Fun with Highways: Louisiana

Our “primary highways” series continues with a visit to Louisiana. It combines my own visit to New Orleans with a “virtual visit” through other parts of the state.

We start in New Orleans, which I visited in November of 2006, during the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Coming in from the airport on I-10 we approached the downtown. The highway comes close to the Superdome and the downtown buildings. A large interchange connects to Business US 90, which heads over the Mississippi River via the Crescent City Connection. It was good introduction.

I stayed in the Garden District along St. Charles Avenue. The streetcars which had traditionally run along the St. Charles were still out of service, so I made my way between my home base and Tulane University by walking and enjoying the warm weather. To get downtown, I either walked or used whatever form of transportation I could access. I of course visited the French Quarter, and sampled the food and drink.

But it was also fun to wander the smaller streets, and find odd stores and corners. An occult store, where I found black-cat fur for good luck. An old book store with a resident cat as a host. And an artist selling these cat-themed jazz pictures (does one sense a theme here?).

Being interested in art, I headed up Canal Street on a still function streetcar line to the city park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The park had suffered extensive damage from which it was still recovering, but the museum had weathered the storm quite well and reopened after a few months.

I spent most of my time in the city sculpture garden adjacent to the museum, which included several modernist works.

On the trip back along Canal Street, I paid closer attention to the buildings along the road. Particularly south of the park but north of the I-10 overpass, there was quite a bit of damage visible, with boarded up houses and entire bulldozed lots. Indeed, throughout the trip is impossible not to see the scars of Katrina.

Just east of the French Quarter was the Fauborg Marigny district. It was a bit funkier, and in retrospect and had that feel I enjoy in many neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco (think Lower East Side, the Mission, etc.). It was here that I sought out opportunities to hear local music. At The Spotted Cat I heard quite a few musicians both in traditional jazz idioms and other styles – this seemed to be music for a local crowd rather than for tourists, which is what I was looking for. And it had a cozy, dark, feel, with quirky lighting and artwork.

I did set aside some time to see what had become of the Lower Ninth Ward. In a rented car, I headed east on Claiborne Avenue (LA Highway 39) and crossed over the canal into the district.

I had of course followed the news and seen many images of the Lower Ninth Ward, but it’s another thing entirely to see it in person. And it’s not just one example, it kept going in all directions. And there were very few people around. It was eerily quiet, just me, the ruined buildings and the occasional car passing by. But the Ninth Ward’s history goes back far earlier than Hurricane Katrina, as it was the site were a certain Homer Plessey was removed from a train for sitting in a white car, leading to the infamous Supreme Court case Plessey v. Ferguson.

After the Lower Ninth Ward, I headed back across the canal and north to the edge of Lake Ponchartrain. The lake is huge, one can’t really see across it, especially on an overcast day. The waves and wind made me think of the windy Pacific coast of California.

Here, too, there were signs of what happened to the city, all the more ominous with the gathering storm clouds.

I did not actually leave New Orleans on that particular trip. If I had, I could have headed north over Lake Pontchartrain, which is no small feat. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is 23.83 miles long, and is ctonsidered the longest bridge over water in the world. (Though there is some dispute of the record the the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge in China.)

One can also cross the lake via I-10 on the Twin Span Bridge. At a mere 5.4 miles, the Twin Spans are dwarfed by the causeway, but it is still a respectable length. The original bridges were heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina and have been replaced with newer spans. The lake itself tapers off to the east towards The Regolets, which connect the lake to the Gulf of Mexico. The Regolets pass helps regulate the flow of salt water and fresh water into and out of the lake. As Daily Kos member Crashing Vor points out, it “is one of the rare estuarial passes where, at the right time of day, you can fish for salt water species out of one side of the boat and fresh water from the other.”

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

It is hard to escape from the regions food while exploring its geography. And in truth, why would one want to.

The eastern edge of New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain is also home to NASA’ Michoud Assembly Facility, where many of the rocket and spacecraft engines have been built, including the first stage of the Apollo Saturn V rocket, and the external fuel tank of the Space Shuttle.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

Continuing on I-10 and US 90 east, we could head to Mississippi where we began our article on that state. But instead, we return to New Orleans and the banks of the Mississippi River.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

The river, too, is quite wide an impressive as it passes by the Crescent City – the nickname in fact comes from the bend in river as it passes by the city. We cross the river on the Crescent City Connection to the “west bank”, which is actually south here. We continue on US 90 Business and turn south onto LA 23 towards the town of Belle Chase. LA 23 crosses the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway via an old bridge and tunnel pair, and then hugs the west bank of the Mississippi to the mouth of the river.

The geography of southeast Louisiana is strongly shaped by the interaction of the river and the Gulf of Mexco. This is certainly true of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, but it is most dramatic where the river literally pushes into the gulf. The small fractal-like slivers of land are really just a boundary between the two overlapping bodies of water.

LA 23 ends at the town of Venice, which is the last town accessible by standard automobile. The town really is just wedged on one of these fibrous tendrils of land up against the river. Of course, the remainder of the delta is accessible by boat, including the Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the Pass A Loutre State Wildlife Management Area. The natural environment of the delta, as well as towns such as Venice, have been hit twice in the last decade, first with Hurricane Katrina and then with the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010.

