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New Orleans Today

New Orleans is the ultimate urban illustration of the Japanese concept wabi-sabi, which translates literally to "perfect-imperfect," but which suggests that, like a sidewalk buckled with cracks where an oak tree root grew up beneath the concrete, or an old plaster wall with bricks showing through, sometimes things are even more special when they are just a little bit broken. New Orleans is perfect in its sheer persistence; this comeback city's age, incredible heritage and history, and unwavering determination to live on and let the good times roll are what makes it so endearing, and so easy to return to again and again.

Today's New Orleans

… is like no other place in America. It sounds like a tourist brochure cliché, but it's true: New Orleans feels like a place out of step with the rest of the country. Some of that is due to geography: this port city has seen an influx of many, many cultures over the course of its history. It welcomes diversity and tolerates lifestyles that deviate from the norm—a big reason artists and other creative types have long put down roots here. And the fact that the city lies mostly below sea level lends it a certain degree of fatalism and probably, if unconsciously, informs the New Orleans live-for-today attitude.

… is proud of its traditions. Red beans and rice on Monday, St. Joseph's altars, jazz funerals, a Christmas visit to Mr. Bingle in City Park—this is a destination steeped in tradition, one that guards its unique customs. Take Mardi Gras, for example: some of the parading organizations, known as krewes, have been around for more than 150 years, building elaborate floats annually and parading through the streets in masks. The Mardi Gras Indian tradition, likewise, is shrouded in secrecy and ritual: "tribes" of mostly African American revelers spend months constructing fanciful, Native American–influenced costumes in tribute to actual tribes that once helped escaped slaves find freedom.

… is one giant movie set. Or that's how it seems these days, with multiple film projects going on at any given moment. The scenic backdrop is one reason for all the activity; generous tax credits and a growing local film industry are the other drivers behind what civic boosters have dubbed "Hollywood South." In 2011 and 2012 the police drama 21 Jump Street, a new season of HBO's Treme, and Hours, a Hurricane Katrina suspense drama starring Paul Walker were among the many films and TV shows in production.

… is still recovering. Seven years after Katrina hit the city, the areas where tourists tend to wander—downtown, the riverfront, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, the Warehouse District, and the Garden District/Uptown—all show little outward sign of the storm's devastating floods. But predominantly residential areas like East New Orleans, Lakeview, and the Ninth Ward are still struggling to recover. 2010 Census figures (the latest available) indicated that the city's population was still only 70% of what it had been before the storm.

… is shaping up? Mayor Mitch Landrieu, son of legendary former mayor Moon Landrieu, is working hard to get city government back on track after his 2010 election. The success of grassroots recovery programs is a bright contrast to any lingering skepticism locals feel about projects with government involvement from earlier administrations and elected officials. Locally led projects continue to gain ground, including the Ninth Ward's George Washington Carver High School sports program, Brad Pitt's Make it Right housing-renewal program, the New Orleans Hope and Heritage Project (which aims to preserve the past and safeguard the future), and Tipitina's Foundation for musicians.

… is on the verge of ____. Fill in the blank; your guess is as good as anybody's. New Orleans has survived an insane amount of fires, floods, epidemics, and scandals since its founding in 1718, and there are many encouraging signs—new buildings, streetcar lines, restorations, festivals—that even Hurricane Katrina couldn't keep this amazing city down. But, questions remain: will the repaired levees hold up against the mighty Mississippi or another (God forbid) big storm? Will New Orleans manage to move past its propensity to political scandals, crime, and all the ills of urban poverty? Despite the many fortune-tellers plying their trade on Jackson Square, no one knows for sure what the future holds for the Crescent City.

What We're Talking About

It's easier than ever to get a room in New Orleans, thanks to a spate of new hotel openings in the French Quarter and beyond, including the Hotel Modern on Lee Circle, and the Saint on Canal Street. In addition, the vast New Orleans Hyatt Regency has reopened, after a $275 million renovation, right across from the newly renamed Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It may not be named Desire, but the newest part of the famed New Orleans streetcar line is now in operation. The $45 million project connects Amtrak's Union Station with Canal Street and the Canal Street streetcar route, giving train passengers access to the French Quarter and CBD and passing right in front of the Mercedes Benz Superdome and the New Orleans Arena. Streetcars once crisscrossed the Big Easy, but there numbers have dwindled to three operating lines: the St. Charles Avenue Line, the Riverfront Line, and the Canal Street Line, of which this is an extension. There is a plan to expand the track eastward into the Tremé, Marigny, and the Bywater neighborhoods, subject to funding.

Forget hair of the dog, Nola is increasingly the spot for Downward Facing Dog as the city's yoga scene continues to grow. Named one of the "10 Fantastically Yoga-Friendly Towns" by Yoga Journal, New Orleans yoga studios have grown from a paltry six pre-Katrina to currently more than 25, in neighborhoods from the Lower Garden District to Uptown and the CBD. Visitors can even find their chi within view of the St. Louis Cathedral at Yoga at the Cabildo on Jackson Square, Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 7:30 and Saturdays at 8:30. At just $12 for an hour's practice, you'll still be able to afford a Bloody Mary when you're done. Gotta love New Orleans.

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