Reviving the Soul of the Big Easy

Story and Photos by Lyndsey Matthews
USA New Orleans Lyndsey matthews

St. Louis Cathedral sits at the center of the city’s French Quarter.


New Orleans has a damaged soul, but it is one still worth fighting for. At times, it soars like the jazz played in the French Quarter, and during others, it glides across the manicured lawns like a Cajun Waltz in the city’s Garden District. Yet these days, it sings mournfully like a blues song played on a porch in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I was sad to admit that I forgot about New Orleans. I tucked it into the back of my memory since my last visit in February 2007. I went with a group from my hometown church in California to gut houses that had not been touched since Katrina first hit 17 months prior. For this reason, I decided to return to the Big Easy with my church. Not only did I feel that I was doing something useful with my life each time residents of New Orleans shook my hand and thanked me for helping rebuild their city, but I was also able to spend time in one of the most culturally vibrant cities in America.

During the day, we insulated and sheet-rocked the walls of an old clapboard house that belonged to an elderly grandmother. While the interiors of most houses located in the eastern section of the city were ruined by the flood waters, the foundations and exterior walls held tight. Typically, the entire gutting and rebuilding process should only take about four months, but many homeowners cannot even afford to move back to New Orleans from wherever they evacuated to after the hurricane, much less pay for people to rebuild their homes.

While we did not get to meet the owner of the house we worked on because she was still living in Mississippi, we did get to visit 72-year-old Miss Cora at her newly finished house, which the high school kids from my church worked on last summer. Her smile was as bright as the yellow bandana wrapped around her head. On her porch, we tried to take off our muddy shoes so as not to dirty to her brand new floors, but she hollered at us to keep them on. She was happy just to have floors to clean again.

Her house was not perfect. The texture on the walls was blotchy and the paint was uneven. Although the work was done by volunteers—not professionals—you could sense the love there. So much love, from so many volunteers, went into making that house a home again for Miss Cora. While a large part of New Orleans still looks like a war zone, all I kept in mind was that, at the end of the day, we made a world of difference to one little old lady. That is all we can really do. Help out little old ladies and rebuild their houses so they can put their lives back together.

USA New Orleans L. matthews 02

A stained-glass window at St. Luke’s church in New Orleans.

After long days of construction work, we took the nights to eat and dance through this spirited city. Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, every day of the week and is located in the heart of the French Quarter on a patio terrace overlooking Saint Louis Cathedral. Their powdered sugar-laden beignets and cafe au laits are perfect for any moment of the day—in the morning for breakfast before church, in the afternoon as a snack after a Mardi Gras parade or at midnight for something to soak up the beer and daiquiris swilled during the evening’s reveries. These piping hot squares of fried dough are infinitely better than any doughnut found in New York.

After eating homemade cornbread, fried alligator sausage and honeyed macaroni and cheese at the Praline Connection in the French Quarter, head over to Magazine Street in the Garden District to check out shops like Metro 3, which offers locally designed t-shirts that advertise “Make Levees, Not War” and “Mess With Texas” all for under $20.

Rock ‘n Bowl is a vintage 50s bowling alley that turns into a big dance party every Thursday and Friday night with Grammy nominated Cajun music bands playing for the crowds. On Sunday evenings, the Rock ‘n Bowl regulars go to Tipitina’s in the Garden District to dance. This brothel turned grocery has hosted musicians like Dr. John and John Lee Hooker since the ‘70s. The locals are more than happy to teach you how to dance the Cajun Two-Step or Waltz.

“On Sunday mornings we go to church to revive our soul, but on Sunday evenings we go to Tipitina’s to revive our spirit,” said Mary a Tipitina’s regular in her mid-60s . The tassels she cut into the hem of her long black Tipitina’s t-shirt swung when she danced, while the flashing red lights she fastened to the top of her sneakers twinkled as she flew across the dance floor into the warm New Orleans night.

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