New Orleans continues to function as the hub for this particular virtual exploration. We next head west on I-10 and turn south onto I-310, which crosses the Mississippi on the cable-styled Hale Boggs Bridge.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

We then head north (back on the east bank of the Mississipp) via US 61 to the town of Laplace. I was disappointed to find out this was not named for the Laplace transform in mathematics and signal processing, but on the plus side it is known as the “andouille capital of the world”. And we would be remiss if we did not stop here to sample the famous and tasty sausage.

We continue on I-10 past a junction I-12, which covers the northern side of Lake Pontchartrain, and arrive in the capital Baton Rouge.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

The Louisiana capitol building is quite distinctive. Rather than the typical Greek-inspired dome and columns, it is an Art Deco skyscraper. It in fact looks quite a bit like City Hall in Los Angeles. This capitol building was the “pride and joy” of Governor Huey Long. It is also where he ultimately met his demise in this hallway.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

We then cross the Mississippi again and turn south on Louisiana State Highway 1. At first, it follows the west bank of the river, but then heads southward, beginning a long parallel with LA 308 on opposite banks of Bayou Lafourche. We pass the town of Belle Rose, which I had written about in a post last year in an art-damage moment because it contained Highway 998 and fit well with a poem I had written called “998”. Continuing on LA 1 along the bayou, we come to the town of Thibodaux.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

As in New Orleans, the cemeteries are above ground here as well.

South of Thibodaux, we turn west on US 90. The is a major highway and being upgraded to interstate standards, passing by the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge as well as several towns. We turn south onto LA 329 to Avery Island. This actually is not an island at all, but it is a salt mound that rises in an oddly circular fashion from the flat landscape. It is most known for being the home of Tabasco hot sauce. We at CatSynth are of course fans of all things hot and spicy, and so visiting this factory and a tasting session would be in order.

[Photos courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

We continue on US 90, which passes the towns of New Iberia and St Martinsville, on the Bayou Teche.

[Photo courtesy of Crashing Vor on Daily Kos]

We then come to the city of Lafayette, where we cross I-10 and continue northward on I-49. The area along the highway was part of an ancient flow of the Mississippi that apparently was wider and further west than it is today. Heading northward, the wet environment of southern Louisiana gives way to a drier landscape. Via LA 1 we come to city of Natchitoches, which has the feel of an older historic town.

[By Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

We continue north on I-49 to its end at I-20 near Shreveport, the third-largest city in the state. The bypass highway I-220 spans nearby Cross Lake on a graceful modern bridge. The view from below with the arches is an interesting optical effect.

These dogs in a kayak are also quite admiring of the I-220 bridge.

And we end back along the Mississippi River with this video tribute.

The Other New Orleans

I conclude my series from New Orleans with a visit to the areas beyond the central city and tourist district, areas hardest hit by Katrina. Consider the following overall map of New Orleans:

The Garden District and Tulane University (where the ICMC conference was held) are in the lowel left section. The rectangular area encompasses much of downtown as well as the French Quarter and the Fauborg-Marigny district (home of the Spotted Cat featured in my article on night life). These are highlighted in red and yellow, respectively, below:

To the east of Marigny are the Bywater neighbhood and the Lower Ninth Ward. The latter is probably known to many readers as the site of some of the worst flooding and destruction from the storm.

Heading out of Marigny north on Elysian Fields Ave., the trendy crowded neighborhood gives way to a more spread-out “Los Angeles” style area of separated buildings, convenience stores. Much of this area appears to be functioning again. We then turn east onto Claiborne Ave. (LA 39), one of the main east-west streets in New Orleans. Heading east, one sees more and more of the severly damaged houses, but the scope of the disaster is most apparent after crossing the canal on a large bridge and descending into the Lower Ninth Ward:

It is more than destroyed homes. Entire blocks are either in ruins or empty, all the businesses are boarded up or destroyed. While there is car traffic and some work on houses, the district seems largely empty and devoid of people and activity:

The photos really don't capture the experience in the Lower Ninth Ward. Imagine the images above extending in every direction around you, with no end in sight. These really are ruins of a city. And it should be noted that this is over a year after Katrina and the promised rebuilding and recovery. Part of me thinks that this area should be left this way as a “monument” of sorts – though I suspect the former residents might feel differently.

Heading back west over the canal on Claiborne, we rejoin Elysian Fields heading north towards Lake Ponchartrain. Many of the neighborhoods along the lake were also hard hit by the storm and flooding:

Unlike the Lower Ninth Ward, the areas along the lake do show signs of recovery and of life.

Arriving at the lake is another experience again. It felt a lot like traveling across San Francisco on Geary from downtown west to the ocean, a quieter area with rough waters and windswept shoreline:

The wind, water and trees provide a quiet, almost peaceful, contrast to the devastation, some of which still can be seen only a few blocks south. But one can see in the waves of the lake, only feet below the flood line on a normal somewhat story day, echoes of the storm surge. It was after all the lake and not the Mississippi River that provided much of the initial flooding.

It is here along the lake that I close this article and my reports from New Orleans. The surreal mixture of natural tranquility and destruction seems a fitting contrast and completion to the music and food, the busy conference and stately manors, streetcars and cats. Somehow it all works together.