Neighborhood Watch: Bywater, New Orleans
I wrote this story for American Airlines' American Way magazine (published March 2017). Feature photo from Morgan & Owens.
Once forsaken, this offbeat area is now home to Nola’s hippest culinary and visual arts scenes
Look at a map of New Orleans, along the gooseneck path of the Mississippi, and you’ll see a grid of streets cut off from the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods by railway tracks, and bookended in the east by a canal leading up to Lake Pontchartrain. Known as the Bywater District, this rough-around-the-edges area has little infrastructure and no public transportation. Yet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Bywater has made one of the city’s more dramatic comebacks. As local Cari Roy says, “It went from being the place everyone was afraid of to being the place to be.”
Formerly plantation land, Bywater is famously easy on the eye, with a crazy mix of colors and architectural styles: Colonial, Italianate, Eastlake, Creole, Greek Revival, industrial. And yet, for decades, the Bywater side of the tracks was the wrong side. “When I moved here, it was sort of dangerous,” says Roy, a well-known psychic and a resident here for 25 years. “There were no shops, no galleries, no restaurants. You had corner quick-stops and dive bars. That’s it. When I told people where I lived back then, they thought I was crazy because Bywater was associated with so much crime.”
Hurricane Katrina, oddly, played an active role in the area’s revival. Bywater was part of the “Sliver by the River,” a thin strip of high ground that didn’t flood during the storm. This fact—combined with cheap rent, exquisite architecture and proximity to the French Quarter—led to a heightened interest in the neighborhood. Post-Katrina, the young and the fearless moved in, sharing double-shotgun homes with older residents, a situation that led to friction at first, but which eventually fed into the area’s absorbing blend of old-school and progressive cultures.
There was a make-do feel to those early days. Artists set up galleries in their homes, dilettante cooks sold pizza out of an alleyway and people gathered to drink on twinkling backyard patios. Soon, the streets swarmed with outsiders, drawn to a cluster of bars, particularly around St. Claude and Mandeville, or Dauphine and Lesseps: the “Bar-muda Triangle,” as locals call it. “It’s the type of place you’d find Charles Bukowski and hipsters and barflies,” says Roy. “It’s artistic, it’s musical, it’s vibrant now. It’s the real New Orleans. This is why people love it here, whether locals or tourists. It’s authentic.”
It’s no surprise that real estate developers are eyeing Bywater’s jumble of 18th-century fixer-uppers and cavernous warehouses, but the neighborhood has so far resisted the kind of hipster-y overhaul that leads to affected subdistrict abbreviations (So-By) and six-dollar cups of coffee. The artists and activists have not been priced out, and many of the streets here retain the gritty feel that was once deemed threatening, but which is now seen as being part of Bywater’s “edge.”
Which is not to say the area is standing still. While local warehouse walls have attracted the attention of taggers and fly posters, there is not much of a street art scene here—at least not yet. Brandan “Bmike” Odums is a local artist whose politically charged murals have come together in Studio Be, an enormous gallery space in a disused warehouse a couple blocks north of the river, and such is his clout here that others could very well follow. “I had the opportunity to create something that fully explored the possibilities of an abandoned space,” Odums says. “There’s history here, and tons of unique voices, people who want to make an impact through art. That’s what I love about this area.”
Indeed, there are many who would argue that the real engine of Bywater’s revival is its artistic community, and locals work hard to ensure the tradition endures. One of the oldest galleries here, for instance, is Good Children, a collective that opened in 2008 and now serves as a platform for young local talent.
In Bywater, even the music venues have an artsy spin to them. Billed as a “sound art installation/performance venue,” the recently opened Music Box is an outdoor village of quirky, ramshackle houses that double as musical instruments: Visitors are invited to twang, hammer, stamp, slam, clang or blow their way through the compound, usually with wonderfully discordant results. The shows put on here are equally unconventional, and are becoming a hugely popular local attraction.
