The City of New Orleans used to promote Mardi Gras with the slogan "The greatest free show on earth." They meant that it was free to watch all of the parades and costumes and fun on the streets of the Quarter but somehow the phrase took on other implications. The city quietly parted with the campaign.
The streets of New Orleans are still full of cheap thrills - but of the inexpensive variety. One of the enduring charms of the French Quarter is that there's always something fun or eccentric happening on the streets. Summer is a perfect time to enjoy some of the city's inexpensive diversions and some of the more incidental ones as well.
Year-round, the central hub for people watching is Jackson Square. The slate walkways around the square are full of street performers, artists and tarot readers. In front of the St. Louis Cathedral you'll find a cluster of street musicians. The group near the corner of Chartres and St. Peter streets is one of the few spots in the city dedicated to traditional jazz. While clearly not the best dressed band in the city, the ad hoc group is a regular spot for some of the brass band players and traditional jazz musicians who spend their nights playing in clubs a few blocks over. They "daylight" at the Square.
Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen is a steady presence. At night he is a regular at Preservation Hall and around town with his brass band Tuba Fats and the Chosen Few. He is a veteran of Danny Barker's Fairview Baptist Church brass band, which spawned a renaissance of brass band music in the early '70s. Lacen likes playing the Square because they stick to the traditional music that tourists recognize and expect to hear. The Square is now a place where young brass band musicians learn the hymns and dirges that make up the repertoire of old-style brass band music.
For a quieter diversion, Royal Street is one of the Quarter's more beautiful promenades. Closed to automobiles during the day, the street is lined with many of the city's most established antique galleries. Some have operated as family businesses for more than a century. Royal Street is also home to many fine art galleries, from the color splashes of George Rodrigue's Blue Dog to a host of contemporary artists from Russia to Latin America and the works of 18th, 19th and 20th century European painters.
In the center of Royal Street, the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St., 523-4662) offers a free gallery with features on New Orleans' history, generally drawn from the collections of Kemper and Leila Williams. The current show, running through June 15th, features the history of the early untamed colony.
The Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the French Quarter. One of the next oldest is the West Indies plantation-style home now called Madame John's Legacy. Most of the city's buildings were destroyed in fires in either 1788 or 1794. Madame John's was mostly destroyed in 1788 but the brick foundation survived. Throughout the rest of the Quarter, homes were rebuilt in Spanish architectural styles (because the Spanish ruled the colony from 1763-1803). The owners of Madame John's chose to rebuild from the original plans.
Madame John's (632 Dumaine St., 568-6968) is now home to dual exhibits from the Louisiana State Museum. One concerns the building itself. Upstairs in the home, the museum features a collection of Southern folk art donated by noted collectors Dr. Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen. The show is a small collection of the biggest names in Southern, self-taught, outsider art from Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Howard Finster, Bill Traylor and Clementine Hunter to New Orleans' own Sister Gertrude Morgan. Museum admission is just $3 for adults and $2 for children, seniors and active military.
There are a couple of fun and cheap ways to venture outside of the Quarter. The free ferry at the base of Canal Street shuttles back and forth to the historic area of Algiers Point. While many commute on the ferry, it's the most quick and affordable way to take a little spin on the Mississippi. A round trip, up on deck or just above the muddy currents of the river, offers a refreshingly breezy tour of the harbor and views of the riverfront from the Aquarium to the cathedral spires.
Not technically neighborhoods, but revered as small cities are New Orleans' cemeteries. Built above ground, the tombs are architectural treasures, predominantly in Greek and classical revival styles. For families who could not afford lavish tombs, there were the walled vaults in the style of an outdoor mausoleum. Some of the more accessible cemeteries are the St. Louis Cemeteries. The entrance to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 lies just outside the French Quarter and is open to the public. It is home to voodoo queen Marie Laveau's tomb, which is easily spotted due to the unfortunate vandalism of hucksters telling tourists that leaving an "X" on the tomb is good luck. That's a gimmick with no relation to voodoo.
To get out of the Quarter and see Uptown, the streetcar is a good option. The St. Charles Avenue line is the oldest surviving line. Built in 1835, it connected the city to the surrounding neighborhoods and the town of Carrollton, which have long since been incorporated into the city. Now the 13-mile line offers a rumbling trip through the Central Business District and arts district, around Lee Circle, past the Garden District and up to Audubon Park and the university communities of Tulane and Loyola. The avenue is lined by lush greenery and the beautiful mansions built by the fortunes of cotton and trade on the river.
Take the streetcar up to Audubon Park and walk to the zoo or riverfront or stay on the streetcar as it follows St. Charles Avenue to the shops and restaurants along Carrollton. The streetcar costs $1.25 (each way) and exact change is required.
New Orleans is also home to one of the nation's largest urban parks. The 1,500-acre City Park is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Botanical Gardens, Tad Gormley Stadium, a golf course and other attractions. The sculptures of WPA artists and one of the world's largest collections of majestic live oaks, many several centuries in age, are spread throughout the grounds. Just off the City Park Avenue entrances are several attractions for families. There are paddleboats in the lagoon, an ice cream shop in the nearby Timken Center and then there is Storyland and the mini-amusement center. Tickets for rides and for the antique carousel are a couple of dollars.
For more adult distractions, everyone should venture a stroll down Bourbon Street. When the lights come on in early evening the street starts to bustle with all of its gritty charms. College kids in boas and beads walk next to conventioneers with their tote bags and mix with the musicians and performers from some of the more exotic establishments. Barkers offer both the most blunt and sometimes the most veiled enticements.
Bourbon Street earned its reputation from burlesque houses and the legacy of old jazz musicians who sometimes made a living playing for the strippers. Most Bourbon Street addresses now feature live music and more conventional dancing. But if nothing else, the street's mystique gives it the feeling that anything could happen. And it's all free, at least because it would be hard to put a price on it.