking. It’s actually easier to hit the brakes to keep from killing them than to swerve your bike in time to avoid killing both of you. Yet it happened on nearly ever ride. I always tried to lightly clip them with my elbow just to send a message.
10. THINGS PASS INTO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN QUICKLY IN THE FRENCH QUARTER
In addition to living with Jake and being constantly bombarded with his twisted logic, I had a chance to talk to a few street dwellers and performers who lived partially by taking what they needed. None of them, though, self-identified as thieves and, in fact, enjoyed expounding on their moral rationalization. Like everyone else, they lived by rules of conduct. They just had a different since of time and abandonment. They would only took the bike that wasn’t chained up or was ‘abandoned’ overnight, because clearly the owner didn’t care. The laptop had to set unattended for a designated period before it was okay to lift it, so it’s okay to do a Number 1, but best skip the number two in a French Quarter coffee shop. Whereas things fall into public domain after months, years, or even decades elsewhere, it’s a matter of hours or minutes in the French Quarter. Unless it’s a wallet. Those are always fair game. I stumbled on two stripped of their contents in just three months.