Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is Esplanade Avenue Safe?

Where Bayou Road crosses Esplanade Avenue, New Orleans, LA

We have been getting a few queries as to whether Esplanade Avenue is safe.

Esplanade Avenue is one of the most beautiful streets in New Orleans.  It was originally the "millionaires' row" for the descendants of the original Creole population as old, established families moved out of the French Quarter in the 19th century.  

Esplanade Avenue runs from the bank of the Mississippi River to City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art, about three miles.  On its way, it runs through a gamut of neighborhoods, beginning as the dividing line between the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny.  North Rampart Street forms the back-of-town boundary of the Vieux Carre.  This area is known as Fauborg Treme, after which the HBO television series is named.  Treme is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States.  It is home to the New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indian and second line traditions.  It is a working class neighborhood filled with families who have lived here for generations and will continue to do so for as long as there is a New Orleans to call home.

Claiborne Avenue cuts through Treme.  It once had a wide neutral ground that had four rows of old, shady southern oaks.  In the late 1960s, this parklike neutral ground was replaced by an elevated interstate highway.  The powers-that-be at the time declared Claiborne Avenue blighted in order to erect the I-10 to Slidell.  Progress does not always equal improvement. 
Under the Claiborne Avenue Overpass, New Orleans, LA
Needless to say, the imposition of this highway is not particularly picturesque where Esplanade Avenue crosses Claiborne Avenue.  The grand old architecture on those corners has been replaced by three gas stations (one of them currently closed) and a squat cinderblock store painted purple that sells Manchu fried chicken, Chinese food, and beer.  It is the kind of grocery store that only exists in New Orleans.  There is no other way to say it: this intersection is more eye pickle than eye candy.
The columns under the Claiborne Avenue Overpass are painted with murals
Local people congregate under the highway.  It is an old tradition.  Vendors sell fruit, an elderly lady in a chair sells peanuts, there are panhandlers, people nap on the benches that ring the overpass’s columns, old and young men sit on folding chairs around a radio.  If I were a cautious stranger in an unexpectedly ugly part of town surrounded by groups of people speaking in thick Creole accents I barely understood, I might feel nervous even if no one was paying me attention.  I’ve never encountered any trouble, but I understand why some people may feel uncomfortable crossing under the overpass.  An unaccompanied 47-year-old male U.S. Navy veteran from Boston will never be able to enter this situation the same way as an unaccompanied 47-year-old schoolmarm from Ottumwa.  Safety is a mater of subjective perception. 

The 2200 block of Esplanade Avenue is located midway between Claiborne Avenue and North Broad Street.  As one travels on foot from the direction of the river, the gentrification of the manor houses increases as one makes his or her way from Claiborne.  This stretch of Esplanade includes a middle school and a high school, as well as a corner grocery, several bed and breakfasts, an attorney's office, the Museum of the Free People of Color, the mansion that Edgar Degas called home while he stayed in New Orleans, and other homes included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Home of the best Italian sausage in New Orleans
The neighborhood on the other side of North Broad street is Bayou St. John, a family-oriented, densely knit collection of old homes with two groceries (Terranova's is in its four generation of ownership), a handful of fine restaurants, a book store and a wine shop, two coffee shops, and other amenities.

Is Esplanade Avenue safe?  All types of people make their way on this wonderful thoroughfare.  New Orleans’ Esplanade Avenue is an aptly named street.  An esplanade is a level stretch of ground laid out for walking.  People walk up and down it every day and every night without negative incident.  If you are not a New Orleanian and you don’t feel comfortable with your bearings, you should take a cab, especially at night.  

Many people take a cab up Esplanade Avenue after dark.  Whether they feel unsafe under the Claiborne Avenue Overpass, or they are only full and sleepy after a long night of rich food and jazz in the French Quarter or on Frenchman Street, is a matter of conjecture.  At an adventure’s end, it is probably better to hail a taxi than to navigate New Orleans’ tilting sidewalks at night.  It is trepidatious enough during the day.  The cost of a cab from the the foot of Esplanade Avenue to the 2200 block?  Five minutes travel for five bucks, plus tip for prompt service.  It is a straight line.

Esplanade Avenue is a real street in a real city.  It is alive and full of busy life, all kinds.  Many visitors to the Crescent City choose to stay in a corporate chain hotel in the French Quarter or the Central Business District to partake of a pre-packaged experience without surprises.  A traveler looking to experience the real New Orleans, the city as it is lived by the people who live here, chooses to stay in a neighborhood.  New Orleans is full of surprises around every corner.

There are a number of bed and breakfasts and small inns scattered throughout the city.  Esplanade Ridge is thick with them.  For all the available options, please check out the Professional Innkeepers Association of New Orleans (PIANO).  Consider La Belle Esplanade bed and breakfast, located mid-way between the Mississippi River and City Park, where Bayou Road crosses Esplanade Avenue to form Gayarre Park.  

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