The New New Orleans: Memories Still Locked Behind Closed Doors

New Orleans is a city of festivities – conventions, Mardi Gras balls, graduation ceremonies, entertainment. And for decades, the place where New Orleanians of all races gathered for those events was the Municipal Auditorium, the centerpiece of Louis Armstrong Park.

An afternoon spent at the New Orleans Public Library brings to life a sense of what the auditorium, dedicated in May 1930, meant to this city. Page after page of records and photographs depict ice shows, diving exhibitions, boxing matches, performances by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo.

One of the two meeting halls was hung with bunting for a 1937 gathering of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, the pictures show. The auditorium hosted gatherings of morticians, shown looking over the latest double lined caskets and gleaming stainless steel morgue examining tables.

A list of events for 1953 lists Carnival balls every single night in January except New Year’s Day, often two a night. And the auditorium did not limit itself only a white audience. Joe Louis appeared that year in August with singer Ruth Brown (at an event labeled “All Colored.”) Later on, the auditorium was used as a temporary casino, and housed the New Orleans Jazz basketball team as well as hockey.

This auditorium where so many of New Orleans’ festive events took place still stands across from the French Quarter, in use as recently as 2005, when it was a center for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready To Eat).

But since the aftermath of the storm, the Municipal Auditorium has stood quiet, a looming reminder of the memories locked behind its closed doors, despite years of trying to figure out what can be done with it. It is arguably the single most important civic building in New Orleans that remains shut since Katrina, although there has been plenty of discussion about its future.

%Gallery-170748%In November, the auditorium appeared in the HBO series “Treme,” in a scene set in 2008, in which developers suggest it can become a National Jazz Center. In fact, New Orleans’ former mayor, Ray Nagin, backed a plan to turn it into a state-of-the-art production facility, but that idea fell apart amid criticism from city council members and the city’s inspector general.

There is an inkling of hope, however, that the auditorium may someday be put back into use. In May, the city announced that it planned to use $16.67 million in FEMA grants to begin a restoration, out of a total of $27.5 million that’s been allocated for repairs.

“The city has been very aggressive in working with FEMA to get our fair share of recovery dollars,” Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said in an email. “While these new funds are an encouraging step forward, there is a still a ways to go.”

For one thing, the repairs will have to take place in phases – first, the removal of asbestos and lead from the interior, the replacement of the roof, the stabilization of the roof, and removal of mold which is said to cover much of the walls inside.

But there are no schematics of what the restored auditorium will look like, no architects’ renderings, no visions of how the building could be brought back to life. That’s because more money for the project will be needed, and it simply isn’t there yet, says the mayor’s spokesman.

Its only use, for now, is as the backdrop to events that take place in Armstrong Park, like the Treme Gumbo Festival held in November, and the summer concert series sponsored by People United for Armstrong Park, which had its inaugural season in 2012.

Even though the park has been cleaned up, and is starting to attract a regular stream of visitors, that wasn’t the original goal for Emanuel Lain, one of PUFAP’s founders.

He was actually more interested in the restoration of the auditorium than in fixing up the park when he started canvassing homes in Treme, the neighborhood that backs up to the park. He wanted to know whether neighbors thought it was important to bring the building back to life, and what they might like to see it be used for.

“I saw amazing acts. This was like the center of the universe,” Lain said. “Wrestling matches. Carnival balls. Amazing things happened here.”

It’s surely important to Lain, who attended his high school graduation in the auditorium, which has the indestructible aura of those solidly built 1920s buildings that dot the American landscape. All visitors can see now is its exterior, remarkably unscathed given the damage that Emanuel says has taken place inside.

The words “ART,” “DRAMA,” “ATHLETICS” and “POETRY” are carved in the facade above one entrance, echoing photographs that show the names of famous writers such as “SHAKESPEARE,” “VIRGIL,” “MILLET” and “DANTE” carved on the cornice above the two auditoriums inside. Other words have now joined them. “DO NOT OPEN,” reads a door on the building’s east side.

For now, those photographs, tucked away in the city archives on the library’s third floor, are the only inkling that visitors have to what lies inside. But if Lain gets his way, perhaps those memories can become realities once more. “We did something special,” Lain says of the work that’s taken place to restore the surrounding park. “Now, we want to build on that.”

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

Six Of The Most Scenic Train Trips In Europe

Forget flying around Europe. At 30,000 feet it’s impossible to truly experience the continent’s remarkable landscapes. Rather than being shuttled around in a plane that only allows a birds-eye view, train trips immerse travelers in the terrain. There’s a reason why trains are often thought of as the most romantic mode of transportation: riding the rails makes you feel more connected and in tune than air travel ever could. Instead of feeling like a chore, as flying often does, train travel can be an experience in itself. In fact, there are plenty of scenic train rides in Europe that are worth the trip just for the view. The following are top rated train trips, and from the rolling hills of England to the craggy Alps of Switzerland, each one offers travelers something different.

