This was my first time in the city and one of the biggest standouts from our stay was that everyone has a Katrina story (and a Rita story, and a Gustav story, etc…). The cab driver, the restaurateur, the microbiologist…everyone was affected in different ways by the hurricane. To ignore this aspect of the city’s recent history would be a disservice to your trip, and I believe disrespectful to the people still working on rebuilding their lives 5+ years later.
Before I booked our trip, I wanted to find a way to visit the hardest hit area of the city, the Ninth Ward, without participating in “disaster tourism.” I came across the Ninth Ward Rebirth bike tours through Confederacy Cruisers and arranged a tour with Lycia, the delightful tour operator.
Our tour started in the Marginy district, meeting our fellow riders and getting adjusted to our bikes (no brakes, just back pedals…wild!)
We met our tour guide Reecy, who was beyond fabulous and developed the tour herself after she realized there was nothing like it. Any other tour of the Ninth Ward is run by companies unaffiliated with the neighborhood who take tourists through the area in air-conditioned coach buses, with their digital cameras pressed up against the tinted glass windows as if they were on Safari.
Reecy developed local connections throughout the community and 10% of tour proceeds go to redevelopment and charities in the Ninth Ward. We started by biking over the canal bridge that separates the upper Ninth Ward from the more fashionable neighborhoods bordering the French Quarter.
As we entered the lower Ninth Ward, we stopped to look at the houses constructed by Global Green. These homes, as well as those built by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, are modern odes to classic shotgun style houses found throughout New Orleans. The houses are designed to be eco-friendly and affordable, although the $150,000 price tag is beyond reach for many living in this neighborhood. Reactions were mixed among people I spoke with about these homes – some appreciated the modern design while others felt that they were an eyesore that ignored the needs of families trying to move back home.
We stopped at the Village Community Center and met the Executive Director, Mack. Mack originally purchased the community center building to store his antique car collection, but when Katrina hit and destroyed his fleet he decided to use the building for a higher purpose. For the past 5 years he has worked to bring the community together and the diaspora back home.
We also stopped at the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum devoted to Mardi Gras and all its traditions, where we met Ronald Lewis. Many of the original items were washed away in the storm, but Krewes (Mardi Gras groups) from across the city rallied behind Ronald and helped him restock his museum on a makeshift structure designed by architecture students.
Although the Ninth Ward is working to rebuild, much of the community has been destroyed. Ronald described the neighborhood before the storm as so tight you could spread your arms and touch a house on both hands. Approximately 9,000 people lived in the Ninth Ward before Katrina, and only 25% have returned to the area 5 years later.
I strongly recommend anyone visiting New Orleans to book this tour and see for yourself how this community is doing 5 years later.
New Orleans is a city of distinct neighborhoods, and although in recent years the Ninth Ward has become one of the more famous areas, prior to Katrina few people had heard of it. The Garden District on the other hand, has always been a popular attraction for visitors and locals alike.
I downloaded the Frommer’s Garden District tour and chose to walk the streets at my own pace without a guide. This proved to be a popular choice – on the second stop I realized that I was part of an unofficial tour group of people wandering the neighborhood on their IPhones all reciting the same information. The houses were quite beautiful and many of them had been originally built as plantations and turned into single family homes later on.
I regretfully remember almost nothing from the self-guided tour, although there was one highlight. We walked by Archie Manning’s home as he was taking out the trash, and my boyfriend said a polite hello. Archie was very nice although he did not invite us inside to look at Peyton and Eli’s childhood photos. We”ll get there next visit.
Overall both neighborhoods were distinct pockets of life in New Orleans. I love walking along the streets, meeting people and generally soaking the city in. I can’t wait to go back!