Tuesday, August 28, 2018

City Park

The Carousel at City Park 

          City Park is a 1,300 acre public park in New Orleans. The park has long been a staple of life in New Orleans and has a long and rich history. The park’s collection of live oak trees are one of its one most distinctive features. They are over six hundred years old and have a history dating back before the creation of the park. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, male residents of New Orleans would engage in duels in the area that later became the park. At the time, the oaks sat outside of the city’s population centers in the French Quarter and American Sector (the present day Central Business District). They provided a private location for the city’s gentlemen to settle affairs of honor. Over time, the area became known for the “Dueling Oaks” a pair of oak trees where men frequently met to duel. One of the oaks, however, fell over during a hurricane in 1949.

            In 1854, the 4thDistrict Court of the City of New Orleans declared a plot of land left to the city by a plantation owner named John McConogh to be a public park. The park remained largely undeveloped until the late 19thcentury. In 1891, the City Park Improvement Association was founded and officially gave the park its name. The Improvement Association was part of a broader reform movement in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies that sought to create and preserve open spaces within cities. Pollution from factories and other industries had made cities unpleasant places to live. Dirty air and dirty water sickened residents. Middle and upper-class reformers stressed the need for free, public, and open spaces for residents to enjoy the outdoors. Parks also served as gathering places for public concerts, rallies, and meetings. 

The Oak Trees 

            By the early 20thcentury, City Park had installed a carousel, miniature train, golf course, and a racetrack. The Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, later the New Orleans Museum of Art, opened in 1911. The Improvement Association continued to buy more land surrounding the park, expanding it to its current size. During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration poured millions of dollars into upgrading the park. Artists built statues and murals to decorate the grounds. WPA workers built bridges, roads, and the electrical and plumbing infrastructure. Throughout the ensuing decades, the park added new golf courses, athletic fields, and a rose garden that would later become the city’s Botanical Garden. 

            Hurricane Katrina devastated City Park. The park lost over 1,000 trees and suffered $43 million in damage. About 95% of the park was under several feet of water for about a month. The buildings, rides, equipment, and electrical systems all suffered extensive damage. Years of recovery efforts have repaired and expanded the facilities at the park. The New Orleans Botanical Garden reopened after losing nearly all of its plants as a result of the storm. 

The Botanical Garden 

            Currently, the Botanical Garden is one of the key features of the park. It was created as part of the WPA. After World War 2, however, the Garden lost Federal funding and fell into an extended period of neglect. In the 1980s, the Friends of City Park, another improvement association, fenced in the park, removed the trash, restored the statues and revived the gardens. As the city worked to revive the park, the Botanical Gardens became a popular destination. 

Here are a few other features of the park. 

Tad Gormley Stadium: The stadium was built in 1937 by the WPA. It has hosted high school football games, track and field, and soccer. The New Orleans Pelicans baseball team played there from 1957-1958. In 1969, the New York Mets and Minnesota Twins played a doubleheader at Tad Gormley stadium. Over the years, the stadium has hosted concerts by The Beatles, Pearl Jam, and Journey. Currently the stadium houses the track teams for the University of New Orleans, Tulane, and Xavier. 

The miniature train 

Carousel Gardens Amusement Park: Carousel Gardens is a seasonal amusement park including a small rollercoaster, a Ferris wheel, a miniature train, and the Flying Horses carousel, one of the oldest in the United States. The park is open only on weekends. 

New Orleans Museum of Art: NOMA was created by sugar baron Isaac Delgado in 1911. Delgado felt that the city needed an art museum that rivaled those of other major cities. Currently the museum houses over 40,000 objects from the Renaissance to the present. Their collections are especially strong in the areas of 18thand 19thcentury American and French furniture. It also includes a wide range of European and American art with pieces by Degas, who lived in the city from 1871-1872, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin, Jackson Pollack, and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Six Flags New Orleans

The sign for Six Flags New Orleans 

           Six Flags New Orleans has spent the bulk of its existence as an attraction for thrill-seekers and movie studios rather than as a functioning amusement park. The park opened in 2000, under the name Jazzland, and in late 2002, Six Flags purchased a 75 year lease on the site. They changed the park’s name to Six Flags New Orleans and began operations. The park, however, closed on August 21, 2005, five days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall and never reopened. After the storm, the park was underwater for weeks. Over the years, Six Flags removed some of the salvageable rides and sent them to other parks. In the meantime, the park has continued to decay. All efforts to rehabilitate the site have failed. Yet even before Hurricane Katrina hit, Six Flags New Orleans was struggling to survive. 

