Biking through Nola neighborhoods

Before we got to New Orleans I’d set out to find some cool ways to experience the city.  Starting with a google search of “bike tour New Orleans” I stumbled on to the 400 Trip Advisor reviews of a culinary bike tour. Now, I love a good bike (and the groups like BikeSD who advocate for them).  Plus, this one had food…and drink…neighborhoods.  Sold!  So we spent our first full day in New Orleans with Cassandra of Confederacy of Cruisers riding outside the Quarter. It was a great adventure.

To properly set the stage, I should point out that we decided our exploration of neighborhoods would begin before our culinary bike tour with a trip to a street market.  So we hopped in a cab and made our way out to the Bywater.  As the name suggests (and some snarky vendor snapped when I asked), this a community just off the water–a portion of the Mississippi.  Our taxi actually had some trouble finding the Piety Street Market, which I suppose the lack of splendor in the photo below helps explain.  It’s, umm, a bit off the beaten path.  And by that, I mean the beaten path is several miles away.

The “indoor” portion of the market, which was a work in progress

But let’s not let the look of the place stand in the way of the larger points.  One, independent people working hard to make a living is never a bad thing.  Two, it was an adventure.  I mean, why go somewhere and sit inside some guidebook, sanitized version of that place your whole stay?  And three, well, keep reading.  In any case, we gave the street market its due regard, even got us a little foreshadowing from the woman selling water whose good friends ran a little restaurant that she said was a “can’t miss” while in town.  I liked the market.  It had some grit on it.  And it was neighbors coming together to do what neighbors do.

After our little stop at the market, we headed out on foot (me hobbling on my less than stellar ankle) towards Washington Square Park where our food & bike-fest would begin.  As we ambled down the streets we saw signs of rebuilding, hurricane damage (probably Isaac and Katrina, actually), and even saw some good old-fashioned anti-development NIMBY signs (pictured below).  I kid.  If you don’t want development in your neighborhood, do your thing.  I think a balance can help a community grow, but that’s just one opinion. I asked my new friend Karen about the politics of land use in New Orleans and she had very interesting things to say. Drop in on the Lens Nola for more or just follow her on Twitter (@gadboislensNOLA). Impressive person, that Karen.

These clever signs were all over the neighborhood

The sun and the humidity started getting on us by this point, so we picked up the pace.  At home I sit politically between my fringe pinko friends and my greedy free-enterprise robber baron friends.  That’s not, strictly speaking, true.  I suppose I sit among each of them depending on the topic, but if you could average my views I wouldn’t be red or blue, more like purple.  I digress, the whole point of that side story is to set the stage for the next set of very cool, totally accidental experiences that only happen on vacation if you let them.  So, we’re walking down the street and I notice this cool building.

Quite possibly the fanciest union hall I’ve ever seen.

Other than on the awning at Urban Solace, we don’t have this type of feel to our buildings in San Diego, so I was quick to get a picture.  But then I realized the fancy building was a Teamsters Union Hall.  I didn’t grow up knowing anything about the Teamsters other than what shows up in mob movies.  I understand they have something to do with the trucking industry, but that’s as far as it goes.  Anyway, I thought some of the aforementioned fringe pinkos would get a kick out of it, so I clicked a quick photo, tweeted it and kept on walking. A couple blocks down I had one of those life moments I’m really just grateful for.

An important monument in US history for Plessy v Ferguson and civil rights…and completely random find on our walk

This is a photo of the place where Homer Plessy was arrested for riding in the section of a rail car designated for whites only.  Plessy was so light-skinned that he could “pass” for a white person.  Which he did long enough to board the train, announce his true racial identity and then get arrested. It was a test case organized by the Comite des Citoyens, to try to invalidate a bad law. Here’s a very good, brief history. This arrest led to the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v Ferguson, which temporarily upheld a state’s right to discriminate against some of its citizens.  Seeing this reminded me of the history classes about the Pullman Car Porters (a union) and made me wonder if the Teamsters maybe weren’t in the area as an homage to the struggles of others.  The lawyer in me was intrigued to put a reality to the casebook. As a Black man, it was moving to stand on the same soil where Plessy was arrested. And as an American, I was oddly proud of my country for coming from that day to this one.  A long journey ahead, but as we got ready for the fun of a day exploring by bike, I was mindful of the work done by many before us.  And with that, I’d worked up quite the appetite!

