From the French Quarter in New Orleans, Algiers Point looks like just a spot of land across the murky Mississippi River. But a five-minute, free ferry ride across the water reveals a place remarkably different than the quaint buildings with the gaslight lamps packed into the famous French Quarter.
With the ease of travel from one side of the river to the next, it’s surprising, really, that the New Orleans that everyone knows and loves hasn’t spilled beyond the French Market and Riverwalk over to this more obscure piece of land.
But it hasn’t, and, instead, Algiers Point has had a different history develop over the years.
At the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park building, hidden behind the French Market just down the way from Cafe du Monde, we picked up a glossy National Park brochure for a jazz walk of fame on Algiers Point. Next to it was the only copy of a hand-folded, photographed brochure with tiny print and fuzzy gray photos printed by the Algiers Historical Society for the Algiers Jazz Tour No. 2, also on the opposite bank.
Upon reaching Algiers Point by ferry, we realized the National Park Service brochure had no hope of truly introducing us to this new neighborhood, so we ditched it in favor of the handmade brochure and headed down the street into the neighborhood.
The tour wound up and down the streets, making hairpin turns and backtracking to ensure we saw several pieces of jazz history that were embedded in the area from the early 1900s through the 1920s (and even into the 1950s in some cases). Houses were small, worn and clearly battered by but recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Unlike many of the buildings in the French Quarter that survived relatively unscathed from the storm, a few of these homes had sagging porches and were still missing shingles. A handful were being gutted. Others had signs on them that noted they were being sold “as is.” Sidewalks bowed to the point of being dangerous. Signs had been blown off-kilter and were incorrectly labeling streets (thank God for people relaxing on their porches who pointed us in the right direction so we didn’t get too lost).
But the vast majority of homes have been repainted, and right now a colorful array of flowers is growing in the neighborhood. People laughed and chatted in their front yards, and children chased each other on their way home from school. The area still shows signs of rough times, but overall, it is laid back, clean and appears to be bouncing back well.
Compared to the more popular French Quarter and Garden District, Algiers Point seems to be a part of New Orleans people have forgotten about and they certainly don’t seem to visit, but a century ago this neighborhood was teeming with musical talent. I’m not versed in music in general and jazz specifically, so I didn’t recognize many of the names in our brochure, but it was fascinating to follow the lives of Manuel Manetta, Charlie Love and John Robichaux as we made our way past the childhood homes where they lived, the schools where they learned to play music and the clubs where they made names for themselves in jazz history.
And though I’m a bit of a dunce when it comes to jazz music, I definitely recognized the names of Ray Charles and B.B. King, both of whom played in the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s.
As we walked around Algiers Point, I was overwhelmed thinking about the sheer talent that lived in this neighborhood during the booming jazz age. On any given street there are often two or three houses where musicians grew up and lived. Conversations must have been fascinating, weekend nights probably stretched into dawn as people played their instruments and danced all night long.
Today the streets are a bit more physically worn out from the elements, but if you close your eyes and look past the rotting shingles and bowed sidewalks that still cling to this neighborhood, you can almost pretend the tugboat whistles floating over from the Mississippi are the distant notes of a lone trumpet.
Note: The walking tour we took and other interesting walking tours of Algiers Point can be found on the Algiers Historical Society website.