Thursday, January 21, 2010

Day 70: King Among the Muses

New Orleans to Elmwood. 12 miles/1242.2 total

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm leaving from the empty flea market parking lot at the corner of Broad Avenue and Conti Street, heading south on Conti into the Vieux Carre, then west on Royal and St. Charles Ave. to the levee, and into Jefferson Parish, near the foot of the Huey P. Long Bridge.

It's in the high 60s already, heading into the mid-70s. The clouds of this morning will soon disappear and it will be sunny. Gorgeous weather.

Today's walk is going to be shorter than usual, about 12 miles. It worked out that way because originally I was going to continue when I got to the Huey P. Long bridge across the Mississippi, but when I drove the bridge yesterday I realized there would be no walking on it. Pedestrians are prohibited, and quite rightly. The bridge is undergoing construction for expansion and is narrow even for vehicles. So I decided to walk today to the Walmart by the bridge, and start out tomorrow from the other side. The short walk will give me more time to dawdle and sightsee.

Considering what I said yesterday about liking to walk through housing projects, I couldn't have chosen a better route. Conti Street down from Broad dead ends at a large housing project of the City of New Orleans that looks as if it was made from some old military barracks, perhaps from the 19th century. If any of my New Orleans-based readers know any details, I'd be interested. The other places near here are rundown shotgun houses, but rundown in a somewhat classy way, with the New Orleans touch, including nice ornate cornices.

And I couldn't have picked a better street than Conti for descending into the quarter, because down at Basin Street I come to the Holy Grail of cemeteries, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which I think was the site of the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Karen Black wandering around among the graves. Regular followers of the blog know that I love cemeteries anyway, so this is a treat. I go in and start wandering (sans LSD). The tombs are large and decaying and crowded together and crumbling, just like the neighborhoods hereabouts. The cemetery is still in use by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was started in 1789, and once extended out over what is now Basin Street. Often the graves are reused--the bones of the old occupants put in the back or under the ground. Occasionally there will be a bronze plaque on the tomb of someone of note--here's one for a guy who developed a process for granulating sugar. That was big. Some graves have new inscriptions of folks added to old family mausoleums; others are out of use by a hundred years or more. There's a kind of solemn chaos in the decrepitude and multitude of the burial places, above which the tallest statues stand against the sky, still gray.

Out in the median of Basin Street there's a statue of Benito Juarez, hero of Mexico. Down a block or so is Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church, its pews containing a collection of local street people seeking shelter.

I'm now in the French Quarter. It's a bit early for partying, but a few people are doing it anyway. At Conti and Royal stands the Louisiana State Supreme Court building. Interesting that it should be here in the oldest part of New Orleans, rather than in the capital, Baton Rouge.

I spent several hours wandering around the French Quarter yesterday, so I won't do too much wandering today. This west end of the area is definitely the money end, though, with high end antique shops, jewelry stores, and hotels. I cross Canal Street and Royal becomes St. Charles Avenue. Speaking of money, looking down Canal Street I can see a conglomeration of large big-name casinos and hotels. Straight ahead is the center of the business district of the city.

I go past Lafayette Square, dedicated to the Marquis, who, according to a plaque (in English on one side and French on the other) was offered the post of first governor of the Louisiana Territory after it became part of the United States. He declined, but did visit the city in 1825, and was very popular. "Vive Lafayette!" they shouted.

I come to a traffic circle in the center of which stands, on a tall pillar, a statue of Robert E. Lee. This is Lee Circle. I am afforded the opportunity to continue my tradition of spitting on monuments of Confederates, and once again let it fly onto the plaque, right onto the name of Robert E. Lee, a man who should have been executed after the war, as far as I am concerned. So many Confederates, so little saliva.

