The Big Easy and the Holy City
Walking around an Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans has the feel of Hampton Park in Charleston: airy homes on lots with lush trees in a semi-tropical climate where summer steaminess is as accepted as white on rice.
But there are differences in these two famous Southern cities, both heavily influenced to this day by early European settlers. Here are some observations on how Charleston and New Orleans are similar and different:
Outward appearance. While Charleston has some downtown loudness in bar areas, the community as a whole is more akin to a quiet church – a clean place where order trumps disorder. Not so in New Orleans, where a griminess seems to coat the city, more than three times the size of Charleston. The Big Easy is more like a noisy bar, not just in the French Quarter, but all over. It’s fun, rowdy and larger than life, while Charleston’s scale and temperament definitely seems more staid and English.
Diversity. New Orleans is filled with all kinds of people – Cajuns, Creoles, Indians, whites, blacks, Latinos and more. It has a palpable feel of being a real melting pot, compared to Charleston which is mostly black and white. New Orleans also has more people who hang around all over the place. They seem to do little. Again, it’s part of the city’s earthiness, compared to Charleston where the homeless and bums are less visible.
Religious influence. One resident noted how the prevailing religious influence on New Orleans is European Catholic, while the more conservative Christian Bible Belt ethos is dominant in Charleston. As a result, people in New Orleans are more relaxed about relaxing. They’ve got a different way of handling things. And while all of the partying, gambling and gluttony may be at odds with religious teaching, they roll with it.
Schools. Both communities and their states have challenged public schools. While both offer private education alternatives, the parochial school system throughout New Orleans is fully developed and offers schooling at rates more affordable to working people than the hoity-toity private schools. This makes sense, though, as New Orleans is more tied to Catholicism.
Good food. Both communities are blessed to have outstanding restaurants and food. The major difference? The dives – the non-pretentious eateries that fill New Orleans and whose offerings – po’ boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and mounds of fresh seafood – are a true delight. My wife Courtenay, a native of New Orleans, says (and rightly so) that Charleston could use a few more dives.
Infrastructure. If you think the roads and infrastructure in Charleston are bad, wait until you see New Orleans. Although some problems still exist from Hurricane Katrina, the city’s pockmarked, pothole-ridden roads on which you can get lost at the drop of a hat need serious work. Some of the sidewalks, which reportedly have to be maintained by homeowners in residential areas, are so broken up by tree roots that it’s obvious the community must keep a stable of slip-and-fall lawsuits on the court dockets.
Traffic. It takes a long time to get from Point A to Point B in New Orleans – you have to allow yourself extra time for the traffic delays that are sure to happen. But one thing missing in Charleston that it used to have is a network of streetcars, which are fun ways to travel – and avoid traffic – in New Orleans.
Housing. Charleston has its single house. New Orleans has its shotgun house. They’re similar in that they’re both one room wide. But the single house has a side porch that leads to the front door on the side of the residence, while the shotgun house often has its front door on the front. As in Charleston, the old housing stock is constantly being repaired, beautified and upgraded, although Katrina’s wrath still has some areas pretty down and out.
New Orleans is an entertaining place to visit, but after a few days in the Big Easy, I’m ready to get home to the Holy City.
Andy Brack, publisher of Charleston Currents, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.