New Orleans: Canal Street

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As I drove into New Orleans, I really didn’t know what to expect.  It’s impossible to think of this city without remembering Hurricane Katrina, broken levees, flooded neighborhoods, the damaged Superdome, and stranded residents — some dying in the streets.  I knew New Orleans had problems with crime.  Add it all up, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go, at all.  But now that I’ve been there, I can honestly say I love this city.

Don’t get me wrong.  New Orleans still has a lot of problems.  I didn’t feel completely safe while I was there.  I was hassled by homeless people and panhandlers.  In many places, the streets felt dirty and run-down.  But there’s a certain charm about New Orleans that overcomes these negatives (or at least balances them out).

New Orleans is a very authentic city.  It’s beautiful in many ways, but it’s also very real.  It’s new and it’s old.  Plenty has been done to improve and modernize the city, but apparently no one thought, “hey, while we’re at it, maybe we ought to clean up all this junk, too.”  I’m glad they didn’t.  As a photograper, I could have found an endless number of scenes to photograph (if only I had felt a little more safe carrying an expensive camera past so many shady characters).

Canal Street is a great place to start your visit to New Orleans.  Many of the city’s main tourist attractions are either right here, or just a few blocks away.  The famous street cars run down the middle of Canal Street, the French Quarter begins here, and the bars of Bourbon Street are just a short stroll away.  At the end of Canal Street, you’ll find the Mississippi River.

I stayed in the Holiday Inn in the French Quarter, only a block away from Canal Street.  The location allowed me to explore, then return to the hotel, without needing to drive in and out of the city.  The only downside: parking was a steep $26 for the night at the hotel.  Of course, if I had stayed somewhere else, I would still have had to pay for parking in the French Quarter–it would be very difficult to find a free spot.

Canal Street’s appeal goes far beyond the streetcars that rumble down the middle of the road.  There’s also a lot of great neon signs here.  Some of them, like the ones on the Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, still light up…

… while the signs at places like The Half Shell aren’t quite as well maintained.

Canal Street has several great old theaters — all of which are in some state of disrepair.  Perhaps one of the most famous is the Saenger Theater, part of a chain of theaters that carried the same name.  Restoration was underway at the Saenger when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Thankfully, all the seats had been removed, so they weren’t damaged when the flood waters came up Canal Street and into the theater.  However, the water (which crested about one foot above the stage) did cause some damage to the theater’s Robert Morton Wonder Organ.  A plan to restore the Saenger began in 2008, and there are high hopes that it can reopen by 2010 or 2011.

Across from the Saenger, I found some joy seeing this old marquee.  The old Joy Theater has been closed for quite some time.  It, too, was part of a chain of theaters, owned by a man named Joy Houck.  The Joy was a modern movie house when it opened in 1947, but it hasn’t seen a flick since 2003.  Katrina only made a bad situation worse — the Joy’s marquee is slowly falling apart, and I’m sure it’s a mess on the inside, too.

The website cinematreasures.com has an interesting thread of posts about the Joy Theater in New Orleans, as well as pictures and updates on what the old cinema’s future might hold.

Down a side street, in between the Joy and Loews Theaters, I found an odd piece of art.  I don’t know anything about it — there was no sign to explain it, and judging by the amount of trash that was scattered around it, no one is bothering to maintain it.

A little graffiti (on the side of the Loews Theater, I think) only added to the feeling that I should probably put my camera away, and stop looking like a vulnerable tourist.

I had seen reproductions of signs like this one, but I had no idea the original signs still existed.  They’re fairly easy to spot, as you walk or drive around New Orleans.  It’s just another example of how the city hasn’t bothered to modernize many things — and I think it’s great!

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