I used to love walking Laurel Canyon in L.A. The hills provided a challenging hike and I could look into at all of the gardens and homes along the way. The architecture was a mix of hippy friendly rambling homes, modern glass and concrete homes or stucco Mediterranean homes. The history of the canyon included residents like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Joni Mitchell. The canyon was originally used for country homes (after they got rid of those pesky natives) by people who worked in the city in the early 1900’s, but the building boom there wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s using model home prototypes or strange marriages between a variety of styles. The homes were eclectic, if not beautiful.
Then, I moved to Hollywood and was surrounded by mostly apartment buildings built in the last 50 years. No more hill. No more trees, with the exception of the stark palms. No more nature. Lots of alarms, sirens and helicopters. But I kept walking. It was like Manhattan minus all the culture outside of movie culture. Lots of tourists and street kids. I found it hard to be happy living there.
I was worried when I moved to new Olreans that I would miss the hills, and I do. I was concerned that I would miss the bucolic feeling of nature the hills afforded just 5 minutes from Sunset Blvd., and I do. But, I LOVE walking here. I love walking all over New Orleans, but especially the Garden District.
Like Laurel Canyon, the area was built by Americans trying to get away from the city. The Americans came to New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Creoles living in the city named the “Garden District” for its outsized front gardens. It was meant as a derogatory term for the tackiness of putting a garden in the front of the house in a large yard, something they viewed as back-of-the-house. They were apparently equally offended by the grandeur of the large homes, mostly built from 1848-1873.
I, however, am not offended. The homes are so beautiful, full of quirky details, and the front yards seem modest by today’s suburban standards. The sidewalks are broken and kicked up by Live Oak roots instead of earthquakes. Some are stone, some slate, some herringbone brick and some regular poured concrete. Most are marked by ceramic tiles spelling out the street names.
Though there are far more homes on far smaller lots now and cars are parked along the roads, it’s easy to imagine being in another time. The posts still inviting you to tie your horse, carriage houses and the horse drawn carriages offering tourists a trip through time, all serve as reminders that these potholed streets were once dirt. It’s easy to picture the women in hoops and boning under their cumbersome clothes, the men in hats (actually, the men here still wear hats), a time before cars and TV and phones and computers, a time of eating meals together made without microwaves or drive-thrus, a time of speaking to people in person or by letter.
I was really enjoying the song on my iPod when I happened upon a wedding at someone’s home. A brass band played “Li’l Liza Jane” on the front porch while women in pastel and bows and bling chatted with men in seersucker or linen suits. I turned off my music for the first time since I’d walk down Hollywood Blvd. after Michael Jackson’s death and people would be blaring his music as they drove by his star on the Walk of Fame. As I rounded the corner, the band started in on “When the Saints Go Marching In” and it hit me that I’d stumbled onto more weddings in the last week or so than in the entire 17 1/2 years I lived in Los Angeles. Not sure what that’s about.
People here mostly wave when you cross their paths, nod at least, and some speak a greeting despite my antisocial earphones. People mostly pretended I was invisible, or rather that they were, in L.A. Playful decorations personalize everything from doors to lampposts. Street signs, phone poles, nothing escapes this city’s love for festooning and festivity. I’ve photographed some of it for you but wasn’t able to relocate a sign I passed saying, “CAUTION: GRANDPARENTS PLAYING.”
And then there’s the beads. Many are still strewn in the trees on Magazine Street, but St. Charles looks like Mardi Gras was last week, not 4 months and several windy storms ago. Walking back to my house, I could still picture the floats rolling down the street, kids on shoulders reaching for throws, masked people in elaborate costumes with a beer in one hand and beads in the other looking for someone to throw to. I could still hear the bands and the chanting of “Who Dat!?!” as we all got “Krunk.”
I went to a movie later at the Prytania theatre. Going to movies is one of my favorite things to do, escaping for 2 hours into someone else’s imagination. But, I realize now that I’ve married movie-going and L.A. in my mind. In L.A., movies weren’t only my escape, they were my profession, my culture and the basis for many of my friendships. I got used to walking out of theatres into the places where the movies were shot. I got used to watching them with the people who’d made them. It all became one thing for me.
As the movie ended and the lights came up, I realized I was in Louisiana, that when I left this theatre I’d be walking into New Orleans… and I was filled with joy.
One response to “Walking the Garden District”
Thanks for taking me along for the walk. What amazing houses!