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Mardi Gras, Mortgages & Muffulettas

Is New Orleans really back?

New Orleans may well be the comeback story of our time. A city brutalized by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is now a place you’d really like to see.

What makes New Orleans interesting? Judging from a recent trip you have to point to three things: Mardi Gras, mortgages and muffulettas.

Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras in the sense of being the day before Ash Wednesday, but Mardi Gras is more than a single day or parade — and very much more than parades in other cities.

The first Mardi Gras parade took place on February 4th this year with the Krewe Du Vieux marching down St. Charles Street. More parades followed, sometimes several a day until we get to Fat Tuesday and the Rex parade.

Each krewe is a secret society. Members pay for their costumes and “throws” — the beads and other stuff that comes flying off the floats as they go by. The “other stuff” includes toy footballs, snakes, shoes, ear rings, necklaces, hair bands, hats, candy, cups, bags and who knows what. Along with parading, the krewes also organize masked balls.

The floats themselves are garish, great art and have a very special characteristic: They’re for fun. There are no floats selling movies, department stores or action figures. There are no product placements. Nothing is “brought to you by.”

A single parade is a lot more than the sum of its floats. The parades also include marching bands, horses, motorcycle riders, and — again — who knows what. One parade can easily stretch for a mile or so and sometimes one parade follows another so major streets can be busy for hours as parades go by.

Huge numbers of police are around and the parade routes are safe. For the most part people stand along the route having a good time, yelling “throw me something, mister” and trying to catch goodies as the floats go by. People mingle. It’s a party.

Homes

It’s hard to find tract homes in New Orleans. Most homes look very different from their neighbors. A mansion with huge oaks can be on the same block as a small home that looks ready for demolition. Uncut grass grows in empty lots where homes once stood, victims of Katrina or just old age and little money.

Also, New Orleans has a curious type of architecture. Homes which seem small and single-storied from the street are sometimes huge, with high ceilings, porches and balconies for ventilation, and multiple floors toward the rear. This type of “shotgun” architecture suggests that at some point property taxes were assessed on the basis of front-footage, creating a demand for thin, long lots with thin, long houses.


In 2009 the typical existing home in the New Orleans metro area sold for $160,100 according to the National Association of Realtors, a value which fell to $148,200 at the end of 2011.

The context for pricing within New Orleans is complex. Like virtually all metro areas the city faces the broad impact of tough economic times nationwide. In addition, a large portion of the housing stock was damaged by Katrina and many homes were simply lost.

It’s also true that many homes suffered little damage, new homes have been built and a large portion of the remaining housing stock has been redeveloped with the result that a single block can contain both beautiful homes and derelict properties. With time more of the housing supply will be restored as people return to the city because New Orleans is a uniquely-desirable place to live.

Louisiana, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, had a foreclosure start rate at the end of 2011 which was lower than the national average — .83 versus .99. While the national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in December, it was 6.8 percent for Louisiana and 7.1 percent in New Orleans.

So — despite Katrina — the state is doing better than a lot of places in terms of both foreclosures and employment. No doubt a big part of that prosperity comes from the enormous construction and rehab activity within New Orleans.

Mortgages

The Finance Authority of New Orleans says it provides loans with low mortgage rates (3.75 percent) for both first time home buyers and repeat purchasers at all income levels. It also offers grants of up to 4 percent, meaning buyers should be able to get FHA loans with nothing down and little interest. However, if the property is sold within nine years then some of the profit can be re-captured by the government.

While mortgages are cheap and easy to get — remember that building homes and fixing them creates local jobs and profits — the same is not so certain with homeowner’s insurance. It’s expensive when available, the third-most costly location in 2010 after Texas and Florida according to the New Orleans Times Picayune.

For would-be purchasers it’s essential to use a buyer-broker and a contract which requires an examination of the property by a professional home inspector that’s “satisfactory” to the buyer. Buying a home which needs expected repairs is fine but buying a home that — surprise! — needs repairs may be costly if not beyond affordability.

Size & Streetcars

New Orleans is essentially a small city — it’s not among the biggest 50 metro areas in terms of population and this is an advantage — you can go from downtown or the French Quarter to residential areas in just a few minutes. The best way to travel is by trolly.

The streetcars date from the 1920s and they’re quick, immaculate, frequent, all-electric, non-polluting and provide an instant tour of the city. The trolleys are also cheap — $3 for a day pass to use as much as you want.

Food in New Orleans

New Orleans has deep French and Cajun roots and you can see this in the food. There are po-boys and muffulettas, and there is fine French cuisine as well. Like all eaters we have our prejudices and here are some of the places we enjoyed:

  • Herbsaint. Herbsaint is in the downtown area near the convention center and hotels. The Times-Picayune says it’s one of the 10 best restaurants in New Orleans and with reason: At dinner the Louisiana crab with pasta was terrific, the steak was beautifully presented and the chocolate pudding cake was warm and wonderful. The kitchen is open so you can see author and award-winning chef Donald Link at work. Another well-known Link restaurant and top-10 choice, Cochon, is nearby and specializes in Cajun southern cooking.
  • Gott Gourmet Cafe. Magazine Street runs from downtown to Jefferson Parish and is filled with local stores and shops. This means most places are not like the local mall with the same chain retailers selling the same basic inventory of merchandise. We ate lunch at Gott Gourmet and had a terrific gumbo for about $7.
  • Stein’s Market & Deli — Also on Magazine Street is Stein’s, the real deal with old-fashioned and excellent corned beef and pastrami. Also has hoagies, Italian sandwiches, caprese and a great collection of sodas.
  • Parasol’s. Located a block off Magazine Street in the Irish Channel area, Parasol’s is a classic neighborhood bar with a very good kitchen. Try the roast beef po-boy and the mozzarella sticks.
  • Rivershack Tavern. You have to drive to this one in Jefferson — go out St. Charles Street (a street with wonderful homes) until you come to the Mississippi then turn right and keep going a few minutes. The Rivershack is a bar and has one of the best chicken sandwiches (Rusty’s Chicken Ranch) to be found. Less than $10 but worth more.

Will we go back to New Orleans? Sure. It’s a great city and the people could not be more friendly. Besides, we want to see what happens to all the houses now being re-built.

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2 Comments on "Mardi Gras, Mortgages & Muffulettas"

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  1. Crescent City Ray says:

    Brutalized? By Katrina? Not so. According to the forensic scientists and federal courts, gross engineering negligence was responsible for our flood. It’s hard to get a bad meal here.

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