Just on the other side of the circle I notice a sculpture in front of an office building, and go up to investigate. Then I see a bronze bench shaped like hands, with the palms as the seats and the fingers as back rests. While resting, I notice some other objects of art in the lobby and go in to investigate. It turns out that this is the K&B Building, and it houses a portion of a huge private collection known as the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection. In the lobby the guard tells me to look around, and says to go up to the seventh floor and work my way down. He also gives me two slick heavy books containing photos of pieces of the collection. I am amazed as I travel through, looking at modern paintings, sculptures, and multi-media pieces. They're in the hallways outside the elevators and in some of the office suites, which are occupied by a variety of businesses.

Up on the seventh floor I am let in to the office area, and told to walk around and look, only not to disturb people in their offices. The first office I see is that of Sydney Besthoff III, and I can hear him talking on the phone. I'm tempted to say hi, but I don't. I walk around to the north side of the building and there is a huge collection of artwork, just sitting around, hanging, and stacked against the walls. A friendly and helpful young woman named Stacey, who had let me in, answers my questions when I get over to her desk. She tells me that K&B (for Katz and Besthoff) was a large chain of drug stores in this area of the south that was sold to Rite Aid not long ago. Sydney Besthoff owns this building and some strip malls with Rite Aids in them here and there. And this magnificent art collection. If you're reading this, Stacey, thanks again for being so kind and helpful.

Down in the lobby I take another look around and see a bronze bust of Venus by Renoir, from 1915. But my favorite items were the photorealist paintings by John Baeder and Ralph Goings, reminding me, with my limited knowledge, of the works of Edward Hopper. And a wonderful one called "Marilyn Lichtenstein" by a Spanish artist named Antonie de Felipe. Oh, and "The Burning of Atlanta," by George Febres, from 1991, a fanciful depiction featuring my man General Sherman. And Stacey's neighbor, a nude sculpture called "Seated Blonde With Crossed Arms," by John Deandrea, which she sits across from all day. I've included a few photos.

Out on the street again, I congratulate myself for climbing the steps to look at the sculpture, leading me to this amazing and powerful collection of modern art, rivaled by only a few museums. If you come to New Orleans, the K&B Building is a must-see. In fact, if you love contemporary art and can see only one place in this city, choose this collection over what they have in the New Orleans Museum of Art. You'll be glad you did. And give my regards to Stacey.

On one of the floors, the fourth I think, was the firm of engineers that is working on the renovation of the Huey P. Long Bridge. I popped my head in and asked a woman at a desk whether they were putting a pedestrian walkway on the new bridge. She didn't know offhand, but made a quick phone call. The answer is no. So anyone thinking of following in my footsteps should be forewarned. Perhaps some younger person will be the Philippe Petit who dares the foot crossing, but not me.

On another floor of the K&B Building I went into a firm (I forgot its name) that is dedicated to the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward. One of the people there told me I should see the great houses they're building down there. And who doesn't welcome the opportunity to rebuild, especially in the poorer parts of a city? But when I asked them whether the levees have been rebuilt to inhibit that kind of flooding again, they didn't know the answer. When I mentioned what I take to be a pretty obvious fact--that another hurricane just a bad as Katrina could come again any year--they looked at me sideways as if I had broken some taboo. So I ask my New Orleans readers, what has been done about the levees?

One of the things I love about this city is the names of the streets. They're so, well, exotic. After so many towns and cities with the usual American street names, like Elm and Main, and the southern ones like Bubba Joe Turner Highway, it's nice to see names like Iberville and Gentilly and Carondelet. And leave it to the French to be literate enough to name a series of streets after the muses of Greek mythology. So as I walk down St. Charles, imagine my surprise to see a newcomer among them. Here are the nine muses, New Orleans style: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Thalia, Martin Luther King, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Polymnia, and Urania. It seems that a good portion of Melpomene Street was renamed for Dr. King. Regular followers know that one of my pet peeves about U.S. cities is that they usually name the crappiest streets in the worst parts of town for Martin Luther King, as if to say, "Here, we gave you people your holiday, and your street, what more do you want?" And true to form, much of New Orleans's King Boulevard goes through an industrial wasteland. However, I do like the idea of placing him among the muses, for his untiring attempt to inspire in all of us what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." But it would have been far more fitting to rename Jefferson Davis Highway after King, or topple the statue of Robert E. Lee and replace it with one of him. King Circle. That has a nice ring to it.

