NEW ORLEANS – At night, the neighborhood of Foubourg-Marigny — an up-and-coming hipster haven just a stone’s throw from the rowdier and more touristy French Quarter — doesn’t have the blaring, canned recordings of a trumpet playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” or the infamous fishnet-stockinged legs peeking through the walls of a popular Bourbon Street strip club, but the sounds of celebration are still overwhelming.
In Mimi’s, a two-story neighborhood haunt with balconies that overlook two unmistakably New Orleanian streets, hordes of former Crescent City residents had gathered to toast “the old days” and what they hoped would be a rejuvenated city.
“Not so much an Irish wake as … well, what would you call it?” one woman asked her friend as they waited in a long line for a bathroom.
“A christening,” the friend said. “A re-baptism."
The usual paraphernalia of a New Orleans bar in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday were there — beads draped around necks and over the backs of chairs, scattered plastic doubloons, unforgivably sugary alcoholic drinks, an old drunk at the door in a purple, green and yellow jester’s hat greeting all newcomers — but the atmosphere wasn’t that of the average Mardi Gras.
Topics of conversation invariably came around to talk of insurance adjustments, FEMA payouts and beloved bars and restaurants that might never open again.
Only two months earlier, nights out ended because of the citywide curfew, and it was impossible to find a restaurant open after 10 p.m.
“You’d have to be in line for two hours,” said Meredith Grover, 29, an interior designer who lives in the Irish Channel neighborhood. “Grocery stores would close at 5, and then you’d go to the restaurants, which would take two hours to get into, so you’d just have to go home and eat popcorn.”
But the general consensus was that the city that prided itself on its nightlife was definitely on the
rebound — and had been for longer than most of the United States gave it credit for.
“It’s definitely back, that’s for sure,” Grover said. “I knew it was coming back on Halloween night, because I saw this group of artists from the Ninth Ward and the Bywater totally dressed up and playing music on Decatur and Frenchman, and this one group got on top of this National Guard Humvee ... and they didn’t do anything about it. It was pretty amazing to see this writhing group of bodies on a balcony. It was like Mardi Gras.”
Many pointed to the fact that big-name artists have begun flocking back to NOLA to perform, sometimes on their own, sometimes alongside local favorites like Mr. Quintron, an eccentric but popular organ player from the Ninth Ward, among the most-devastated neighborhoods in the city.
Newcomers to the city were thrilled that the city’s rejuvenated nightlife exceeded its decadent Bourbon Street reputation.
“It was a lot safer, not as crazy as I expected,” 31-year-old Houston nurse Layla Alfadel-Reed said. “I expected a whole bunch of teenagers flashing their boobs — but you could actually get actually adult entertainment here.”
About five miles away, partygoers dressed in spaceman costumes or as various esoteric popular-culture characters crowded into a loft apartment and a camper-trailer parked out front. As damaged as New Orleans might be, there was still nothing like coming back, many said.
“Thawing out at Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best medicine,” said Sarah Lechago, 30, a graduate student who recently moved to frosty Kalamazoo, Mich.
And for those who never left, the long work ahead wasn’t so much a hardship to be endured as yet another possibility for one of the United States’ most storied cities.
“There’s no other place like this on Earth,” Tulane University law student Mike Higgins, 29, said. “New Orleans will always be here. It may be smaller, but it will always be here in some form, and I hope to stick around and see what form that takes.”