A trip to Louisiana is about as close as you can get to leaving the United State without needing a passport. The food, the laws, the drink, the religion, the music – to say nothing of the language/dialects – are a mix of cultures that have somehow melded together, but remain distinct.
People celebrate their differences most distinctly during Mardi Gras, where different crews parade down the street in an ancient tradition that comes from somewhere deep in history.
I took a couple of walking tours in the French Quarter, one during the day that focused on architecture and history and a night outing that took us on a bloody tour of murder, deceit, hauntings and very alternative lifestyles.
How different is New Orleans? Well, if you’re a real estate agent in Fort Worth, how many of you put a “haunted” or “not haunted” sign below your “For Sale” or “For Lease” sign? It happens in the French Quarter and though some say it is only a marketing gimmick, some are pretty serious about it. Our nighttime guide told the story of a friend who rented a “haunted” property that was just blocks from her job on Bourbon Street. After a few nights in her new home, she was beset with creaking boards, voices, cold chills, items that moved by themselves and a few ghosts. Unable to sleep or even stay in the house, she asked out of her lease. Her landlord pointed to the sign saying she knew the place was haunted when she signed it. Not only does history come alive in the French Quarter, it still acts alive.
The French Quarter – also known as Vieux Carré – is an interesting place. Built during the time the city was under Spanish rule in the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, the area is both a tourist trap and a bustling business area. There are businesses that have been there, well, a long time. Café du Monde, which is French for “Café of the World”, is a coffee shop that has been there since 1862. And, judging by my visits, it’s still as popular as when it began serving brewed coffee brought in on ships coming into the Big Easy (New Orleans has lots of nicknames, a bit like Fort Worth). The lines were long. Does it serve the latest cuisine? Does it have new offerings every week? Nope, basically it serves the same thing it did when it opened during the Civil War: café au lait and French-style beignets with snowbanks of powdered sugar. Oh, and it’s open 24 hours.
Unlike most of the rest of laissez-faire, que sera sera New Orleans, the French Quarter is ruled with an iron fist. The Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) protects, preserves, and maintains the distinct architectural, historic character, and zoning integrity of the Vieux Carré. How powerful is it? According to our day tour guide, even the Catholic Church has to bend to its will. When the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral made a minor change to its rooftop, the VCC put its collective foot down; things returned to status quo.
While all that doesn’t sound like Fort Worth, we are making an attempt to do much of the same things in the Stockyards. It’s been tense at times. People are passionate about it and it’s not going to be easy. As recently as the late 1960s, many in New Orleans were considering major changes that would have irrevocably changed the French Quarter. Now the area has an estimated $251.4 million annual economic impact on New Orleans.
Who knows, maybe someday the Fort Worth Stockyards will be thought of the same way, a place where history is still alive?