Secret New Orleans by Chris Champagne is a different kind of guidebook, taking you on a journey round the city via a series of obscure, lesser known and quirky sights. It is one of a series of books about the hidden places in cities around the world. I had already read Secret London, and was keen to review the New Orleans title in anticipation of my visit to the city later this year.
Secret Corners of New Orleans
Secret New Orleans is described as “an invitation to look more closely at the urban landscape”. Just about any city has a wealth of hidden detail if you look closely enough, although New Orleans does seem to have more than most. I was drawn in by the mention of “a back alley that serves as a portal of the voodoo afterworld” – apparently it’s not advisable to walk there alone…
The book is divided into areas, each with several “unusual, hidden or little-known aspects of the city”, and maps marking the location of each sight. Each entry has a description, location and travel information.
There are tiny museums (one is so small that it fits into a wooden box…), memorials to the flamboyant personalities associated with the city, and reminders of the many ethnic communities. There are architectural curiosities such as the Piazza d’Italia, abandoned almost as soon as it was complete, and the magnificent (and hidden) Marble Hall. Then there are just oddities, like the M S Rau Antiques Secret Room a hidden room in an antique dealer’s shop.
Getting Beneath the Skin of the City
The author is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, with an intimate knowledge of the city and its culture. He helps the reader to get beneath the skin of the city, with snippets of history and stories about famous residents. There are fascinating asides, like the statement that “in the early 20th century the French Quarter was essentially an Italian enclave”. The result is a rich patchwork of information about the city, its culture and its people.
Certain themes recur: voodoo features prominently, as do music and slavery. There are lots of murals, sculptures and other artwork (including one by Banksy). The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is apparent, with a ruined amusement park and hurricane-inspired graffiti. But it is clear that the vibrant personality of the city has not been crushed.
My only quibble with this book is that I would have liked a thematic index. However, in its absence, I was forced to dip into the book and take pot luck. It became a sort of virtual tour, equivalent to a ramble through the city with curious eyes.
Secret New Orleans is ideal for the first time visitor who wants to look beyond the obvious tourist attractions. Or for returning visitors who “would like to discover the other face of the city”.
Secret New Orleans by Chris Champagne. Jonglez Publishing, 2017, 9782361951689