6. United Kingdom
London to Edinburgh
The rolling, green hills and moors that are often associated with Yorkshire make this one of the most scenic train trips in Europe. When entering the northern parts of England, travelers will catch glimpses of the rugged coastline along the North Sea. During the 4 1/2-hour train ride, English speakers will notice a distinct difference in passenger accents as the train gets closer to Scotland. Although the common language is English, it can be hard to decipher as the Scottish brogue gets thicker and thicker.

[Flickr photo via boutmuet]

5. Holland
Amsterdam to Groningen (best in April)
In Holland, the most scenic train trip isn’t necessarily about being on the right track; it’s actually all about timing. Travelers will want to hop onboard in spring – particularly in April – to see the blanket of colors that results when the famous Dutch tulips are in full bloom. On the two-hour route between Amsterdam and Groningen, travelers will also be able to spot plenty of windmills, another quintessential part of the Dutch landscape.

[Flickr photo by Amy Bonner]

4. Italy
Rome to Verona to Venice
Train trips don’t get much more romantic than the ride from Rome to Venice, especially if you make a stopover in Verona. The train ride starts in Rome, the enchanting “Eternal City,” and then makes its way through the Tuscan farmlands to Verona, a pleasant city famous as the setting for Shakespeare’sRomeo and Juliet.” Make a day of wandering around the city’s lovely corridors (pictured above) and passing some time in a local cafe or bar. Then head to Venice, Italy’s famed “Floating City,” that is by far one of the most romantic destinations in the world. The train approaches through Venice’s lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, and upon arrival you can hop on a gondola ride for two – what could be more romantic than that? Another scenic train trip in Italy is the route from Venice to Trieste. On this trip, the train hugs the coast of the Adriatic Sea until reaching Trieste, a charming destination with beautiful sea views and several cafes and pubs for you to spend your days and nights in.

Balconies in Verona, Italy [Photo by Libby Zay]

3. France
Montpellier to Nice
The train ride through southern France from Montpellier to Nice is another visually stunning trip. From Montpellier to Marseille, travelers will see the typical Provençal landscape of red-colored soil, tall cypress trees and expansive fields of lavender and olives. As the train gets closer to Nice, the coastal scenery along the Mediterranean Sea comes in to view. Note that if you have a France Rail Pass, it’s possible to break the ride up to spend some time exploring small Provençal towns, such as Aix-en-Provence, the famous home of Paul Cézanne, or Nimes, with its stunning Roman amphitheater that is second only to Rome’s Colosseum.

[Flickr photo by paularps]

2. Germany

Black Forest Railway
The Roman’s gave this thickly wooded and mountainous region in Germany the name Silva Nigra (i.e. “Black Forest“) because the dense growth of trees blocked out most of the light inside the forest. Experience the spectacular scenery on the Black Forest Railway, part of the German National Railway that connects Offenburg and Singen. The 93-mile-long route ascends (or descends, depending on which way you travel) more than 2,000 feet as it passes through 39 tunnels and over two viaducts. The section between Hornberg, Triberg, and St. Georgen is particularly pretty. The stretch is also popular with locals, who use it as part of their regular commute between the towns they live in and larger cities. Tourists, however, will probably think it looks straight out of a storybook – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Black Forest is the setting for the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel.” But don’t worry, you won’t need to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to get back home.

Look closely for one of the viaducts trains along the Black Forest Railway pass over in Hornberg [Wikimedia photo by Prolineserver]

1. Switzerland
Wilhelm Tell Express (May to October only)
Switzerland is known for some of the most stunning scenery in all of Europe. This trip from Lucerne to Locarno connects two of the prettiest parts of the country, central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino region. While in Lucerne, travelers can opt to take a boat ride on a vintage paddle steamer where they can enjoy lunch or dinner. When the boat reaches Flüelen, step onto a panoramic train that will whisk you past lone cottages on pine-covered hills, glistening streams, cerulean lakes, vast valleys covered in green, and craggy, snow-covered peaks, as it makes its way to Ticino. If you get a chance, make a stop in the tiny town of Bellinzona, an easily walk-able place that is well worth a day trip in order to explore one of their three medieval castles. Switzerland has some of the most fantastic scenic train trips in Europe with the Golden Pass and Glacier-Express also offering awe-inspiring views through panoramic train windows.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Marry at the House of Juliet, hope for better results

Finally, there’s a wedding destination for fans of Ishtar, Zima and the Dukakis campaign – among other disasters. If you want a bit of hype to your nuptials, book some space at The House of Juliet. Maybe your marriage will have a little more traction.