St. Charles Avenue is a feast for the eyes if you like big old houses and gigantic spreading oak trees. The oaks nearly form a canopy over the wide street, which has a working street car line in the center. I can see, though, that the relative wealth of this avenue is a facade behind which, a block or two in each direction, some doughtier dwellings hide.

I stop in to Christ Church Cathedral, just to see if Episcopalian splendor rivals that of the Roman Catholics in their cathedral dedicated to Louis IX, king and saint, down in the Vieux Carre. But unlike St. Louis, this one is locked. Undeterred, I go to a side entrance and someone buzzes me in and takes me to the sanctuary. It's large and stately, but in a much more dark hardwoody way than its Catholic cousin, and stripped, of course, of much of the mystery and mumbo-jumbo that says to the humble entrant, "Our God is bigger and badder and far more mysterious than any other god." Christ Church says, "Our God is decidedly wealthy, but really just wants to be your friend. Think of him as a kind of Mentor."

I pass the VanBenthuysen mansion, built for another Yankee-turned-Rebel (like Slidell) who came down here from New York and served as a captain in the CSA. He was a railroad guy, with a big interest in the St. Charles Streetcar Line. He died here in 1901.

At the corner of St. Charles and Louisiana, I pass a Borders Bookstore, made from a big old funeral home built in 1880. Very original. I go in to get a coffee and find out about it.

As I go west, past Jefferson, the mansions get bigger and the trees older and thicker. The roots of the live oaks seem to spill and eddy out around the bases of the trunks as much as fifteen or twenty feet before they finally go underground for good. St. Charles obviously was the wealthy suburbs back in the 1800s, and this area indicates that after about the turn of the century a second wave came out here, reaching to the edges of Orleans Parish.

I notice that the people passing me seem to be getting younger, even as the trees are getting older. Then I notice that I am passing the campuses of Loyola University and Tulane University, which sit side by side. Across the street are Audubon Park and the zoo.

And what do I see down at the corner of St. Charles and Hillary but the John Jay Salon, of the very same John Jay of the ruined shopping center in Slidell. Even the lettering is the same style as on that great retro sign.

At the end of St. Charles, where it connects to Carrollton, there's a marker saying that the St. Charles Line began service in 1834 as the St. Charles and Carrollton Railroad. It was powered by steam, horse, and mule until it was electrified in 1893. It is the oldest continuously operated street rail line in the world. In der fricking Welt, as the Germans would say.

I turn right onto Leake, which takes me along the levee next to the Mississippi. I walk up to the top, where there's a bike and walking path. The clouds are all gone and it's warm and relatively quiet here atop the levee. Where it takes a turn to the left I know that I am leaving New Orleans and entering Jefferson Parish.

At about 10.5 miles I walk under the Huey P. Long Bridge, which I am not destined to cross on foot. A half mile past the bridge I get down off the levee and turn right off River onto Plantation, which takes me up to the Walmart, where the motor home is parked.


Anonymous said...

Public spitting is not nice nor sanitary, but speaks volumes of the character of the spitter. W

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Well, sticks and stones. But let's not forget that swell bunch of guys who were willing to fight and die to defend one of the nicer and more sanitary institutions in our country's history, chattel slavery. That I think speaks rather more voluminously of their character.

Billie Bob said...

You walked past two spots I have visited on several occasions: Cooter Brown's, a bar with hundreds of different beers and dang good sea food, mentioned in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels(which is at the end of St. Charles to the left on Carrollton within a spit of the levy); and, The Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, just off Carrollton, which has some of the best music in town... We got turned on to the place by a cab driver, and he was right about it being a great place…and a real flash from the past, in terms of ambiance.

By the way, you walked through the “garden district” today.

I will be visiting NO this time next month. I’ll have to check out the K & B Building. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your sidewalk commentary during your tour of the garden district--Art