My husband, Peter, and I were in New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival, but we wanted to do more than listen to big brass bands. Like many of the people slowly returning to the city, we had to pay our respects to the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We weren't thrilled about taking one of the many new van tours that are popular with tourists, and it just didn't feel right to hail a cab and say, "Show us the worst of the Lower Ninth Ward!" Instead, we decided to bike around the two-square-mile district--and it turned out to be the perfect way to explore.
At Bicycle Michael's, near the eastern edge of the French Quarter, we rented city hybrids with sturdy, fat tires (essential for navigating the potholed streets) for $20 each. From there, it was a 10-minute ride to the Bywater, a community of artists in the Upper Ninth Ward where flowering magnolia branches hang low over the sidewalks and colorful cottages still bear the spray-painted codes left by search-and-rescue teams. On Dauphine Street, we browsed racks of vintage umbrellas at The Bargain Center; then we had the delicious praline bacon at Elizabeth's, a restaurant now run by insurance adjuster Jim Harp.
The Lower Nine is just over the Industrial Canal from the Bywater, which required us to carry our bikes up to the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. The contrast between the Bywater and the Lower Nine was stark. Above Claiborne Avenue is the breach in the canal, and the flood's path is still marked by a swath of rubble that fans out from the levee. "It's as if someone tipped over a Monopoly board," said Peter.
We biked south, following the dike along the Mississippi River. Aside from a few people who greeted us with polite nods, the streets were desolate as we pedaled past FEMA trailers on our way to City Park, its 1,300 acres brought back to order by volunteers who've dubbed themselves the Mow-Rons. On Hagan Avenue, the 85-year-old Parkway Bakery & Tavern also made a quick comeback, thanks to an electrician who needed his shrimp-and-oyster po'boy fix.
In Central City, we watched as a second-line parade organized by a neighborhood social club streamed by. The street was packed with trumpeters, dancers, and vendors pulling wheeled barbecues. It was an encouraging sign for a city that likely will be rebuilding for many years to come.