            The park opened under the original name of Jazzland in 2000. The company responsible for managing the park, Alpha Smart Parks, had little experience running larger themeparks and Jazzland failed to turn a profit. Jazzland featured several rollercoasters—including one based on the Zephpr rollercoaster found at Pontchartrain Beach in the mid-20thcentury. It also had normal amusement park features like splash rides, spinning rides, and a carousel. A little after a year in operation, Alpha put the lease for the park up for sale. Six Flags bought it in 2002 and changed the name of the park a year later. In 2003, they significantly upgraded the park, adding new rollercoasters and more shaded areas. One of the biggest additions was an inverted rollercoaster called Batman: The Ride. Six Flags had drawn up additional plans for a water park, but Hurricane Katrina prevented it from ever being constructed. 

The park underwater 

            Six Flags New Orleans sits on low ground in New Orleans East. New Orleans East specifically refers to the area east of the Industrial Canal. The park’s drainage pumps failed during the storm and thanks to the storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain, Six Flags remained under water for over a month. The floodwaters ranged from four to seven feet deep.  Nearly of all the rides in the park were completely destroyed. Water damage ruined all of the flat rides and several of the rollercoasters. Only the Batman: The Ride coaster remained salvageable due to its height above the ground and lack of corrosion. In July 2006, Six Flags declared the park a total loss and sought to exit its 75-year lease. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin announced his plans to hold Six Flags to their contract and force them to rebuild. The company, however, only was obligated to build using the money it recovered from insurance payouts. Once Six Flags revealed that it received less than half the value of the assets of the park, the company declared bankruptcy and broke the lease. 

            The location of the park also fueled Six Flags’ desire to break the lease. The park sits in New Orleans East, far away from the French Quarter and other tourist attractions. In the 1960s and 1970s, contractors began building new suburban style sub-divisions in New Orleans East. The goal was to offer suburban living within city limits. New neighborhoods quickly popped up and were filled with middle-class white families. By the 1980s, middle-class African-American families, seeking to escape the city began moving into the area as well. This prompted twenty years of white flight. As whites began moving out and the oil industry collapsed, apartment complexes in New Orleans East began to accept poorer tenants. The influx of poverty brought higher crime rates and the entire region became anathema to many city residents. Following Hurricane Katrina, many residents moved away and never came back. In 2000, 95,000 people lived in New Orleans East. Today the populations sits somewhere between 65,000 and 75,000. 

An abandoned rollercoaster 

            In the years following the storm, multiple companies have offered proposals to redevelop the site. One wanted to double the size of the park to over 60 rides and build a waterpark. Another wanted to construct an outlet mall. Another proposed turning the site into a powerplant. The continued degradation of the site, however, has made any such transformation cost-prohibitive. Yet the site still has some uses. First, it has become a place that people enjoy breaking into and filming their adventures exploring the broken-down rides and abandoned buildings. Second, various Hollywood studios have shot films in the park. These have included, Percy Jackson: Sea of MonstersDawn of the Planet of the ApesJurassic World, and Deepwater Horizon. No films, however, have been shot at the site for 3 years. In the meantime, as the city of New Orleans struggles to find some use for the park, the site continues to deteriorate. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Return of Dixie Beer

            Last week, Gayle Benson, wife of the late New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, announced that Dixie Beerwould spend $30 million to build a new 80,000 square foot brewery and taproom in New Orleans East. The facility is expected to take a year and a half to two years to build. Last year, before Tom passed away, the Bensons  purchased a controlling interest in Dixie Beer with the hopes of relaunching the brand. Dixie Beer represents a crucial piece of the history of beer production in New Orleans. Dixie, founded in 1907, was once one of the leading breweries in New Orleans. The company fell on hard times and nearly closed following Hurricane Katrina. After barely surviving the storm, Dixie practically disappeared from the market until the Bensons’ stepped in. 

Beer production has long been a staple of New Orleans history. The city’s German immigrants brought their knowledge of brewing with them when they settled in Louisiana. The first immigrants arrived in the 1720s, but beer production did not really take off until the 1850s. In 1848, a wave of revolutions aimed at overthrowing Europe’s remaining monarchies and replacing them with democratic forms of government rocked the continent. This uncoordinated wave of democratic rebellion made major advances for representative government in some parts of Europe. In the German states, however, these revolutions failed to overthrow the monarchies causing many Germans to flee to the United States out of fear of political retribution. These Germans settled across the whole United States, including in New Orleans. 

