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Big Easy Living: That creative New Orleans thing

By Renee Peck

I’m constantly struck by the creative mindset of New Orleanians. I think about this whenever I see the sinuous movement of a second line, or hear the lingering notes of a cornet.

But that doesn’t really count, does it? Creativity is intrinsic to music compositions or dance movements, to culinary couplings or camelback construction.

No, where I really see the creativity of my fellow citizens is in the mundane details of life – places where, I expect, residents of Kansas City or Preoria might not think to add whimsy or personality.

Like bathroom doors. Have you ever noticed that public restrooms here often delineate genders with delightful individuality? At the Blue Plate Café on Prytania Street, Barbie and Ken dolls beckon customers to the ladies’ or gents’.  At Eat in the Warehouse District, the restrooms are marked gender-wise by black and white photos of vintage movie stars. And at the new Cow Bell on Oak Street, the men’s and women’s get full-scale folk-art collages, one marked “Dairy” and the other “Meat and Potatoes.”

We’ve long admired the blue and white tile street names that mark local corners (did you know the practice started in the 1870s?). But did you appreciate all of the hand-lettered street signs that went up after Hurricane Katrina, when wind blew away the originals and the city was slow to replace them? (My personal favorite was an elaborate layered pole affair on one of the bird streets in Lake Vista.)

The colors people paint their houses shout out our tendency toward personal expression. I remember with pleasure an Uptown manse once painted K&B purple. And I always allow a little extra time when my route takes me through Marigny, just so I can slow down and admire the area’s Caribbean palettes of peach and lemon and chartreuse.

We not only hang door wreaths at yuletide, but during Carnival, Easter, Fourth of July and Halloween. Our twinkly outdoor white lights stay up through the seasons, and we redecorate Christmas trees in  purple, green and gold for Carnival.

New Orleanians even get creative with nature’s — and society’s — debris. I’ve seen dining room curtains hung from a rod made of a dead oak branch, and bikes wrapped gaily with Carnival beads. At Art in Bloom last week, I was smitten with an elaborate bottle tree, its multi-colored glass containers hanging gaily from a rotunda of bare branches. I recall a similar one, created from a dead elm, in front of a FEMA trailer in Lakeview a few years ago.

I’m sure that other cities are peppered with whimsy. But here in New Orleans, the muse strikes with delightful abandon, and so ubiquitously. My relatives in Houston live in trim, upscale suburbs where lawns are tended neatly and sidewalks don’t rupture over straggling oak roots. But they must choose what trees they plant from a list of approved species, and paint their front doors designated colors.

I’ve never seen a bottle tree in Houston.

And I bet if I lived in Atlanta, I wouldn’t have a friend who commented to me, earnestly, that she was training her dog to wear a tutu.

In New Orleans, I laugh at bumper stickers, snap pictures of Saints attire, look forward to scrutinizing the totems at Jazzfest. I regret the passing of curbside dead-refrigerator art, although I am glad we are beyond that phase of the city’s history. (A friend tells me that, for Halloween 2005, her West Bank neighbors upended their curbside fridges and painted them black to look like coffins.)

The point worth pondering, I think, is that New Orleanians have a tendency to stand out even in the pauses between the more noticeable beats of life. I like that. It can make life messy, especially when colors clash, fences boast freeform beads or yard art attacks the senses.

But it also indicates a city with a sense of humor and a love of individuality. If you’re a conformist, you probably don’t get us. I like that, too.


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