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Beyond Bourbon Street : Along Its Revitalized Riverfront, a "New" New Orleans Gives the French Quarter a Run for Its Money

January 06, 1991|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Lichtenstein, a New York-based journalist, is writing a book about New Orleans music. and

NEW ORLEANS — The Big Muddy is finally a star attraction in the Big Easy.

By 8 p.m. on a recent pre-holiday evening, hundreds of people carrying daquiris or beer in plastic cups (open containers are not only allowed here, they are practically de rigueur ) were milling about in Spanish Plaza, a stylish open space next to Riverwalk Festival Marketplace. A barge all gussied up like a Mardi Gras float but bearing a garish Christmas tree, sailed up the Mississippi to the ferry dock. Cafe du Monde, the city's famous coffee-and-beignets peddler, was on hand to dispense portable mugs of its chicory-laced brew to non-tipplers.

It was a great excuse for a party, although New Orleans never did need much of one. The difference was that until a couple of years ago, few would have thought to stage one down by the docks.

When I first visited the Crescent City a decade ago, the only time I saw the river was when I boarded the Riverboat President for a concert-cruise or crossed a bridge to get to a famous restaurant such as Mosca's or Le Ruth's on the West Bank.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 13, 1991 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Sculpture Is Stainless
New Orleans--A story on New Orleans in last Sunday's Travel section incorrectly identified a sculpture in Woldenberg Park as being a chrome artwork by Ida Kohlmeyer. In fact, it is a stainless steel sculpture by John Scott.

The President, alas, has been sold up the river to reincarnate as a floating casino boat outside Dubuque, Iowa. But this year, visitors to Mardi Gras (Feb. 12) and New Orleans' world-famous Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 26 to May 7) can explore the area near where the President once floated: It has been rebuilt into a sleek, modern and clean collection of upscale shopping and entertainment centers, more than a few eateries and a terrific aquarium--all connected by broad walkways planted with high-tech metal sculptures. Broad plazas landscaped with azalias, a massive, circular fountain, and food and flower stalls add to an area that's not Bourbon Street traditional.

From the Convention Center on the south to the French Market on the north, the repolished area adjacent to or, at least, near the Mississippi, takes in Riverwalk, the Warehouse District, Jackson Brewery, the Aquarium of the Americas and a variety of hotels, restaurants and shops. And set to open this spring is a Convention Center expansion that will double its size. It's a new New Orleans built to enhance, but not replace, the old.

The development of the area's centerpiece, the Riverwalk shopping and dining arcade, is a product of the Rouse Corp., the same company that revamped other historic downtown areas, producing Faneuil Hall in Boston, Bayside Marketplace in Miami, South Street Seaport in New York and Harborplace in Baltimore. There's also a gleaming new Aquarium crammed with tourists and their tots, a renovated brewery refashioned a la Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and a streetcar line to tote tourists along the riverfront, from the multilevel Riverwalk complex to the renovated French Market.

All this in a city that already gives us the tarnished but beguiling French Quarter, great jazz and zydeco, the southern Mansion-graced Garden District and some of the best bread pudding on the face of the earth.

Ironically, Riverwalk and environs were born of the financial failure of the 1984 World's Fair, which was staged on grounds near rundown warehouses along the Mississippi. Attendance may not have been what organizers had hoped, but the event opened the eyes of commercial real estate developers to the potential of that neglected area. So in a push to find revenues to augment income from its ailing oil industry, the city known for its mix of Southern charm and international savoir-faire decided to aggressively court a tourist population reared in shopping malls and, increasingly, traveling with children.

Just months after the Fair closed, the Rouse Corp. began to build Riverwalk on the site of the international pavilions.

In contrast to the World's Fair, Riverwalk, since opening in 1986, has been a largely unqualified success--especially among locals. One reason is that it is an invitingly handsome space, with plenty of glass and glitter. Another is that its three levels look directly onto the river--a bustling waterway of tugs, barges and sightseeing boats. Shoppers can step outside onto the riverfront promenade for a snack at outside tables, or simply rediscover the Mississippi all over again. Moreover, Riverwalk is a hit with tourists. Strategically located between the Convention Center and the 1,600-room Hilton Hotel, it also dishes up such amusements as daily marching jazz bands, and shops and food stalls that are distinctive and, well, classy.

Sure the Gap and Limited are here. But so is a shop called Masks and Make Believe (buy your Mardi Gras mask and costume here) and a kiosk called Cajun Polo, whose shirts have crawfish logos. Best of all, the food stalls tempt you with oyster po' boys, New Orleans' famous thick hero sandwiches, or full-course Creole meals.

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