November 11-10, 2001: Fall Trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma
August 15-29, 2001: I Make a Trip to Florida
Return to the Index for 2001


September 1-3, 2001
A Visit to New Orleans and
"Southern Decadence"

 

Four years ago, in 1997, we came to New Orleans for Southern Decadence. That gathering is like a gay Mardi Gras, held over Labor Day each year. It attracts a huge crowd, and Bourbon Street is like being at a gay bar for a couple of days. At that time, we were came down with Lowery Evans and Ron Drew and had a good time. As you may know already, Lowery died late last year. On our trip to Florida early this year, we discussed with Ron the possibility that he might want to come with us this year, and indeed he made plans to do so. We also discussed the trip with our friends, Ty and Scott from Fort Lauderdale, and they, too, thought it would be a fun trip to make.


Me, Ty, Scott and Ron at the Royal Sonesta

Finally, our friend from Dallas, Mike Racke, will also be coming through town; we found out that he planned to do a stopover in New Orleans on his return from a job assignment in California. So it promises to be a neat weekend with all these friends here. (We were, of course, unaware that this would be the last time we would see Mike, and also the last trip we'd take before everything changed so drastically a week later.)

We booked rooms at the Royal Sonesta Hotel right on Bourbon Street, and would use that as our base of operations for our three days here. Fred and I flew in early Saturday morning, and by noon Ron Drew had arrived. We had a bit of lunch, and then went out to walk along Bourbon street for a short while. Here are Ron and I on Bourbon Street. We walked another block east, stopping at the next intersection where we found a street performer.

By early afternoon, Ty and Scott had also arrived and checked in (Mike arrived on Sunday afternoon). We took a look around the hotel before heading out for a walk; there are clickable thumbnails below for a couple of pictures we took in the hotel:


 

On the St. Charles Streetcar

Our first afternoon wasn't a full day here, and not everyone had arrived until after lunch, so we thought that we would first take a ride on the St. Charles Street streetcar line and then have a walk back to the French Quarter.


On the map at left, you can see that we left the hotel and walked down to Canal Street to catch the streetcar. We walked up and down that street looking for the best place to get on, eventually locating the appropriate streetcar stop and boarding the streetcar.

We just rode the streetcar a mile or two down its route- maybe about halfway to the arboretum and zoo, then got off and walked along some of the side streets off St. Charles just looking at the architecture and in the windows of the shops. There were lots of neat older houses, like the two different ones you can see here and here, and the art galleries and shops were also interesting to see.

You can use the clickable thumbnails below to see some other photographs that we took on the streetcar and along our walk:

We eventually headed back to the hotel to relax and decide where to have dinner (which turned out to be a little local place on Royal Street). After dinner, we did go out for a walk along Bourbon Street, which was, by now, getting full of "family." We stopped at two different places for drinks and to watch the crowd. It being nighttime, we didn't think to bring our cameras along, so the next pictures for the album would be from tomorrow.

 

Southern Decadence

Since it was founded in 1718, New Orleans has marched to the beat of its own drum. For two centuries, those in control of the Louisiana state government have tried in vain to impose their prejudices on a city that is French, Spanish, Creole, African, Catholic, pagan and very gay (in both senses of the word). If nothing else, New Orleans knows how to throw a party, from the world-famous Mardi Gras to other, more specialized celebrations.


How Festive Can You Get?

This is what we came for, and we spent much of Sunday walking through the streets of the French Quarter; there was plenty to see during this Labor Day, gay-oriented celebration that began almost forty years ago.

In August of 1972, by a group of friends (6-10 at various times) were living in a ramshackle cottage house at 2110 Barracks Street in the Treme section of New Orleans, just outside of the French Quarter. It was in desperate need of repair, and even with so many occupants, it was often difficult to come up with the $100/month rent. One might imagine the house to be stereotypical; it had just one bathroom, with a clawfoot tub and a couch. Everyone became close friends, and while one might soak in the tub, another would recline on the couch and read A Streetcar Named Desire aloud. The Tennessee Williams play inspired the residents to fondly name the house "Belle Reve" in honor of Blanche DuBois' Mississippi plantation.

On a sultry August afternoon in 1972, that this band of friends decided to plan a "hail and farewell" party; one housemate was leaving and another, a New Yorker, arriving (and complaining constantly about the heat). As a riff on the "Belle Reve" theme, the group named the event a "Southern Decadence Party: Come As Your Favorite Southern Decadent," requiring all participants to dress in costume as their favorite "decadent Southern" character.

According to a later storyteller, "the party began late that Sunday afternoon, with the expectation that the next day (Labor Day) would allow for recovery. Forty or fifty people drank, smoked, and carried on near the big fig tree ... even though Maureen (the New Yorker) still complained about the heat."


Way Beyond A Streetcar Named Desire

The following year the group met at a bar to show off their costumes, then they walked back to "Belle Reve." This was the first Southern Decadence parade- only about 15 people.

In 1974, the group named Frederick Wright as the first Grand Marshal, hoping to provide at least a modicum of order. For the next six years, the format of the celebration changed little. The founding group continued to appoint each year's Grand Marshal by consensus. Some were gay, some were not. But all were members of the founding group.

