Now this is New Orleans living! Photo: Asergeev

The allure, the charm, the relevance of the old

I’m not going to go into the political upheaval that struck us on Election Day. I’m way too shocked. I did hear that our illustrious former governor, Bobby Jindal, is being considered to run the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As I publish this, a crowd of about a thousand people marched under my windo protesting the Trump election.

Joseph and I live in a very old “New Orleans” grand house. It was built in 1860 and has a lot of the original features that the house was born with: original wide sinker-cypress flooring, 14-foot ceilings, plaster molding and crown molding, old fireplaces (even the original brick cooking fireplace in the kitchen); some of the window panes are even original, wavy glass and all. It’s a grand house, but course, being old, it has a lot of quirks; some of walls aren’t exactly plumb, the wooden doors don’t always close completely; the paint is peeling in a few places on the inside. If you live in an aged house, you know the drill. But because it’s old and historic, we put up with it. We’ve adopted its quirks into our style of daily living and we are used to a few drafts. We like the house because it means “New Orleans” to us.

I’ve lived in the city in different locations over the years; the place before this was in the Irish Channel, and before that, in Mid City, Carrollton and Broadmoor, all in older houses. It never occurred to me to try to move into a slick, modern, suburban-type dwelling. I wanted to live in the real New Orleans, so if that meant living with a little quirks, so be it. If it’s still standing and functioning well since 1860, that has to say something for its staying power and construction, to say nothing of its charm and location close to everything.

I think that a lot of locals (and visitors as well) have the same attitude that I have. The ability to live (or stay) in a funky, historic house is a privilege and it’s worth the minor discomforts. It’s more of wanting to live somewhere that has a sense of place. You can’t live in home constructed in 1860 in too many places in the US, can you? You know when you’re in our house that you’re in New Orleans.

I think that the acceptance and appreciation of the historic-yet-funky dwelling is changing radically. Look at the massive construction of new sleek (and really expensive) apartments in New Orleans Central Business District. There are so many units now, and more are being constructed every day. They are slick, for sure, and have  modern accoutrements, and they all look exactly the same. But do they have that sense of place that the older New Orleans homes have? Nope. They could be anywhere.

I understand that many of these apartments are being rented by newcomers to the city who are moving here from all over the country. In fact, I’ve heard from a real estate agent that for the first time in a long time that there are big apartment vacancies in the French Quarters. Newbies say they want to live in New Orleans, but in some ways, they are relocating here and may not really be engaged by the city’s authenticity, its problems, its roots. This worries me. Although a choice of living abode doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t love the city, I think you might ask the question: do you really love New Orleans with all of her quirks, eccentricities, problems and history? Or are you skimming the cream off the top of our culture and not really appreciating the reason why New Orleans has endured all these years without having a major influx of newbies who want “new” and unsullied?

Why is it that New Orleans is such a “cool” place to live? Is it because we have spanking new apartments downtown? Cost of living cheap? Or is it because we have a  tradition of community that continues through generations of the people who’ve lived here a long time and who have fought for this city, with all its faults and defects (including drafty old houses)?

New Orleans is more than its architecture, to be sure. But our older homes are certainly a part of the charm and atmosphere of the city. I hope newcomers understand what living in an old city means, and learn to respect and preserve what already exists before you change what we have to resemble every other city on the planet.

To be honest, we are considering a move out of Central City, but our reasons for doing that are more because of our age and the many stairs our creaky knees have to endure every day. A charming old house in New Orleans is really where we’d much rather be. If I were in my twenties or thirties, I’d be hankering, no dying, to live in a house or apartment that screams “New Orleans”—quirks and all—and that doesn’t mean a slick new crib in the CBD.

  • Rich Grogan

    Yet there is so much that can be done to “modernize” our old structures – preserving character but working on their infrastructure, like updating insulation, foundations, and electrical systems. It is expensive, yes, and sadly more expensive than building new homes and condos. But, you get what you pay for, and there is a reason your house is still standing after all these years. It takes a commitment to an intangible value, such as that you describe, to want to invest those dollars. I am doing it in my 1790 house in New England, but any realtor would tell me that I am much better off building something new if I ever want to sell our property… In their words “the younger buyer doesn’t want old.”

    I don’t begrudge anyone their individual tastes and styles, and I know that some people truly love new homes, and like the sparse, consistent feel of a newer place, but once we lose these old structures, they are gone forever. I was just at a presentation yesterday by a restaurant owner who had to deconstruct her 200 year old building in order to build a new, more updated structure. She had hoped to re-purpose some of the wood and other materials, but as she said, “the frugal Yankees in the 1800s had already re-purposed the materials, so they were shot.” What a story – how can we ever re-purpose these new, “stylish” homes. I fear that we are now in a cycle of tearing down and building new, that is self-perpetuating.