Officials in Verona, Italy, where Shakespeare‘s famous play was set, will soon be used for weddings. Daniele Polato, the rocket scientist city official who proposed the program, says, “Verona is known worldwide as the city of love. We have inherited this splendid reputation and we want to promote it.”

Seriously? Splendid reputation? Two teenagers, who barely knew each other married, shacked up and accidentally killed each other. Yep, that’s a horse I’m going to bet on.

Adding your wedding to this fine literary tradition can be as cheap as $770 (for residents of Verona) to $1,280 for people who aren’t EU citizens. City officials claim that the need for more documentation is the reason for the price differences. Weddings could start as early as next month.

Tips for the taking the best photos, or at least passable ones

When I went to Bern, Switzerland by mistake once (I meant to go to Lucerne, but ended up on the wrong train), the only picture I took was of the bear in the bear pit. Because my own camera had broken when I dropped it on the stone floor of the church where William Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, Great Britain, I was using a borrowed, cheap one on this Switzerland jaunt.

How did I drop my camera? I was donating money of all things. And what was my payback? My picture of the bear looked like it was of a dog–a mangy dog at that. What was I thinking?

See what I mean? And this is the enhanced version!

Why was this the only picture I took in the entire country? Maybe because I didn’t plan ahead about what pictures I’d like to take. I didn’t even know that a bear was the symbol for Bern and there was a live one in the center of town. Plus, I only had a couple hours. I was on my way to Lucerne, after all. I was too busy having an experience to snap pictures of my experience. Still, how depressing.

Gadling reader, Jeff Nolan dropped us a list of picture taking tips that might have helped me out in Bern. One of the tips he passed on is to plan ahead. He suggested that as you look through guide books to plan a trip, think about what photos you want to get beforehand. Then you can decide what time of day will give you the best light. I also would have known why the picture was doomed from the get go. The contrast was lousy. A brown bear next to dull grey cement in late afternoon lighting is not the best. Plus, the bear was so far away, the perspective was off. And I was looking down on him. He was in a pit. Admittedly, I took this picture before I had taken a photography class.

What I also discovered with this class is that it’s important to sweep the edges. That means have your eye look at all sections of what is framed to look for things you don’t want in the picture. Pay close attention to all the edges. Sometimes, we’re so focused on the main subject, we miss what else is in the picture. Move what you don’t want, or adjust. For example, a backpack thrown down in the foreground of the shot might detract from what you want as the focal point. Sometimes you can crop those details out or mask them, but a shot is better if you notice those details in the beginning. Digital photography, I’ve found, makes this a bit trickier because of the lag time.

The above photo was taken at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio this fall. Yep, those are pumpkins. When I was framing this I was paying attention to getting both pumpkins in the shot, the men along with their feet –plus the sign. I didn’t notice the little girl at all until I saw the photos later. Also, what’s that yellow thing on the stage? A piece of trash? I should have moved it. In another photo of the same subject, a woman’s arm is in the frame. She was also taking a picture. I wonder whose picture I was in? It doesn’t hurt to take several of the same shot so you are at least assured of one turning out okay. The men were important to provide scale for the pumpkins. The little girl actually added interest since she indicates the presence of spectators. Because one man is looking at his watch, and the other man is looking at him, that shows natural movement instead of a posed shot.

Now, I know to check to the background contrast when I take portraits, and if necessary move people into better lighting so that their features show up. This is particularly important when taking pictures of people with very dark skin, or when people are wearing wide-brimmed hats.

Even though this picture (a scanned photo just like the one of the bear) was taken at the Bay of Bengal in India at dusk, there was enough light that it worked. Plus, the boy with the darkest skin’s head was framed by the lightest portion of the sky. His blue shirt, helped provide contrast, as did the other boy’s tank top. If they had all been without their shirts, this would not have turned out that well.

Jeff’s main point is that if you are cognizant of the shots you take, you can bring home images that will heighten your experience after the fact. I agree, but sometimes, if all you have is a picture of a bear in a pit, it’s better than nothing. That in itself makes a story.

(When I took the photo of the bear out of the album I made, I verified that this is indeed the only photo I took during my short time in Switzerland. Since I was on a tight budget, I only was in Switzerland for a day (night train from Rome to Bern and from Lucerne to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Denmark. That’s one way to save money. )

Jeff also suggested the HP Web site link to “Digital photography tips and techniques: How to take better photos.” This link leads to other excellent photo tips. Thanks, Jeff!