Exploring the ‘eminently walkable’ French Quarter
FT’s Tom Kaiser is on the lookout for urban tales, above in his hometown, Minneapolis.
Photo by Nicholas Upton
Traveling reporters are occasionally accused of being paid to vacation, which sounds really nice—Anthony Bourdain-esque. That withering indictment overlooks the reality of lining up interviews in advance, the soul-sucking aspects of air travel and, of course, how many appointments are inevitably packed into a reporting trip.
I was busy from the moment I touched down at Louis Armstrong airport for my latest trip to New Orleans, but as soon as my cab dropped me off at the French Quarter’s historic Hotel Monteleone I knew this work trip would make my loved ones a tad jealous. From end to end, it was Instagram gold.
For an urbanist geek (don’t laugh, we’re a thing!), walking around was a living, breathing lesson in how retailers and restaurants can fit into any urban fabric, even a tapestry as old, unique and challenging as the French Quarter.
Exploring the French Quarter is a street-level course in walkability done right. Small squares, historical signage and pedestrian-only walkways keep things interesting no matter where you wander. And, even though there are restrictions on chains in the district, some brands are still allowed.
A pedestrian paradise
Leaving my Beaux-Arts hotel—itself a work of art built in 1886—I walked less than 10 minutes to my first interview at Antoine’s, a high-end Creole restaurant that is the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States. Every building along the way had retail spaces at the ground level with windows so you could peer at the amusements and peddled goods within.
Above the stores was housing or a hotel, and many buildings had plaques announcing various historic details related to the structure or street. It makes you want to keep exploring, because a first-timer has no idea what’s around the next corner.
Jeff Speck, city planner, urban designer and author of “Walkable City,” agreed the Quarter is one of the country’s best places to be a pedestrian. “As a district, it is eminently walkable,” he said. “It has all the proper ingredients: mixed use, small blocks, small, slow-speed streets, and a great spatial definition in the form of delightful buildings up against the sidewalk.”
The French Quarter is a pedestrian paradise and an urban rarity in car-based America. Many tourists inevitably wonder why all cities can’t be like this—it’s because of cars, of course. Horses are more urbane than Hondas.
Speck agreed the car-to-person ratio is the key, and compared the pedestrian environment to other famously challenging cities like Rome. “The French Quarter has sidewalks only seven feet wide, but they line streets in which cars cannot speed,” Speck said. “If you fall off a sidewalk, you are not instantly pulverized.”
This neighborhood’s success at attracting so many pedestrians is a conflict with the many aspects that are decidedly undesirable—narrow and uneven sidewalks, lots of panhandlers, drunk business people sleeping in chairs (OK just one; I took his picture) and inconsistent handicap accessibility due to those old-time sidewalks.
Cities and shopping areas looking to unlock the millennial key pay a lot of money to provide good pedestrian accessibility, green space and other on-foot amenities, but the end results often feel sterile.
My own Minneapolis dabbled in faux urbanism in the early 2000s with a massive entertainment complex wrapped in fake storefronts and filled with a GameWorks, Hard Rock Cafe, Applebee’s, Hooters, Cold Stone Creamery, as well as a big movie theater and piano bar. Lacking unique stores and convincing architecture, all the stores eventually left and, $50 million later, it was recast as medical office space and a sports practice facility.
The French Quarter proves why even well intentioned, faux urbanism often fails. Softer things like beauty, curiosity and proximity are the real keys to enticing us humans to explore the streets and keep walking.
Down here, I didn’t hear a single soul bemoan the lack of adjacent parking ramps. Call it carrot and stick, cat and mouse or chicken and egg—place-making lures people in with nice, authentic, interesting places.
Speck added another side benefit to prioritizing people over cars for restaurants and retailers: preventing money from fleeing the local economy. “Cars don’t shop, people do,” he said. “Retailers along new bike lanes in New York City saw their revenue go up 50 percent.”
Walking from Royal to Chartres and Toulouse to Decatur the next morning on the hunt for beignets and coffee, I considered how more franchised businesses could fit into this world of tiny, picturesque storefronts. There are commercial restrictions to maintain the homogeneity of the Quarter, but there were a few PJ’s Coffees and Smoothie Kings.
Following my instincts on my walk back to the Monteleone, I took the long way—the part of my three-day trip that rightfully inspired jealousy back home. Off the busiest streets, I walked past plenty of vacant storefronts that looked like opportunities.
Even without stores to gawk at, overhanging apartment balconies overflowed with foliage, the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages echoed from nearby-but-unseen streets and the smells of Creole food occasionally drifted by. The sound of live jazz drew me down a cobblestone street into Jackson Square.
At that moment, surrounded by architecture, greenery and strangers, I didn’t know where to wander next. With so many interesting things firing up all of my senses, I could have gone in any direction and found something worth remembering, or maybe even throwing on to social media.
Try that in your average suburban strip mall and see how many people get jealous.
Tom Kaiser is associate editor of Franchise Times, and writes The Urbane Franchisor column in each issue. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.