By 1981, most of the original organizers had moved on with their lives. Many felt that the event had become so big that it was no longer the intimate party they had started nine years earlier. Of the original group, only Grand Marshal V Robert King was actively participating. He, along with some of his friends that hung out at the Golden Lantern bar, thought it was worth continuing and they took over the festivities, and it was at this point that Southern Decadence became primarily a gay event.

Other changes made that year included moving the starting point of the annual parade and allowing Grand Marshals to personally name their own successors. Both of these traditions continue today. And in 1987, the Grand Marshal began to make a proclamation of the official theme, color and song.

The rest, as they say, is history. What began as a little costume party is now a world-famous gay celebration. By this year, it has mushroomed from a small gathering of friends to a Labor Day weekend tradition, attracting over 110,000 participants, predominantly gay and lesbian, and generating almost $125 million in tourist revenue. This annual economic impact ranks it among the city's top five tourist events.


The Crowd at Southern Decadence

The streets are particularly "festive," and it seems as if local authorities refrain from enforcing dress standards that would otherwise be in effect (adults only should click here). In one particularly odd coincidence, a fellow I didn't recognize (the shirtless guy with the cap who is talking to me here came up and called me by name. I was flattered; he worked in the St. Louis office of the component of McDonnell-Douglas that I did consulting work for in the late 1980s; I had seen him frequently on my many assignments that took place there.

We wandered through the streets for the better part of the afternoon just watching the crowd. The streets were full, as were all the bars and particularly their balconies. Those were full of guys throwing beads to each other in recognition of good costumes or other "qualities". You can use the many clickable thumbnails below to see some pictures that we took of the crowd and the costumes:

Described by one reporter as "a happening of haberdashery fit for an LSD Alice in Wonderland," Southern Decadence always seems to not only live up to its reputation as the country's largest gay street fair, but often outdoes itself. The planning and arrangements begin in earnest six weeks before Labor Day. The real party starts on the Wednesday before Labor Day, and the events are non-stop. It picks up steam daily as it nears Sunday's big street parade, which rivals New Orleans' Mardi Gras in scope, with the party lasting well into the day on Monday.

This was, of course, our second time to come to Southern Decadence; it is always enjoyable, much like a three-day combination of Halloween and being in a gay bar.


At left are a few more clickable thumbnails for some of our pictures taken on Sunday at Southern Decadence.

I did discover some interesting facts about the celebration that relate to events after our attendance this year. For example, the event was cancelled in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, and for the first time the two Grand Marshals (Lisa Beaumann and Regina Adams) reigned for both 2005 and 2006. Perhaps this turned out to be a good thing, for this happened a second time in 2008 and 2009.

We did watch the parade as well, but it was way too crowded for us to get any really good pictures. Imagine Mardi Gras poking fun at itself and you will get the idea.

Fred has just recently gotten a camera that can take movies, and he took a number of short ones while we were walking through the Southern Decadence festivities. All of them simply show the crowd and some of what was going on. You can use the players below to watch any that you care to:

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The French Quarter and Jackson Square

Though interesting and fun to watch, Southern Decadence wasn't the only reason to visit New Orleans. We've been here before, and there is lots to see in the French Quarter- particularly Jackson Square.


At left is an aerial view of the Jackson Square area. I won't bother to trace the path we took through the square; it was pretty convoluted (so we could see everything) and immaterial in any case.

But as we talk about what is in the Square, you can place those features on the aerial view. (The Andrew Jackson Statue is right in the middle.

We came to the square from the French Quarter, which is mostly out of the picture to the left. The riverfront is out of the picture to the lower right; the cathedral faces the river.


Me in Jackson Square

Jackson Square was designed after the famous 17th-century Place des Vosges in Paris, and is roughly the size of a city block. It contains Sculptor Clarm Mills's 1856 statue of Battle of New Orleans hero and U.S. President Andrew Jackson, for whom the square was named in 1815. Iron fences, walkways, benches, and Parisian-style landscaping remain intact from the original design, while the pedestrian mall area around the Square was created when three surrounding streets Chartres, St. Peter, and St. Ann were closed in 1971. The flagpole, commemorating the city's transfer from Spain to France to the United States in 1803, symbolizes the square's rich cultural history.

Early French colonial New Orleans was originally centered around what was then called the Place d' Armes. After the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the square was renamed for the victorious United States general Andrew Jackson. The square originally overlooked the Mississippi River across Decatur Street, but the view was blocked in the 19th century by the building of taller levees. In the 20th century, a scenic boardwalk was built on top of the levee to reconnect the city to the river.

On the north side of the square are three 18th-century historic buildings, which were the city's heart in the colonial era. The center of the three is St. Louis Cathedral. The cathedral was designated as a minor Basilica by Pope Paul VI. To its left is the Cabildo, the old city hall, now a museum, where the final version of the Louisiana Purchase was signed. To the Cathedral's right is the Presbytere, built to match the Cabildo. The Presbytere originally housed the city's Roman Catholic priests and authorities; at the start of the 19th century, it was adapted as the city hall, and in the 20th century became a museum.

