Exactly What Does New Orleans Have that St. Louis Does Not?

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For five days in May, I found myself in New Orleans. I'd been there once before, in 1993 to see the Final Four in the Louisiana Superdome. I was 16 and to be honest, don't remember much outside the 15 hour drive to get there, an eye-opening midday walk down Bourbon Street and the basketball games. I'm now 33, have a deeper appreciation for architecture, culture and food – all of which play a big role in what makes a city. Obviously I'm not the only one who's changed in the past 17 years, New Orleans has changed and changed again since then.

I was determined to see New Orleans with eyes wide open. Fearing I might miss the essence of NOLA if I were to grab a random guidebook, I enlisted the help of Matt Mourning (Dotage St. Louis), a one-time NOLA resident and a guy with more love and knowledge of the city than anyone I know. Matt's excellent NOLA guide can be found below. To get the most out of the experience, my wife and I were determined to walk much of the city and eat at least four meals a day. It was a great experience, but to be honest, the visit left me wondering why St. Louis isn't as celebrated as NOLA.

We stayed on Canal Street, just west of the French Quarter and near the streetcar lines. We walked through Marigny and Bywater to the Lower 9th Ward, to Bayou St. John and back through Treme and to the Garden District and beyond, following Magazine Street for a few miles back to our hotel. We saw the city as it should be seen, slowly and on foot. When we didn't walk, we took the streetcar.

Tourists and locals alike hopped a ride on the streetcar – the two lines provide good access to Carrollton and the neighborhoods and universities along St. Charles Street, as well as Bayou St. John, City Park and Mid-City. The experience had me imagining streetcars connecting downtown, Midtown, CWE and Forest Park as well as Soulard/Benton Park/Lafayette Square, South Grand and The Hill. Let's hope the Loop trolley is a raving success.


{the St. Charles Streetcar}

The simple act of walking the city revealed a signature reason it can be more easily experienced than St. Louis. Not every corner is polished and clean, actually very few areas are, but the neighborhoods are contiguous. They go from better to worse to better, etc., but in the central city there aren't the brutal gaps, the blocks of disinvestment, that one can't avoid in St. Louis. Walking from downtown to Lafayette Square? The CWE to The Hill? Maybe South Grand to Midtown? You can't avoid the crushing of the pedestrian experience at which St. Louis excels. To be sure, this is a huge problem for St. Louis. If one must drive to each business district or attractive neighborhood, the experience won't be the same, and most likely, won't be experienced at all.

I think this separation, the neglect of the in-between in St. Louis goes a long way to explaining the different visitor experiences. I lived in St. Louis for four years before exploring Cherokee Street and Benton Park in any depth. How is a visitor supposed to know how to get there and where to go (and to ignore the in-between)? The rivers aren't so dissimilar either. NOLA's Mississippi is more accessible, you can get close to it, but it's not so much of a draw in and of itself. Of course there are cultural differences between the two cities and I do not suppose to compare civic life and community other than to wonder why St. Louis appears severely lacking.


{the French Quarter}

St. Louis has the physical and cultural assets to go toe-to-toe with NOLA. No individual neighborhood, food or music experience blew me away. In fact, I think that for every good experience, and there were many to be sure, I know of an equal or better option in St. Louis. So, following that premise, here's what I was thinking as I experienced NOLA.

Our first stop was Central Grocery for a muffalettas. We were hungry and they were good, but I thought back to a better muffaletta I had recently at Blues City Deli. From there we walked to Bywater and grabbed a bite at Elizabeth's and a drink at Bacchanal. Again, great places, but I thought of La Dolce Via and 33. That night it was Lola's, good, but it didn't beat Cafe Stellina. On to Cafe Degas for dessert. It was great, but so is Bailey's Chocolate Bar.

And so the experience went. I didn't set out to compare each restaurant or cafe to one in St. Louis, or explicitly to measure how they stacked up, but I had hoped to find that food experience that alone would have me planning my return to NOLA. Cafe DuMonde? Cafe Ventana. Broccato's? Missouri Baking Company. Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop? The Royale. The Ruby Slipper? Rooster.


{the wide boulevards and medians make for great walking connections between neighborhoods}

These are not perfect substitutes and none of this is to say that St. Louis is better, or that there isn't something very special about New Orleans. I hope to return some day. But I do love St. Louis and believe that here we have the assets of a great city and a great visitor experience. My thoughts didn't end with food, they extended to neighborhoods and parks and more.

Mid-City and Eslpanade Avenue? How about Tower Grove Heights, Tower Grove Park and Utah Place? A short walk gets you to Flora Place and the mansion-lined streets of Compton Heights. The cottages of Marigny and Bywater? Maybe The Hill or Benton Park? The French Quarter? Soulard. The Lower 9th Ward and the Brad Pitt homes? How about Old North St. Louis? Canal Street? Washington Avenue. The Garden District? The Central West End and Skinker-DeBaliviere. Magazine Street? The Loop. Tulane? SLU and Wash U. City Park and Audubon Park? Forest Park and Tower Grove Park.

Anyway, nearly every place I looked I thought, "hey, St. Louis has this". Why don't we celebrate it? Are the city's assets too disconnected to form a coherent experience for visitors and an identity for locals? Does St. Louis suffer from an inferiority complex and lack the bravado to trumpet our attractions? We live well in St. Louis. Well enough, that it becomes more and more difficult to find incomparable experiences elsewhere.


{the Marigny-Bywater neighborhood}

Matt Mourning's New Orleans Guide

 

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