Great Comeback Cities For Travel

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Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

The New New Orleans: Life Takes A New Direction After Katrina

Until Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey in October, New Orleans was perhaps the biggest urban natural disaster story the country had ever seen. Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the city has gotten back on its feet, regrouping after the storm of a lifetime.

Now, New Orleans isn’t just rebuilding what it was before. It’s beginning to move forward. Across, the city, new people, places and points of view are adding flavors to an already rich gumbo. People who weren’t in New Orleans before Katrina are helping to craft the city’s future. And places that have been derelict since the storm, and even before it, are coming back to life.

This New New Orleans has many of the elements of other successful cities. It’s attracting entrepreneurs, through the same kind of incubators you find in Silicon Valley. Young professionals, like the Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, a grassroots giving circle, are contributing money and time. Big name companies, like General Electric, are making investments and creating jobs.

But the most visible evidence of the New New Orleans is in the city’s food industry, which has doubled in size since before Katrina, and which has broken away from some of the traditions of the past. If New Orleans once rested on its food laurels, as critic Alan Richman proclaimed a year after the storm, it’s not doing so any longer.

“The best thing that happened with that experience, with Katrina, was that it forced people who were on their knees to come back and compete,” says restaurant owner and entrepreneur Joel Dondis (above).

“Whoever came back was going to get better. The beauty is what you see today.”

%Gallery-170745%Before Katrina, it might have been hard to conceive that New Orleans would have a new burger joint visited by star chefs in a neighborhood previously deemed unsafe. Or, in a city where supermarkets were the only place to buy meat, that MBAs from Tulane University would open a butcher shop.

No one could have imagine gumbo and music festivals and a concert series in a downtown park that nobody used. But all that’s happened in just the past weeks and months.

The New New Orleans is not without its obstacles. The French Quarter and much of the Central Business District are a construction zone, with the city scurrying to build a street car spur and make other improvements before the 2013 Super Bowl.

Crime remains high, and unwary tourists can get robbed at ATMs or rolled by unsavory characters late at night if they don’t have their wits about them (as can happen anywhere). Almost every neighborhood is still rebuilding in some fashion, and streets can be shut and rerouted on a daily basis with little explanation.

But the new New Orleaneans are pushing forward, anyway, and many of them are building on the city’s past as they create new opportunities.

Joel Dondis has been a part of the New Orleans culinary scene for a generation, but since the storm, he has pressed forward with new ventures in desserts, fine dining and casual meals.
One of his post-Katrina restaurants, Grand Isle, named for the island at Louisiana’s tip, sits squarely in a tourist zone, flanked by the convention center on one side, Harrah’s Casino on another, and faces a courtyard where visitors in name tags stroll in the noonday sun.

Inside, Grand Isle is the epitome of the expansive seafood restaurants you find on any shore, with tile floors, wood trim, big windows, and waiters bustling with platters of shellfish and pints of beer.

But Grand Isle didn’t exist before Katrina, Dondis explains, gesturing around the room. “This was a parking garage.” He built the place from scratch, drawing on the Gulf Coast tradition for ocean fishing and shellfish gathering, and it’s now part of a restaurant organization with five businesses and 400 employees.

The walls, made from cyprus wood, are decorated with stunning black and white photographs by legendary local artist Fonville Winans. Others show vintage scenes of VIPs at big game fishing clubs, beaming at their catches of giant ocean fish.

The New Orleans-dominated menu seems familiar, but the dishes have twists – the shrimp camanida po’boy has a citrus butter and Asian slaw, the blue crab claws are marinated instead of fried as they might be elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, and the gumbo has house-made andouille sausage. The chef, Mark Falgoust, also makes his own boudin, the meat and rice mixture served warm in Louisiana gas stations.

They’re making boudin, too, at Cleaver and Company, a just-opened butcher shop a few miles away in Uptown. It’s joining a growing trend across the country for high-end meat markets, supplied by local farmers, where cutting and curing takes place on the premises. All of Cleaver’s meat comes from within 200 miles of the tiny shop.

Cleaver, which opened at the end of October, had a line of customers waiting outside the door on its second Saturday in business. Simone Reggie, one of the Tulane-educated business partners, guided customers to three sheets of butcher paper taped to the wall that listed the cuts of beef and pork as well as the poultry available that day.

A delivery man brought boxes of ducks through the front door as a man at the counter gave specific instructions for how he wanted his ribs prepared: “I want a St. Louis cut, with the fly removed,” meaning the top flap of meat. Seth Hamstead, Reggie’s business partner, said he didn’t mind the instructions, because Cleaver can’t prosper without educated customers.

“People are making more of an effort to preserve the culture of New Orleans,” he said. Hampstead, who got his undergraduate degree at Tulane, worked in Chicago but chose to return to Tulane for his MBA. There, he met Reggie, who had worked for Chef John Besh as well as Cintas Corporation, and the pair concocted the idea for the butcher shop.

“You’ve had a change in the workforce. People aren’t staying in jobs 50 years any more,” Hamstead said. “They’re going off to do their own thing.”

