Monday, April 20, 2015

Easter in New Orleans

Trinity Episcopal Church
Garden District of New Orleans
Millions of revelers flow through New Orleans for Mardi Gras at Lent’s beginning but far fewer join festivities when the penitential season ends at Easter.  Yet at the Pasqual celebration, weather is better, gardens fuller and a different kind of hat rules – the Easter bonnet.  It was the perfect time to revisit New Orleans after a 35 year absence.

Preparations for the trip first centered around restaurant reservations.  Two months in advance were not enough to secure a table for some NOLA traditional establishments.  Arnaud’s website warned they were booked until May.  Commodore’s Palace wouldn’t allow online reservations and a call confirmed they were completely full for brunch on Easter Sunday.  Amelie’s, a small venue in the French Quarter, apologized for its capacity crowd and could only offer to put us on a waiting list.  Fortunately, finding a good restaurant in the Crescent City is easy and I could relax a bit with a confirmed brunch reservation at Coquette’s in the Garden District.  It seemed prudent to firm up eating arrangements for other nights of our trip and those came more easily – Bayona on Saturday night and August, a Josh Besh restaurant, on Monday evening.

For accommodations, we used Airbnb for the first time.  Our go to favorite home/apartment rental company had been VRBO – Vacation Rental by Owner.  But younger friends promoted Airbnb as it advertised not only full apartments and houses but also single rooms or even a shared room.  Prices can be as low as $30 a night in the Seventh Ward or $155 a night for a two bedroom spot in the French Quarters or $355 for a four bedroom house in the suburbs. 

We booked half of a shotgun house on Magazine Street in the Garden District, complete with front porch for easy street scene viewing.  Donuts and coffee were one block to the east and a neighborhood bar one block west.   Our landlord lived next door and had coffee, water and cold beer awaiting our arrival.   He knew the local scene and could suggest many music venues and local food choices. 

Diners at Commodore's Palace
With Catholic and Episcopal churches within walking distance, we enjoyed our stroll on Easter morning.  Men in white and cream colored linen suits and women with large brimmed hats carried on an old Southern tradition.  Boys in jackets and girls in pastel dresses skipped into church.  A cross covered in wire greeted families who brought flowers from their gardens to fill its spaces – a tradition I remember from my childhood.  It felt a step back in time.

Strawberry shortcake with mint ice
cream at Coquette's in Garden District
Easter Brunches are serious business with most restaurants overflowing.    At Coquettes, a three course, fixed priced menu offered unusual Easter choices such as lamb stew with potato salad or crawfish salad but included a traditional strawberry short cake.  Well dressed families filled the two stories throughout the day.  A stroll through the Garden District took us past Commodore’s Palace, a New Orleans classic with its odd blue and white striped exterior.   We watched guests arriving in sleek black cars, exiting in high heels and flowered patterned attire.  Inside a jazz trio played. 

Lafayette Cemetery #1
Across the street,  Lafayette Cemetery#1 was open and beckoned to those passing by.  New Orleans cemeteries are unique with family crypts holding generations of the departed.  Names of the departed dated back into the early 1800s.  At one monument, a feral cat relaxed and two strands of black and white beads were draped over an urn.  As a walking tour passed by we overheard the guide explain the need to live in a “good cemetery” neighborhood – a concept new to us.

If Mardi Gras parades seem excessive, an alternative is the Easter parade.  Three were available in the French Quarter with several neighborhood ones nearby.  Bourbon Street Club owner, Chris Owens, was the Grand Duchess of her 32nd annual “patriotic” Easter Parade.  Stuffed bunnies are tossed as well as the ever present beads.  Another favorite family activity appeared to be picnics in the beautiful Audubon Park and then just cruising St. Charles Avenue with windows open. 


