New Orleans's 40th annual Southern Decadence parade and festival runs August 31 through September 5 (Photo courtesy www.southerndecadence.net)
(August 29) The famed explorer and former French governor of Louisiana, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was born in Montreal in 1680 and founded the city of New Orleans in 1718.
Almost 300 years later, another Montrealer – Bugs Burnett La Bitch, Sieur des Homos – returned to New Orleans for Southern Decadence to do a little, uh, exploring of his own.
|Bourbon Street (Photo courtesy New Orleans CVB)|
That year I unintentionally arrived in N’Awlins on the second anniversary of Katrina on Aug. 29, alongside Anderson Cooper (returning to the Lower Ninth Ward ruins that made him America’s TV emo hero), when I discovered the motorcade at the airport wasn’t for me but for then-President George W. Bush.
But while the feds dithered, New Orleanians were moving on and rebuilding. They knew they needed nothing less than their own Marshall Plan to restore their fabled city to its former glory.
"I lost everything – everything – but I didn’t cry," says my friend Houcine Harrabi, GM of the famed New Orleans record label Jazzology Records, who lost not just his home but all of his personal possessions, including every picture of his late mother. "I’m not bitter. I can’t be selfish. So many others lost friends and family. I still have my friends and community."
|St Charles streetcar (Photo courtesy New Orleans CVB)|
Just two weeks ago, the Queen Diva of Bounce Music, NOLA’s very own Big Freedia, told me, “New Orleans used to be the murder capital of America. But Katrina changed us.I was stuck in the city during Katrina and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Then to see it all on TV…. But it needed to happen to change New Orleans. Katrina not only changed the politics of the city, it helped lower the crime rate. The city is definitely looking better because we got a much-needed facelift. We opened our eyes. Katrina made us appreciate what we have in life.”
Still, the week I was there for Southern Decadence (and I have since been back NOLA another couple times), 642 lawsuits were filed ahead of the U.S. District Court’s Aug. 29 deadline, raising Katrina-related lawsuits to 7,124 – thousands of them citing the Army Corps of Engineers who built the levees.
That same week another 5,262 homeowners filed municipal property tax assessment appeals in a city whose coffers have bled dry – despite the 700,000 spectators who attended Mardi Gras that year, 375,000 concertgoers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and 125,000 tourists at Southern Decadence – and the owners of the Astor Crowne Plaza sold their famed five-star hotel at Canal and Bourbon Streets claiming they could no longer handle the financial drain of the post-Katrina hospitality market.
Chi Chi LaRue hosts 14th annual Big Dick
Contest (Photo Courtesy Chi Chi LaRue )
And the media – “ambulance-chasers like Anderson Cooper,” one tour guide told me – only made the recovery more difficult by focusing on the negative.
But six years after Katrina, New Orleans is once again welcoming millions of visitors per year. The city has overcome challenges including substantial post-Katrina damage to the city’s infrastructure and reputation as well as a national recession, restrictions in corporate business travel, and the BP oil spill. The number of annual visitors has increased from 3.7 million in 2006 to 8.3 million in 2010 - nearing NOLA's all-time high of 10.1 million visitors in 2004. And in 2010 tourists spent $5.3 billion, the most visitor spending in city history.
In other words, there is much for tourists to see and do.
The French Quarter, laid out by Jean Baptiste le Moyne on high ground in 1718, was practically untouched by Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. In fact, it’s cleaner and smells better than it did when I first came here 10 years ago.
And the Quarter remains the heart of New Orleans’ gay community. It was here, at the Bourbon Pub, where I saw famed drag queen/porn director Chi Chi LaRue host her raucous Big Dick Contest, which LaRue will host again this week for the 14th year in a row.
|New Orleans cemetary (Photo courtesy New Orleans CVB)|
Meanwhile, playwright Robert Florence, author of the acclaimed book New Orleans Cemetaries: Life in the Cities of the Dead, gave me a personal tour of the city’s famed and intact cemeteries, visiting the tombs of everybody from voodoo queen Marie Laveaux (a dead-ringer for Queen Latifah) to the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis (whose wife, Varina, sent their children to Montreal during the American Civil War).
Says Robert, "The federal government’s lack of respect for the dead during Katrina – I’ll be angry about that till the day I die."
I also saw Ellis Marsalis perform at the fab French Quarter jazz club Snug Harbor and popped into Tipitina’s, the original Professor Longhair music club (“I once served Robert Plant a Scotch and water, the highlight of my 10 years working here!” says bartender Jules Vicari).
|Bugs (in white wig) parades at Southern Decadence|
“I’m not worried about the musical legacy of New Orleans,” local music legend Allen Toussaint told me a couple summers ago. “The spirit of the music is alive and well. There’s parades in the streets, musicians are working.”
The highlight of Southern Decadence is its outrageous parade, a 40-year-old annual pub crawl that winds its way through the French Quarter and was originally created by gays who felt unwelcome at Mardi Gras.
Each year my dear friends Dan and Dave, who own a B&B in the Quarter, organize a parade contingent. They year I took part in the parade we went as the "Whores for Vitter," the Louisiana senator and "family values" hypocrite caught patronizing the D.C. madam.
I was dolled up in an Esther Williams bathing suit and Marilyn Monroe wig and our group thrilled the cheering throngs snapping pictures and lining the streets in what was the longest red carpet of my life.
I was happy to be back in New Orleans and happier that New Orleans is back too. As Allen Toussaint told me, "New Orleans will live beyond Katrina."
Southern Decadence runs August 31 through September 5, 2011. For more details, surf to www.southerndecadence.net and www.southerndecadence.com.
Tickets for the Envy VIP party can be purchased here
And check out New Orleans CVB official tourism website here as well as their web page (with booking discounts) for Southern Decadence.