Of course, New Orleanians love nothing more than a good party, and one sign of how far the city has come took place in November. Emeril Legasse, known as much for exclaiming “bam!” on his Food Network program as for his restaurant empire, held his second annual Boudin and Beer fundraiser on a temperate November Friday evening.

A year ago, the original Boudin and Beer attracted 1,500 people and 25 chefs from New Orleans and Mississippi, who prepared their version of boudin and served samples from individual booths. This year, the number of chefs swelled to 59, from all over the country, with beer and cocktails flowing and live music and dancing that went on into the night.

The varieties of boudin were as varied as the chefs, with grilled boudin, boudin kiev, seafood boudin, even nutria boudin prepared by New Orleans chef Susan Spicer. People crowded around Mario Batali as he cavorted with belly dancers, and laughed at the hot moves of the 610 Stompers, the area’s most popular men’s dance troupe.

The event was held in New Orleans’ warehouse district, not far from the convention center, which played such a tragic role in Katrina. But the area has rebounded to become a center for artists and museums, and restaurants like Cochon, the center of the universe for chefs who cure their own meats.

Many of those chefs ended up the next day on Freret Street, a seven-block district in the Uptown neighborhood that is filling up with bars and restaurants, creating a trendy new entertainment area miles from the Quarter, in both attitude and atmosphere. Others wound up nursing their hangovers at La Petite Grocery, another Dondis restaurant, and spooning up gelato at Sucre, his patisserie helmed by chef Tariq Hanna, which opened only months before Katrina.

After surviving four hurricanes – Ivan, Katrina, Gustav and most recently, Isaac – Dondis says he’s come up with a formula for how to get his places down to minimal loss. Sucre never lost power during Isaac, and became a kind of general store for New Orleanians, who came in as much to charge their phones and use wifi as they did for sundaes.

“Power and data connectivity,” Dondis says, have turned out to be the criteria for coming back from a storm. Throw in food, and they’re an analogy for the New New Orleans, too.

NEXT: A Stroll Down Freret Street

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

Photo of the day: New Orleans after Katrina


People have been talking about New Orleans differently since Hurricane Katrina. No matter how the city’s name slips into conversation, the disaster named Katrina is typically addressed and typically, it must be. Anyone who knows NOLA will vouch for the tremendous damage caused by this storm and the circumstances surrounding it. But many people who know NOLA will also confess: the city still has life in it; New Orleans is still teeming with an energy exclusive to the city. And as an homage to the trip I’m taking to New Orleans tomorrow, I am posting this photo of New Orleans post-Katrina, taken by Arla Parker.

I’m visiting New Orleans through next week, generally speaking, for Voodoo Festival and Halloween. But a broader reason for my trip is my desire to keep up with the city. I have been visiting the Big Easy regularly since 2005, but my first visit to the city was exactly a month before Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has gripped me since the first visit and I look forward to exploring the paths this upcoming trip leads me down. Have you been to New Orleans since Katrina? What are your thoughts?

And, as always, if you’d like to submit a photo for Photo of The Day, just upload a photo to the Gadling Flickr Pool.

Top 5 Travel Attractions in New Orleans

Civil War secret message decoded

Civil War, civil war
A coded message sent to the beleaguered Confederate commander of Vicksburg has been cracked, the BBC reports.

The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond has had the message in its collection for more than a century. It had never tried to decipher the code of seemingly random letters until this year, when they sent it off to retired CIA codebreaker David Gaddy. While Gaddy is trained to break sophisticated modern codes, this early cipher was still tough enough to take him several weeks.

It turns out the message was sent to Confederate General John Pemberton telling him he wouldn’t be getting any reinforcements. The city was the key to the Mississippi River and had been under siege by Union forces for months. The message was dated 4 July 1863, the same day Pemberton surrendered. The bad news was probably the last straw. With his men short of food and munitions and the city in ruins, Pemberton’s last hope was getting reinforcements.

The fall of Vicksburg opened up the Mississippi River to Union gunboats and cut the Confederacy in half. It was one of the turning points of the Civil War.

[Photo courtesy U.S. Army]

Abandoned Six Flags New Orleans video is creeping us out

Six Flags New Orleans, which closed as Hurricane Katrina approached in 2005 and has never reopened. The sign outside the park still announces that it’s “CLOSED FOR STORM.”

The theme park was in New Orleans‘ Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit areas during Katrina and the flooding after the storm. Though many of the rides still stand, Six Flags says that saltwater from the flood has corroded them to the point that they cannot be saved.

The only ride to survive the flood – Batman: The Ride, which was elevated above most of the floodwaters – was refurbished and moved to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in 2008.

After viewing this video of the rotting theme park, I’m wondering why the City of New Orleans, which owns the land, isn’t renting it out as a location for horror movies. Louisiana photographer Teddy Smith shot this video in October, with permission from the City of New Orleans.

As Gizmodo notes, you almost expect to see a horde of zombies come ambling through a scene or two.