New Orleans for the traveler has the feel of a foreign country as well as living in a time capsule.  Much of the city has completely recovered from Hurricane Katrina and it has almost recouped its population loss from the storm.  Despite recent crime surges due in part to a 30% vacancy rate in the police department, the city feels safe, friendly, and walkable.  It certainly was on a beautiful Easter Sunday.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

9/11 Memorial and Museum Gets It Right




New One World Trade Center and plaza


Original slurry wall holding back Hudson River

No memorial has ever tried to accommodate so many opinions and needs as the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Its slow progress and occasional retreats were well chronicled in the news. Survivors, victims’ families, rescue workers, neighbors, local, state and federal government - all had input, many with strong opinions.  Designs came and went.  Size and depth were debated.  Since memorials and museums have inherently different goals, the decision to separate them allows the emotional and historical objectives to be met.  Planners used guidelines developed for the Oklahoma City Memorial where those lost in the 1995 bombing are remembered with empty named chairs and the adjacent museum records the events and significance in history.


Debate in New York included which victim names should be engraved – only those lost from the Twin Towers or all from 9/11 or add those who died in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Gratefully, all are listed and grouped with those who died together. What to display in the museum generated the strongest feelings.  Many of the artifacts were too personal such as recordings of last conversations.  Yet, emotional intensity was desired and even factored in.  In the museum, early exit doors are available for those overcome by memories.
Footprint Pool at 9/11 Memorial

Names of Victims carved on parapet surrounding pool
Thirteen years after the event, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum finally opened on May 15, 2014.  It is already the number six item of top 20 things to do in New York City on Trip Advisor.  A million visitors have come to pay homage.  We approached the scene by foot, passing through the white oaks and sweet gum tree filled plaza until reaching two enormous pools outlining the footprints of the lost towers. The depth of the pools gave a true sense of the size of the lost Towers.  Leaning over the four foot parapet walls, I watched water fall 30 feet (three stories) into a square shaped fountain.  Titled “Reflecting Absence”, the black granite walls encouraged somber thoughts for this appropriately named architectural piece.  Names of all who died were carved on the parapets, some with flowers laid across or a single rose inserted.  I felt sad.

Original Steel Beams in Museum Lobby
Elevator Motor from Twin Tower


Nearby is the 9/11 museum.  Everything about its open areas is large.  The lobby’s long escalator descends past two giant, 70 foot steel beams, with forked tops pointing skyward. Further down, in Foundation Hall, the last standing 36 foot tall column anchors this enormous Hall that is supported by the original slurry wall holding back the Hudson River.  A circular elevator motor stretches 6 feet in diameter and a river water valve reaches 5 feet.   I was awed by the dimensions.




Blue Tile Wall with colors of the sky on 9/11
Symbolism surrounds you.  A blue tile wall reflects all the colors of the sky on that brilliant day.  The ramp leading down 7 floors (the depth of the debris) follows that used by construction workers. A mangled TV antenna tower represents the end of communication from those at the top.  The aluminum wall surrounding the underground pool symbolized the silver of the original towers.   I was moved by the attention to detail.

Fire Engine that was crushed on 9/11
We were reminded of what went right that day.  Fifteen thousand people got out of the buildings before the collapse.  Injuries were minimal.  I watched a map of the United States go dark as every lit location of airplanes in the air disappeared within hours of the tragedy.  Firefighters worked regardless of whether it was their shift and first responders dug heroically that day and later to be sure all survivors were out.  I felt pride.

In the memorial section, it got harder.  Many of the mementos recovered from the scene are displayed - police helmet, Fireman memorial patch, briefcase used to protect from falling glass, passenger window from the plane, a sign in the Pentagon for Deputy Undersecretary of the Army International Affairs, children’s clothing, telephone, rolodex, clock stopped at 9:37, woman’s black stilettos, dusty tennis shoes, and bicycles.  A photo of abandoned baby carriers in Battery Park captured the panic of the moment.  Newscasts from around the world were available, reminding us of the 90 countries represented in the 3000 that died.   I felt surrounded by sympathy.


This is truly a national memorial as most Americans vividly remember that day.  Patricia Cohen in the New York Times wrote that “reconciling the clashing obligations to recount the history with pinpoint accuracy, to memorialize heroism and to promote healing inevitably required compromise.”  The ability of the Memorial and Museum planners and designers to make those needed decisions really reflect what is good about America – the coming together of different backgrounds, economic levels, nationalities, and skills to create a place to remember and to learn.  Our guide noted that when asked what they remembered that day, many New Yorkers mention the color of the sky, the dust and the kindness on the street.  Incredibly, I was nostalgic – not for the tragedy but for the solidarity.

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