The Highlight: New Orleans
March in a second line and take a bike tour of Tremé, the Marigny, Bywater and more.
Puttering past humble, Day-Glo–colored residences with boarded-up windows, our cabbie flashes us an incredulous look that says: “You want me to drop you off here?” It’s a bright Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, and my wife, Jen, and I are in the “back of town” section of the Upper Ninth Ward, a mostly African-American working-class neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter. Tourists don’t typically venture to this area; yet here we are, searching for a parade.
In the distance, I hear a brass band. We find a street named Desire, whose long-abandoned streetcar was immortalized by Tennessee Williams, and are engulfed by several hundred people marching, Pied Piper–like, behind teenagers wailing on trombones and tubas. Dudes wearing red-and-yellow suits that look like Ronald McDonald’s formalwear dance freestyle to the funky beat. Our heads bounce almost involuntarily as we walk lockstep with strangers, sharing the pure joy of music played loud and proud and in the streets.
During Mardi Gras jaunts in college, the only parades I saw involved Bourbon Street, beads and bare chests. But it’s these homespun gatherings, called second lines, that truly define the Big Easy’s love of a good time. Rooted in jazz funeral traditions and hosted by groups known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, their life-affirming energy demonstrates that, in the real corners of this battered city, rebuilding happens one celebration at a time.
The key to finding a second line is to score a “route sheet.” Ask your hotel’s doorman, or book a bike tour with Confederacy of Cruisers, an operator that spotlights the city’s lesser-traveled ’hoods, and ask your guide. Ours, Jeff, was in the know. Our Friday ride covered only six miles over three hours, but for those interested in history, it’s a workout. After pedaling among the bohemian cafés of the Marigny, a former French-Creole stronghold, and fueling up with spicy Bloody Marys garnished with pickled okra from a charming dive bar called Marie’s, we ended the tour in Tremé, a neighborhood that in pre–Civil War days boasted the nation’s largest population of free people of color. Unlike the rest of the South, slaves in New Orleans could earn money to buy their freedom, and were allowed to sing, dance and play music out in the open.
This direct lineage to African music and traditions is what gives the city’s parade culture its vibrancy, Jeff explained. It’s a vibe we experience firsthand as we continue along the parade route. With each passing block, more people pour from their homes to join the party. White folks like us are in the minority, but we’re welcomed with open arms as we strut onward, heading west on St. Claude Street, where the crowd lingers in front of a ramshackle beauty salon. I buy a Red Stripe from a guy in a Saints jersey and toast the parade queen, a large lady in a massive red and orange–plumed headdress. Perched on a yellow stage, she waves to the masses. Just like her hometown, she’s holding her head up high.
Get there United flies nonstop from O’Hare to New Orleans this spring for about $350. Confederacy of Cruisers’ “Original Creole New Orleans Bicycle Tour” is $45 per person (reserve ahead).
Writer’s trip and airfare assisted by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
More to do
Where to hear music
Head to rollicking Frenchmen Street for the gritty Spotted Cat, a cool spot where bands play everything from traditional jazz to blues to swing.
Where to stay
The Royal Sonesta has a convenient French Quarter address, a top-notch jazz club from celebrated trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and, coming this spring, Rick Tramonto’s Restaurant R’evolution. Deluxe king rooms are $119–$339/night.