TravelinWheels' First Feature City: New Orleans - A True Jewel of the South and an Accessibility Adventure
The TravelinWheels team headed out to New Orleans to see whether this town, with its rich history, culture, and resilient people would be accessible to those with disabilities. We won't lie ... It will be a challenge, but one well worth it.
An important port city established pre-Revolutionary War, it has grown into what many consider to be a "jewel." Lenny Kravitz, rock star and New Orleans resident once said, "There's certain things in life that I love. One is architecture. And music, culture, food, people. New Orleans has all of that."
The people of New Orleans really made an impression on me. They are friendly, hospitable, and above all else, proud of their city and its heritage. They will eagerly share stories of their city. Whether it is stories of a rich past, or recent events like Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill, you will leave New Orleans finding a new appreciation for this city and its people.
The whole city is in a rebirth. Most of the infrastructure has been restored, but there is still a way to go. The hurricane has had its impact on the city, but it hasn't beaten it. The combinations of historical architecture along with strained resources for rebuilding make accessibility a challenge, but not a complete barrier.
Even in the French Quarter, the oldest part of the city, attempts have been made, and continue to be made, to welcome people with physical challenges. The key to enjoying New Orleans is to go there with an open mind, a willing spirit, and a sense of adventure. Careful planning and realistic expectations will open up a wonderful city to explore.
Each neighborhood will provide a completely new experience, and perspective on importance of the city.
The French Quarter, with its narrow stone and brick streets and plethora of shops, restaurants and taverns, is a challenge to navigate. Many buildings have steps and narrow passageways. The sidewalks are not always entirely even. Crowds, especially on Bourbon St., can be overwhelming. Parking is at a premium, and although a few streets have disabled parking signs, they were few and far between. Traffic in the quarter can be somewhat unwieldy with many one-way streets. However, it is an area not to be missed, even for a short time. We were treated with talented street musicians, wonderful antique shops lining Royal Avenue, and the true party spirit exists on Bourbon St. This is New Orleans as it was in the history books, and it is pure magic.
Curb cuts exist on almost every corner, and many streets are completely blocked off to traffic during peak times. While many buildings do have one step, we found many shops that do not. Most doorways have double doors, so that a normally narrow passage can be opened up to accommodate a wheelchair. Enchanting art galleries abound in this area, and they are usually very accessible to wheelchairs. Handicap accessible bathrooms are the greatest challenge. However, we did find some, and one only has to go into one of the larger hotels to find a clean, accessible bathroom that can accommodate any size wheelchair.
The Garden District is a gem within "The Big Easy." Its opulent homes and magnolia tree lined streets provide a lovely view into how Americans lived upon settling in New Orleans. Although many of the side streets are a bit narrow, they do have curb cuts. Larger streets, such as St. Charles, with its variety of restaurants, and Magazine Street, a shopper's paradise, are wide and evenly paved. Walking tours are very popular in this area, as well as in the French Quarter. I talked to one of the tour guides about accessible tours, and she began to tell me stories of the many disabled guests who have enjoyed their tours.
We spent some time in Marigny, one of the more bohemian parts of town that is located next to the French Quarter. Frenchman Street is known as the place the locals go to eat and listen to music. Music clubs line a stretch for a few blocks, and one need only travel down this street to hear some of the best musicians in the city. Beware though; wheelchair accessible bathrooms were a rarity, so plan ahead.
The Warehouse district supports the largest port in New Orleans, but it is also home to many hotels, restaurants, a great riverside shopping area, and the only land-based casino in Louisiana. Sidewalks are wide; curb cuts are good; there are many hotels that have accessible hotel rooms and bathrooms in this area, especially on Canal and Poydras streets.
Hurricane Katrina has made the Ninth Ward a landmark. Many tour busses travel through the area and knowledgeable locals can tell you stories of what it was like in those days, weeks, months, and years since August 2005. We were fortunate enough to meet a couple women who were from the Ninth Ward, the area most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I was so amazed by their stories of survival. They told us stories of their families, neighbors, and friends. While their stories were heartbreaking, they didn't make it sound that way. They talked with humor, and most of all, strength. They lost everything, but they never had a doubt that they would return stronger for the experience.
Most of the Ninth Ward is rebuilt, but there is still evidence of the devastation that occurred. Markings on buildings, water lines, FEMA trailers, and holes that were cut out of roofs to escape still exist. More than that, it was inspiring to see the lines of new homes built by various charities to help these residents get back on their feet.
The city is a treasure chest of experiences; so don't be afraid to check it out. Bottom line, plan ahead, but also be prepared to go with the flow, and you will find a great city worth exploring.
TravelinWheels will provide accessibility details, insights into places to go and things to see when we launch in Spring 2011. We have a sneak peek at some of the hotels we visited on our YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/TravelinWheels.