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New Orleans open for (tourism) business, with mixed reviews

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Jan 07, 2008

The tourism slogan sounds almost romantic: "Fall in love with New Orleans ... all over again."

In September, NBC's "The Today Show" labeled the city as the second Most Beautiful Place in America. Visitor spending has surged to $5 billion annually, behind the strength of the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Mardi Gras, as well as numerous other events and conventions.

Harrah's Hotel and two Ritz-Carlton properties have reopened after major renovations; the Hyatt Hotel will follow suit in 2009. More than 850 restaurants — including 18 major new ones — are open for business in the metropolitan area.

And on Monday, the city will host college football's national championship game, followed by the NBA All-Star game in February.

New Orleans has seemingly come a long way since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, resulting in flooding that destroyed parts of the city and unleashed horrific human suffering.

It would be easy to take at face value the words of J. Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau: "New Orleans is back and better than ever."

But on the other side, we hear less promising news. On Dec. 20, police used chemical spray and stun guns to subdue dozens of protesters, who wanted to stop the demolition of 4,500 public housing units, when they tried to force their way into City Hall.

Crime remains a problem, with more than 200 murders in 2007. (A Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesperson notes that statistics show "much of the crime is taking place in historically crime-ridden parts of the city.")
Then, there's a matter of perception. A recent University of New Orleans poll of 775 people rated the city as no higher than 3 on a scale of 10 — with 1 representing "the worst city in the U.S." One-third of those surveyed assumed the French Quarter was among the worst casualties of Katrina, when in fact it was largely spared because it sits on high ground.

A staggering 26.5 percent also wrongly believed that some of the city is still under water.

So what is the "real" picture of New Orleans post-Katrina? We asked readers who have visited the city in the past 28 months to share their perspectives and photographs. Here are a few.

Since 2002, Rick Altman of Pleasanton has held an annual Power Point Live User Conference. But his 82-year-old mother — a member of the conference team — balked when he shared his plans to host the 2007 conference in New Orleans.

"She was like, 'Oh Rick, all this doom and gloom around New Orleans. Do you really want to do that?'" he recalled. "But she had a great time. You should have seen her on Bourbon Street with a drink in her hand."

Still, Altman knew he was staking a lot on his choice."I took a chance because there are people who have misgivings about it and here I am putting a spin on it because my livelihood depends on it," he explained. "But ultimately, as I hoped, people not only saw this as an opportunity to visit a city they might not otherwise, but it was a way to show their patriotism in helping to rebuild New Orleans."

Altman saw the difference a year could make in the city's rebuilding efforts. When touring New Orleans in the summer of 2006, he saw considerable devastation.

"When I was at my hotel in the French Quarter, I thought, everything seems normal here," he said. "Then I saw a couple of the lower-lying areas and it was just a different world. There was still debris, just squalor."

In late October 2007, much had changed.

Altman's wife, Becky, joined him to see the city as a tourist. She took the 3-hour Hurricane Katrina tour, visiting the hardest hit areas while a guide told the "whole" story, including her personal experience at the Superdome and evacuation to Houston.

Unlike some tour guides, Becky's made a point of saying she would refrain from being political. "So, I actually didn't think the tour was depressing," Becky said. "I found it uplifting. A lot was cleaned up, and there was rebuilding going on."

Becky also shopped, took a Swamp and Bayou tour, visited the Garden District, sampled the cuisine (loving the beignets and Gulf shrimp) and enjoyed listening to music played on the street.

One member of Rick's conference team brought along his saxophone to join a band or two for a few licks. "The music was fantastic," Rick said, "and it was great to watch a portable musician just walk up and start jamming."

Becky called it one of her most memorable trips. The only downside? "There wasn't enough time to see and do everything I wanted to."

In April, musician Bert Thompson of Orinda accepted invitations from several bands to play at the always-popular Jazz Festival. When he returned, Thompson wrote a review of his trip for several jazz publications, including "South Bay Beat" and "Just Jazz," a British publication.

He witnessed both improvements and continued struggles.

The cleanliness of the streets really stood out, made possible by a new garbage collection company that picks up trash 24 hours a day.

He raved about the "marvelous New Orleans cuisine," from the gumbo and crawfish to the blackened catfish and bread pudding with whiskey sauce.

But it's the lingering aftermath of Katrina that gave him pause: the high number of "For Sale" signs hanging from balconies; a Royal Street antique dealer preparing to permanently close shop because he couldn't make rent; and a Riverwalk Shopping Mall with half the stores still vacant.

Then there was his trip to the Lower Ninth Ward, where the hurricane decimated entire neighborhoods.

Thompson wrote, "Many homes are just about as they were after the water receded — windows gone, bare wall studs revealed by missing siding and, due to the wallboards also being gone inside, providing a view into the ruined home itself."

In December 2006, Livermore's Sandie Gonsalves and her family went to visit her son, who was stationed at an Air Force base in Florida. They decided to take a two-day trip to New Orleans, where they found a great bargain (less than $100 a night) at Holiday Inn-Chateau LeMoyne.

They ate breakfast at Petunias (817 Saint Louis St.) on the morning of the restaurant's re-opening.

"It was really good," Sandie said. "Everywhere we went, the employees in the different shops and restaurants we visited were very friendly and very happy that they had customers again."

But Sandie also noticed many "Help Wanted" posters at various establishments.

While many businesses have rebuilt and re-opened, the work force remains diminished. Not all residents have returned to the city — the Census Bureau estimates that the population fell by almost 50 percent to 223,388, between July 2005 and December 2006. And thousands of blue collar workers who remain have eschewed the service industry for more lucrative construction work.

"There was a certain sadness and ghost-town feel in the air," Sandie said, "but I think the people were slowly picking themselves up and getting on with life. I was happy to be able to help by spending my money."

Those who continue to work in the service industry immediately caught the attention of Donna Eyestone of Alameda.

Eyestone stayed at the downtown Sheraton while attending a conference in August. She enjoyed walking the French Quarter to admire the architecture and tropical plants. A search for the best muffuletta sandwich landed her at Cafe Maspero (601 Decatur St.), "where I had an amazing taste of New Orleans for just $6," she said.

But what impressed her the most was the service everywhere she went.

"From the nearly 45-minute conversation I had with my housekeeper at the Sheraton, to the valets, to the waiters at the restaurants, they were incredible," she said. "I got the impression that people chose those professions, unlike the Bay Area, where they are really writers or artists that need day jobs."

insidebayarea.com

New Orleans open for (tourism) business, with mixed reviews
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