I stand at the back window of our French Quarter apartment at dawn. As the sun rises over the west bank of the Mississippi River, its rays brush the spires of the St. Louis Cathedral. No, that’s not a typo. The Mississippi River, flowing south from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, lies south of New Orleans, running west to east here. It cuts a ninety degree turn at Algiers Point, flowing south again and putting the river, at that location, east of the city, even though to travel to Texas and points west of New Orleans, one must cross The Big Muddy.
Confused? You should be. I’m a native of this town and still don’t understand. Two main thoroughfares, St. Charles and Carrollton avenues, both intersect Canal Street at perfect right angles. One would assume, therefore, that these avenues are parallel. Wrong. Approximately four miles upriver, they meet at a right angle. Because our streets follow the twisting and turning of the Mighty Mississippi, they lay out like al dente fettuccine on a pasta platter. This random meandering of the streets has caused most New Orleanians to forego using cardinal compass points when giving directions. Our four reference points are uptown (which corresponds with up river), downtown (which is down river), lake side, or river side. Our fifth dimension is Westbank, which as you have learned isn’t actually west, but either west, south, or east of the Mississippi depending on your location on the east bank at a given moment in time.
Then there’s our transit system, the Regional Transit Authority, or RTA, which operates the buses and streetcars. (Streetcars are like trolleys, but don’t call them that.) Note that the “R” in RTA, does not stand for “rapid.” Our son and his family rode a streetcar from the French Quarter to Audubon Zoo, located uptown from the Quarter. The five mile trip, counting a walk from St. Charles Avenue through Audubon Park to the zoo located on the river side of the park, took about an hour and a half. If you are a tourist, it’s time well spent. You’ll see lovely homes along the avenue as the streetcar rocks you toward your destination, and the stroll through the park to the zoo beneath a canopy of live oaks is a leisurely, paved, one mile walk. My advice: Take the streetcar there and Uber back. Notice I said “Uber back.” That’s because hailing a taxi in New Orleans is impossible, and phoning for one isn’t much better.
Now, about the buses. Like all major cities, our buses are numbered to correspond with a destination. For example, the eleven takes you to Magazine Street, but don’t ask a local where to catch the eleven bus. We don’t use the numbers. Ask for the Magazine bus. One evening, my husband and I had planned to meet friends from New York at Cafe Degas on Esplanade and asked if they wanted us to pick them up. “No, thank you,” they said, “we’ll take the ninety-one and meet you there.” We had no clue what they were talking about. We’ve lived here a total of one hundred forty years and had never heard a bus called by anything other than a street name.
Streetcars have only names, no numbers. Don’t be afraid to board one labeled “Cemeteries.” You’ll find yourself dropped off at the end of Canal Street. There you’ll discover several cemeteries, where the dead might spend eternity in a tomb grander than their residence in life. After visiting a cemetery, you can transfer to the Lakeview bus—number forty-five for you out-of-towners—and ride out to the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which is located on the north side of the city.
Ferries are another transportation option. You can board the Algiers Point/Canal Street ferry at the foot of Canal Street. For a mere $2.00 ($1.00 for seniors), you’ll float east across the Mississippi River to the Westbank. Several restaurants are within easy walking distance once you arrive at the Point. Stay for lunch, walk the historic neighborhood, and take the ferry or the Algiers Point bus—the one-o-one—back to the east bank.
Getting around the French Quarter is best done on foot. The Quarter is laid out in a grid, and street names are set in blue and white tiles on the sidewalk. North Peters, Decatur, Chartres, Royal, Bourbon, Dauphine, Burgundy, and Rampart run down river from Canal Street. The first block from Canal is the 100 block, second block 200, and so on. The French Quarter ends at Esplanade, which is the end of the 1300 block. Cross streets run from the river to Rampart, the lower numbers starting at the river.
One last piece of advice: When walking in the Quarter, if someone bets you he can tell you “where you got them shoes,” the correct answer is, “On my feet.”