Monday, July 08, 2013

New Orleans Adventure: Into The Ninth Ward

Our third full day in New Orleans only have one event planned, a bicycle tour of the lower ninth ward.  We walked the eight or nine blocks to a park where we met up with a guide from Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours.

There were a total of four of us and a guide.  The bikes were the old pedal-backward-to-brake kind with large tires.  The bikes reminded all of us of our childhood as most of our childhood bikes braked this way.  We started by pedaling around the park to familiarize ourselves with the bikes.  The large tires made the steering a little squishy and I weaved around like a drunk until I got the feel of it.  Not being able to back pedal made it a bit hard to get started and there were no gears to make the riding easier.  Fortunately our tour would be relatively flat and the skies were overcast so it wasn't too hot.

We followed the guide down mostly residential streets.  The rules, as he explained to us, was to pretty much ignore most stoplights and stop signs as long as it was safe to cross.  This struck us a little odd but it did make staying together a little easier.  Along the way we briefly rode on Desire street, inspiration for Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire".  Another stop was to see the markings left on houses by search and rescue teams after Katrina.  Some of these markings are being repainted as a combination protest and memorial to those lost during Katrina.

The ninth ward is divided by a canal.  We crossed a drawbridge to get to the lower part of the ninth ward and rode on a levee along the Mississippi river for a while until it was time to ride into the streets of the ward.  Our co-tour people were Canadians who had been told by their hotel concierge that they absolutely should not go to the ninth ward.  People would chase you, rob you, and hurt you.  She even refused to make a reservation for them so they made it themselves.    Our guide found this mystifying and, after our tour, I am mystified too.  Our ride was quiet, peaceful, and felt very safe.  Everyone we saw either ignored us or, more often, waved.  We were not chased, robbed, hurt, or harassed in any way.
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River Boat's Captain's House seen from Mississippi river levee.
There was only one incident during the entire ride.  The bikes we were riding, as I've mentioned before, were sometimes hard to get started.  At one point, as we all tried to get started, the Wife ran into a parked car.  The car was fine.  The Wife's leg was bruised as was her ego.

The destruction we saw after Katrina was no longer visible.  The only thing that remains are overgrown vacant lots where flood houses and businesses had once stood.  The guide pointed out that before Katrina there were few, if any, vacant lots in the lower ninth.  Now there are many (This picture shows the destruction - Red areas are now vacant lots).

We stopped for lunch at a local sandwich shop run by a vietnamese family.  New Orleans and Louisiana have a large Vietnamese population who had been invited over by churches.  I ordered a pulled pork Po-Boy which is basically a pork sub sandwich.  We took our food to go (our bicycles had baskets naturally) and we rode a few blocks to the house of Ronald Lewis and his backyard museum the House of Dance and Feathers.  We ate our lunch on the picnic tables outside the museum while we waited for Mr. Lewis.

Ronald Lewis is a member of a Mardi Gras Krewe.  A Krewe is a social club that puts on events and Mardi Gras parades.  He runs a small museum displaying handmade costumes and awards he and his krewe have won.  He told us stories about Mardi Gras and how his organization works.  He answered our questions and I think we probably could have spent all day talking with this fascinating man.  We all donated to the tiny museum and bought a copy of his book ("The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum").
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Hand bead work on Mardi Gras costume.
The next stop on our bike tour was Fats Domino's home followed by a ride through the streets to see all the vacant lots.  This last part really gave you a sense of just how much was lost after katrina.  Our tour of the ward ended with the new houses being built by Brad Pitt's organization.  They are a bit controversial as they are so modern and don't quite fit in with the old architecture of the ward.  I liked them.  They were raised off the ground to protect against flooding.  They all had solar panels to provide electricity in emergencies.  They collected rainwater for later use.  Most importantly, they were all different.  Each painted a different bright and happy color.  It would have been so easy to build a bunch of identical square cookie cutter boxes on stilts.  These all had character and, in a few years, I think they will fit right in once people have added personal touches.  It's also nice that they are only sold to former residents of the lower ninth.  They are not trying to bring new people in but to revive those who are already there.  They also have contracts that prevent short term flipping of homes.
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Brad Pitt's New Homes.
Drinking in New Orleans is ... common.  Many bars had sidewalk walk-up windows where you could buy drinks.  Walking around with a glass of beer, or something stronger, was not a rare sight ... at any time of the day.  With this drinking culture in mind, our last bike tour stop was, naturally, a neighborhood bar where we relaxed and had drinks.  There was a slightly drunk patron in the bar who, after hearing our guide telling us about the history of the area, decided he needed to fill in a few details while he played video poker.  He was entertaining and his language was ... colorful.  Our guide said that riding your bike with a glass of beer was encouraged though only he actually biked home with a beer in his hand.

The bike tour, which was supposed to be four hours ended up being five and well worth the money and time.  I would encourage everyone to do it the next time they are in New Orleans.  Part of the tour fee is donated to lower ninth ward charities.

The day ended with another good meal (blackened chicken on a bed of pasta alfredo) and me wandering around a little bit taking more pictures.

Pictures of the third full day in New Orleans can be found in my New Orleans 2013 Flickr Set.

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