Louis and Samuel Fasnacht, a pair of brothers, opened the first commercial brewery in New Orleans in 1852. Their brewery, however, did not last long and they sold the business in 1869. In 1869, George Merz, another German, opened his own brewery, beginning the golden age of New Orleans beer production. By the end of the 1880s, New Orleans was the biggest beer producer in the South. Merz, Pioneer Merz, Southern Brewing Company, Crescent City Brewing, Weckerling Brewery, Pelican Brewery, Lafayette Brewery, and Louisiana Brewery all competed with one another across the South. Using New Orleans’ location as port of commerce, brewers shipped their beers along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. 

The old Dixie Brewery 

New Orleans beer production continued to expand at the turn of the century. In 1891, Jackson Brewing Company opened up across from Jackson Square in the French Quarter. Named after Andrew Jackson, “JAX”, as it became known, became one of New Orleans’ biggest breweries. In 1907, George Merz’s son Valentine built a brewery at 2401 Tulane Avenue and named it Dixie Beer. The city’s various breweries began to consolidate in order to stave off competition. They bought restaurants and bars where they exclusively sold their own brews. Prohibition, however, proved the death knell for many of the city’s smaller breweries. In 1936, Falstaff, a St. Louis based brewer, purchased National Brewing and muscled its way into the city’s market. By the 1950s, only four brands remained: Falstaff, Regal, Dixie, and JAX. 

The 1950s saw the construction of the Interstate Highway System, connecting the major cities of the United States. These highways significantly reduced the cost of shipping beer nationally. As a result, national breweries flooded the New Orleans market, drowning out the locals. Regal closed down in 1962. JAX shut its doors in 1974, although the brewery is now a shopping center that still bears the company name. The Falstaff brewery closed in 1979. Only Dixie managed to survive, albeit in a much weakened form. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded the Mid-City brewery. Looters stole much of the company’s equipment and left the factory in total disarray. The business survived by paying other brewers to produce Dixie.  

The New Dixie Brewery 

According to the plans announced by Gayle Benson, Dixie’s new brewery will begin producing 1,000 barrels per month. They plan to ramp up production to 5,000 to 6,000 barrels per month or about 72,000 barrels per year. They plan to hire about 60 employees and hope to grow their workforce to about a hundred people. Benson and New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell believe that the brewery will revitalize the economically moribund New Orleans East. New Orleans East—long home of the bulk of the city’s African-American residents—suffered horribly in Katrina. Floods drove many residents from their homes and many middle and upper-class African-Americans moved elsewhere rather than rebuild. 

Yet Dixie’s path to success is not clear. Dixie’s staple beer is a light lager similar to Miller Lite and Bud-Light. Additionally, in the past 30 years, New Orleans, like the rest of the United States, has seen an explosive in craft breweries. Abita, the first of the New Orleans craft breweries, opened in 1986, produces 150,000 barrels per year, and receives 40,000 visitors to its taproom. Royal Brewing, a newly opened craft brewery in New Orleans East makes only 1,500 barrels per year. NOLA Brewing pushes out 10,500 barrels per year. While old and faded Dixie Beer signs dot the sides of buildings across New Orleans, the resurgent brewery will have to find a way to stand out in a crowded field. 

For a brief history of New Orleans brewing, see this article.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Antoine's: A Culinary Legend

            Opened in 1840 in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Antoine’s is perhaps the most important restaurant in the history of New Orleans. Created by a French immigrant named Antoine Alciatore, the restaurant is still run his descendants. Throughout its long history, Antoine’s has come to symbolize New Orleans’ creole cuisine. Creole cooking is the fusion of the cooking traditions of New Orleans’ many immigrant communities into a new and original culinary tradition. Dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice are all traditional creole dishes. Yet throughout much of its history, Antoine’s described itself as a French restaurant. Only recently has the restaurant come to embrace its foundational role in the evolution of New Orleans cuisine. 

The exterior of Antoine's

            Antoine Alciatore was born in 1822 in France. He worked in French restaurants in the port city of Marseilles before leaving for the United States in 1838. He eventually settled in New Orleans where he opened a boarding house and restaurant in the city’s French Quarter. Thanks to Alciatore’s culinary creativity, the restaurant soon grew in popularity. Alciatore and his son, Jules, who eventually took over the restaurant, gained a reputation for their culinary creativity. Famed dishes included Beef Robespierre—marinated beef tenderloin, cook rare served with a sauce of stock, sweetbreads and chicken livers. The dish, the chef claimed, reminded him of a story his father had told about witnessing the execution of French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in 1793. Jules later invented Pompano en Papillote—white fish baked in parchment paper and served tableside allowing the diner to cut the bag open. The list of famous dishes pioneered by Antoine’s is nearly endless, but includes: Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Bienville, Toast St. Antoine (crabmeat in wine and Bech├ímel sauce) and Filet of Sole Joinville (poached sole with a white-wine sauce with mushrooms, truffles, and shrimp). 