We made our way over to Washington Square Park, passed a little time on a park bench, then got saddled up for our ride.  Our guide Cassandra was a nice blend of easygoing, knowledgeable and fun.  She told interesting stories about where the waters from Hurricane Katrina rose to level neighborhoods and still kept the afternoon light enough for all to enjoy.  She gave us a quick test run on the bikes–about a half a block’s worth–to get our sea legs, then started in on a quick story about the changing neighborhood.

A quick explanation of local history from Cassandra, our guide

Like many communities, New Orleans is experiencing a mixture of growth and struggle and shifts in diversity and culture.  The changes are almost certainly inevitable, though I suppose whether you see it as progress or intrusion depends on which porch you’re on.  My sense is she was trying to give us a real picture, and as we pulled up on our bikes to Lil Dizzy’s in Treme, the warm greeting Cassandra got from the team inside suggested to me it was all generally working out. I can’t properly describe the interior, it was pretty basic and nothing particularly amazing.  The chicken, however, was another matter.

It’s hard to find good fried chicken out here in San Diego unless someone is making it at home.  I’ve had a good version at The Linkery and at Bonnie Jean’s, but Lil Dizzy’s, well lets just say if I could find a way for you to smell or taste the chicken through the photo I would have done it.  It’s the one place we wanted to get back to later in the trip and couldn’t quite make it.  Our group of 8 riders quickly dispatched with the chicken and I was half tempted to call it a day and stay for a full plate.  The prices looked to be under $10, it was in the middle of a neighborhood, and it was just that good.  But we got it together, hopped on our bikes and headed to what Cassandra called the main hangout for Jazzfest – Liuzza’s by the Track.  They even had their own welcome sign.

What we saw as we pulled up to the restaurant

BBQ is not the same BBQ everywhere you go.  And if you have KC style in your mind as I talk about this BBQ shrimp, this is a time to reset.  New Orleans BBQ shrimp really isn’t in traditional barbecue sauce, it’s cooked in a pan, and it is generously slathered with garlic and spices.  And, at least at Liuzza’s, is EFFING DELICIOUS.  Seriously, I would curse, but my site might get blocked.  Although our best overall dining experiences were probably at K-Paul and Cochon, the best thing I put in my mouth the entire trip was this really ridiculous shrimp and crusty bread in a light sauce that has me wanting to book a ticket right now. 

If only I could make this a scratch ‘n sniff photo.

I know I carried on a little about Lil Dizzy’s chicken, and it really was good.  But my God if you really just want something kind of unforgettable, go get this bbq shrimp.  Also, don’t eat it right away.  Let it sit on the plate for a couple minutes and have some of the juices from the sauce and the shrimp get in the bread.  Wow.  I really want to go back.  Well, we had to press on, so we hopped back on our bikes and headed to the Po’ Boy shop President Obama dropped in on when he went to New Orleans – Parkway Po’ Boys.  I took a picture of our roast beef po’ boy and was going to post it, but it just looks like a sandwich.  On top of that, we were all getting pretty full by this point (I failed to discuss the Liuzza’s gumbo we were also given, which was good, though outshone by the shrimp). Parkway’s worth a trip, probably more so if you’re actually hungry.  I did get an interesting look at the history of the term Po’ Boy, and here’s a little photo from the outside.

On our way to our last stop we passed by this house.  I was on my bike, so trying to get the photo and not get hit–while enduring the humidity of the city–was quite a trick.  But I wanted to get it because it’s now as much a part of New Orleans as the quarter, Treme, jazz or anything else.

A home with remnants of Katrina’s effects still showing

I did a little Internet search to see what the symbols meant.  Here’s what I found.  This was a riverfront home right next to one where I saw a family loading up for an afternoon out.  Not really sure if anyone lived here, if they kept the paint for some reason, or what the story was.  But it seemed important to capture and remember as part of the bike experience. 

Our last stop of the day was a little place called Meltdown, that was a custom popsicle shop with unique flavors in the French Quarter.  It combined local fruit and ingredients in creative ways, which I could appreciate.  And after eating so much food I was ready for something light.

A shot of popsicles being made – from their website, my janky camera phone was dead by this point.

All in all, I’d say our tour of New Orleans by bike was one of those experiences you really have to do to appreciate.  We spent $200 (including an extra $40 tip to say thank you to Cassandra, who was–again–awesome), so it’s not a cheap afternoon.  But you see the city through a very different lens and in ways that aren’t visible from tour buses or cab rides.  It was about a 4.5 hour tour, and the city is pretty flat, so almost any age and fitness level can make a go of it.  If you make the trip to New Orleans, I’d highly recommend this trip.