Decatur Street. For a New Orleanian of some vintage, the mere mention of the name conjures a variety of colorful associations, sensations of the sort ordinarily found only on foreign shores—curious sights, odd smells, exotic ambience and anomalous, Aegean or, Ionian melodies. Decatur Street had always been on the edge of New Orleans, the waterfront, where a city that was never quite America intermingled with the rest of the world. The Decatur Street of yore was like an old movie with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in rumpled white linen suits, being furtive, all smoke and shadows and madness under arthritic ceiling fans. A melting pot: beatnik poets, Spanish sailors and Chinese smugglers all passed out at the same bars.
Today, much has changed. But on the other hand, there’s a lot that has not. Parts of Decatur have peen spruced up and made more accessible to American tastes. But, it still doesn’t seem entirely American. Parts of the street have declined into deep somnolence, while other parts have flourished into new life. Some of this new life is as glossily conventional as a Visa card, while some of it is as exotic and anomalous as anything in the street’s long and peculiar history. Take lower Decatur between the French Market and Esplanade, at the quarter’s perimeter. This has almost always had a bohemian element, but most of the businesses used to be your basic port and produce enterprises, warehouses, hardware, fishnets, seed and feed emporia (the chains, whips, and studded collars used to be for animals). Now the whole area is a hotbed of exotica, where chic bistros, vintage clothing shops and punkadelic nightclubs all co-exist in a highly colorful atmosphere, a veritable bastion of bohemia (especially on weekends when the Flea Market is in full swing). More on that later.
Actually, Decatur is a street with three distinct identities as it rambles through the Quarter, and these have a direct relationship with the history of the city. For the first century and a half, Decatur was called the Rue de la Quai, or Levee Street. There was a levee there because the river came in much closer to the middle section of the Quarter then—it used to almost lick the foot of St. Ann Street by Jackson Square. Then, it suddenly receded to its present course, and in 1870 the name was changed to Decatur Street. That point, by Jackson Square, was the epicenter of the city’s development. First sailing ships, then steamboats, then steamboats by the score, would line the banks along the Mississippi’s fabled crescent, loading and unloading anything and everything to or from allover. And people came—all manner of flotsam and jetsam, with or without pedigree. Some passed through and some stayed. All lent color. Their story, at least some small traces of it over the last 270 years, may be found either on or below the surface of Decatur Street, between Canal and Esplanade.
Beginning at the beginning, at Canal Street we find the Customs House, a block-long Greco-Egyptian edifice, a monument to the fact that New Orleans is America’s leading port and was once an immigration port of entry second only to New York, during the peak years of the last century. History buffs should check out the “marble hall” or main chamber. Restored a few years back, it looks much as it did a century ago, sort of a time warp.
Walking down Decatur from there, we find the remains of the Acropolis. No, not the Acropolis—this one’s a bar. One of many once bustling Greek watering holes, now fallen victim to changing maritime patterns that no longer deposit Greek sailors on these shores by the score. The numerous fur and pelt warehouses have suffered similarly, now that animal skins are no longer requisite for ladies of high fashion. But commerce is not wholly in recess here; institutions such as Beckham’s Books in the 200 block—one of the best used book stores in a city of used book stores—continue to survive and thrive, along with some other less cerebral places.
Continuing downstream, Decatur seems to widen and the musky creosote and barnacles smell of the river wafts closer. The Jackson Brewery complex spreads across a few blocks just before Jackson Square. Where once the mighty, steel stacks belched steaming mists of fermenting hops into the humid evening air, all is now an orderly array of gleaming merchandising and quaint curios, a meticulous monument to retailing in the post-industrial age. Such transcontinental enterprises as Book Star, Tower Records and the Hard Rock Cafe appear at the point where Decatur converges with its offspring, North Peters Street. Then, at the Square, there is the main building of the original brewery. Atop this refurbished fantasy castle is Birraporetti’s, with probably the best view in the Quarter, from its terrace.
Jackson Square you already know about, and the walkway from there to the banks of the river and the riverfront streetcar line, you will soon discover, if you haven’t already. Cafe du Monde is still much as it always was, and marks the beginning of the French Market. The Market was originally the kind of marketplace now found in major cities only in the orient and third world, with stalls containing most anything. Much of this went on 24 hours a day, as the Cafe du Monde and produce market activities still do, to some extent.
Most of today’s French Market complex has evolved into modern shops, but traces of the older, original market still remain, especially if we follow it down to the farmer’s market and beyond. As we come to lower Decatur Street a smaller artery veers off towards the river. This is French Market Place, where the farmer’s produce market and a variety of craft and curio stalls reminds us of how the entire complex was in the old days…especially on the weekends when the action expands into a sometimes sprawling flea market. On Saturdays and Sundays lower Decatur and the market behind it is very lively, a kind of international bohemia with an almost carnival atmosphere.
French Market Place was until the 1930s known as Gallatin, notorious as a rough and tumble waterfront strip during the last century. Or as one historian put it: “the wickedest, bawdiest two blocks in any community anywhere.” Barbary Shore seemed respectable by contrast. Today it is still pretty colorful, but considerably tamer—the city fathers chased out the riffraff in 1870 and replaced vice with produce.
By the turn of the century lower Decatur Street was the main drag for this city’s Little Italy, and the shipping traffic between New Orleans and Palermo, Sicily was frenetic. The smells of Italian cooking filled the air and the courtyards were filled with livestock and laundry drying on sun-splashed balconies. Today, the main vestiges of the old Italian influence may be found in some of the names and in such institutions as the Central Grocery, with its magnificent muffaletta sandwiches.
In fact, there are many splendid oases of food, music and drink to be found these days on lower Decatur, reflecting the area’s colorful present day diversity. Some of our favorites include Coop’s Place at 1109 Decatur—a kind of neighborhood institution, informal, with real local cuisine, real local people, and it’s real affordable as well. A few doors down at 1117 Decatur is Maximo’s, an outstanding Italian restaurant. This is a stylishly attractive place with surprisingly reasonable prices.
Noteworthy music haunts include the Jazz Museum, located in the old U.S. Mint building at Decatur and Esplanade. The Storyville Jazz Hall at 1104 Decatur is a spacious, colorful club with an eclectic variety of live musical offerings. And then, a block away at 1204 Decatur is the unique Palm Court Cafe. The Palm Court looks older than it really is—it resembles the jazz clubs and cafes of the 1920s, with its Victorian bar and tile floor. The food is good and reasonable and mostly local, but the most unique thing about the place is the enormous selection of jazz records for sale—the cafe is operated by the Buck family, owners of GHB, Jazzology and Audiophile record companies.
Speaking of records—well, if that’s what you are into, Decatur is a great destination for discs. In addition to the aforementioned Tower, there are some used record stores that are treasure troves. The oldest is Record Ron’s, with locations at 1129 and 407 Decatur. Record Ron’s has a large selection of all kinds of music, including rare and hard to find recordings, and has been so successful that an Uptown location will be opening soon.
Rock-N-Roll Collectables, at 1214 Decatur, has become an established institution with a large selection of all kinds of records, including the rare and unusual, as well as posters and political buttons. Merchandise is guaranteed and prices negotiable. We could go on and on about the street and its color, but go and see for yourself. It’s unique, it’s different—a microcosm of the world and a world unto itself.
It is, quite simply, Decatur Street.