            Despite branding themselves as a French restaurant, the Alciatores’ menu relied some of the key features of creole cuisine. They incorporated local shellfish like Gulf oysters and shrimp. The Pompano (of Pompano en Papillote) is a fish found primarily along the Eastern and Gulf coasts of the United States, but not in France. The menu also began to include locally made sausages—a contribution from German immigrants, African spices—the involuntary contribution of African slaves, and coffee—another American innovation. Yet the Alciatores and their descendants remained devoted to the idea of Antoine’s as a French restaurant. Historically, French cuisine has long been considered the best in the world. Creole cuisine was the bastard child of mostly non-French cooking traditions. Antoine’s even kept its menu only in French until the 1990s. 

            In 1877, Antoine’s moved from its original location to its present day home on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter. The restaurant features 15 dining rooms with the capacity to seat over 700 patrons. Each dining room has its own particular name and history. Some, like the Rex, Proteus, and 12thNight Revelers, are named after famous Mardi Gras Krewes where the walls feature decades old memorabilia. During Prohibition, the famed “Mystery Room” served alcohol against state law. Guests went through a door in the women’s bathroom into a secret room where they would exit with a coffee cup full of liquor. When asked where the liquor came from guests would answer, “It’s a mystery to me.” The Japanese Room, designed in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, features Asian style decorations. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, then owner Roy Alciatore closed the room. It remained closed for another 43 years. The restaurant also features a 165 foot long and 7 foot wide, wine cellar—though it’s more of a wine alley due to New Orleans’ position below sea level. 

            Antoine’s reached the height of its fame and prestige under Antoine Alciatore’s son, Jules. In 1877, after receiving four years of culinary training in France, Jules took over the restaurant from his mother. She had taken control of the restaurant in 1874 after Antoine had returned to France—wishing to be buried in his homeland. During his time running Antoine’s, Jules invented Oysters Rockefeller. The restaurants welcomed presidents and celebrities like Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Babe Ruth. While the restaurant appealed to some of the nation’s leading cultural figures, Jules also catered to the New Orleans elite. Antoine’s provided regular customers with their own personal waiters rather than assigning patrons to waiters at random. These repeat customers could make reservations directly with their waiters and be guaranteed a table when they wished. It became a mark of social distinction amongst the New Orleans elite to have their own waiter at Antoine’s. The waiters themselves also benefitted from the repeated patronage of their guests and attaining the job of waiter carried a certain standing above those at other restaurants. 

The interior of Antoine's 

            By the last quarter of the 20thcentury, the New Orleans culinary landscape had begun to change and Antoine’s struggled to keep pace. The restaurant remained devoted to its French roots and style of service. Regulars kept the restaurant afloat, but the a new wave of affordable and less stuffy restaurants had emerged onto the dining scene. Mr. B’s Bistro, home of barbecued shrimp, marked the expansion of the Brennan family’s (they own Commander’s Palace amongst other restaurants) restaurant empire. Paul Prudhomme, former chef at Commander’s Palace, opened K-Paul’s in the French quarter and reinvigorated Cajun cuisine. Gone were the refined and traditional restaurants, replaced by minimalist designs where the chef and the food were the stars. 

            In 2005, Rick Blount, a descendant of the Alciatores, took over as owner and manager of Antoine’s. Less than six months later, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Winds caused some of the walls at the attic level to collapse onto the street below. The walls of the main dining room bulged out and the ceiling nearly collapsed. The loss of power and air conditioning resulted in the loss of some 15,000 bottles of wine. Remarkably, the restaurant survived and reopened in January 2006 and Blount devoted his efforts to turning the restaurant’s fortunes around. As the city began its slow recovery in the aftermath of the hurricane, Antoine’s began to recover as well. Blount reduced the size of the menu to something more manageable—cutting down on food costs. He created the Hermes Bar featuring an informal menu and a jazz brunch. 

            As a result, Blount kept Antoine’s afloat during the worst crisis confronted by the city of New Orleans. Antoine’s remains one of the city’s restaurant gems in terms of food and its contribution to the history of New Orleans.