On the other two sides of the square are the Pontalba Buildings- matching red-brick, block-long 4-story buildings built in the 1840s. The ground floors house shops and restaurants; the upper floors are apartments; they are the oldest continuously rented apartments in North America. One odd statistic is that more tarot card readers can be found here than anywhere else in America.

From the 1920s through the 1980s the square was famous as a gathering place of painters of widely varying talents, including proficient professionals, talented young art students, amateurs, and caricaturists. The square is still a very popular venue for artists, musicians and varied street performers, such as jugglers and magicians; the square is rarely without their music. While we were here at the Square, Fred made a few movies of the performers; you can use the players below to watch the two best of them:

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We took a number of other pictures today on our walk through the French Quarter, to Jackson Square and along the riverfront. We would have taken more, but the day was overcast and threatening. But you can use the clickable thumbnails below to see the pictures that we did take:

 

 

A Mississippi Steamboat Ride

On our last day in New Orleans, we are also going to do something that we have done before- take a ride on a Mississippi River steamboat. There is one that runs between the zoo and downtown. Just Ty, Scott, Fred and I will do the steamboat ride; Ron Drew had an earlier flight back home than we did, so he stuck around the hotel. Before we left him for our jaunt, we took a few pictures outside the Royal Sonesta, as Fred and I traded out taking pictures of the group. You can see those pictures here and here.


As we did last time we were here, we took the St. Charles Avenue streetcar out to Audubon Park, walked through the park and alongside the zoo to a landing on the Mississippi. As we passed between the park and the zoo, there was a new sculpture that we hadn't seen on our last trip here.

We got to the landing and had a wait of about a half-hour until the boat came upriver to the landing from downtown and we boarded.

The steamboat costs about $5, as I recall; it isn't very large, but there's a little place to get refreshments, decks that you can walk around, an engine room you can visit and seating both inside and outside. I, of course, liked walking around the deck.

There isn't a lot to see along the way from the zoo to the US 90 bridge near downtown, although on a pretty day the ride is still quite nice. Today, however, it is very cloudy and those clouds were quite dark at times, so we mostly stayed under cover on the deck.

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As I said, one of the things we could do on board was walk through the engine room, and we did that. It wasn't very large, but it certainly was noisy. Fred made one short movie in the engine room, and you can use the player at right to watch it.

We also took some pictures here, and you can use the clickable thumbnails below to see some of them:


The ride along the river, which takes about an hour to get from the zoo to the downtown landing, was fun before and it was fun today, even with the bad weather.


Fred, Ty and Scott on the Steamboat

I admit, there isn't much to see until you get close to downtown, but a short ways out there is a lot of shipping traffic that is going by, plus some oil installations and other stuff. We took a selection of pictures along the way, and you can use the clickable thumbnails below to see some of them:


Once we were through the more commercial area where the ships were, we came to the main highway bridge downtown over the river, and of course the boat went under it.


The downtown area and the bridge were interesting when viewed from the boat, and we took a number of pictures in the short distance between the bridge and the dock downtown where the riverboat stopped. You can use the clickable thumbnails below to see some of these pictures (sorry about the overcast, threatening skies):


Fred took two more short movies as we were nearing downtown. The first shows the riverbanks of the Mississippi gliding by as we approached the highway bridge, and the other shows us coming in to the downtown area and you can see the St. Louis Cathedral going by us. You can use the two players below to have a look at these movies:

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Towards the end of our ride, we got two good pictures that lent themselves to being cropped into widescreen, panoramic views. You can see these two panoramas below:

 

At the Royal Sonesta Hotel

By the time we got back to the Royal Sonesta, the weather had cleared considerably. Ty and Scott had a late afternoon flight back to Fort Lauderdale, so they left us soon after we got back. But Fred and I still had some time before our early evening flight back, so we spent our last time today by going up to the Royal Sonesta's rooftop garden for a while to take in the views of New Orleans from there.


From the Rooftop Garden at the Royal Sonesta Hotel

From the rooftop, you could see all of downtown New Orleans to the southwest and all of the French Quarter and Jackson Square to the east. Although we were looking at it from the side, we could, of course, see the St. Louis Cathedral.

We took some really good pictures up here on the rooftop, and you can use the clickable thumbnails below to see some of them:


It had really turned into quite a nice day, just in the hour or so that we'd been off the riverboat, and it was a pleasure to spend it up here with these views of the city.

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Fred made a movie of the New Orleans cityscape from here atop the hotel, and you can use the player at right to watch it.

When we went back down to the lobby to retrieve our bags (and change clothes for the trip home), Fred took one more picture of some butterfly orchids that were growing in the lobby just inside the doors to the garden.

Then we hailed a cab and headed back to the airport for our Southwest flight back to Dallas. We had a good trip, although coming here isn't something I'd particularly want to do every year.

You can use the links below to go to another album page.


November 11-10, 2001: Fall Trip to Arkansas and Oklahoma
August 15-29, 2001: I Make a Trip to Florida
Return to the Index for 2001