The area’s culinary scene, meanwhile, is also generating buzz thanks to restaurants like Mariza, which opened in 2013 and garnered immediate acclaim (Esquire’s John Mariani called it “the most exciting new restaurant in New Orleans”). This was the second local place launched by Ian Schnoebelen and his wife, Laurie Casebonne, who have lived in Bywater since 2003 “It was a great opportunity to open a restaurant in the neighborhood that we live in and love,” Schnoebelen says. Serving Italian-inspired food, Mariza was a gamble, but it has helped mark Bywater as a food destination beyond the Creole and Cajun outfits of old.
A more recent addition is Cafe Henri, a small and stylishly sparse restaurant that opened last year on Louisa Street, from the team that also brought the city Cane & Table and Cure. Cafe Henri’s locally-born chef, Alfredo Nogueira, first made a name for himself at the acclaimed Chicago restaurant Analogue. Here, he creates elevated comfort food with local and global influences: Creole deviled eggs and Thai chicken sausage, buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches and a Gulf seafood cioppino that’s become the star dish.
To some extent, the rise of Bywater’s food scene was driven by a handful of restaurants across the tracks, in neighboring Marigny, which drew locals closer to—and eventually over—the dreaded border. Among these is St. Roch Market, a contemporary food hall in a 19th century building, and The Franklin, a “New American” restaurant serving “tropical comfort food,” whose walls are adorned with contemporary artworks.
At the southern fringe of Bywater, along the river, sits one of the area’s most talked-about changes: Crescent Park, a 1.4-mile, 20-acre strip of greenery which opened in 2014 after years of delays (and a $30 million investment). The park has become a prized gathering place for locals and has triggered a mini-building boom in the surrounding area.
There are other transformative projects on the horizon. The historic street cars of the French Quarter are rumored to be expanding to the farthest reaches of Bywater; and the city of New Orleans has plans to turn a 25-acre former naval base at Poland Avenue Wharf into a cruise port. The ultimate aim, developers say, is to create an infrastructure to match Bywater’s spirit.
All the same, there are many here who would prefer to see an easy-does-it approach to development, due to concerns about skyrocketing rents, but also that the area could lose its physical identity. “The local architecture goes hand in hand with the people, and the bright Caribbean colors of Bywater are genuinely fun and unique,” says Nathan Marx, who runs Historic Pro NOLA, the urban preservation consultancy. “It’s special here, it has its own character, its own vibe. There really isn’t a neighborhood like it.”
Long before Bywater got hot, these spots stood their ground, and are still a vital part of the neighborhood’s fabric
While this hole in the wall has gone through several owners in the past 37 years, the lively atmosphere and famed seafood platter have remained constant.
Opened in 2002, this wine shop/watering hole became known for its word-of-mouth garden parties with guest chefs and live jazz.
Slinging drinks since 1959, dive bar Vaughan’s is where hipsters, hippies, drag queens and rockers come together for cheap booze and good times.
“Real food, Done real good” is the motto at Elizabeth’s, which opened in 1996 and now thrives as a brunch spot dishing out country classics (try the Praline Bacon).
Best New Eats in Bywater
Italian-inspired cuisine in an industrial setting that helped define the Bywater dining scene.
Former pizza pop up turned award-winning neighborhood staple.
Low-key hipster hotspot opened by local craft cocktail pioneers.
Funky design, unfussy French/Japanese cuisine and a reliably cool clientele have made this a local favorite.
Danny Bowien (of Mission Chinese in San Francisco) brought Chinese-meets-Southern fare to Bywater.
A Bywater oasis, revised
Built in 1884 in an Italianate raised center-hall cottage, The Country Club is possibly Bywater’s most famous institution. Its off-the-beaten-path location provides members a sanctuary, “Basically, a country club without a golf course,” says general manager Bert McComas. While new owners reinvented it in 1977 as an oasis for the gay community, the club today is open to all, including visiting celebrities (Beyoncé, Jessica Lange). The current owner recently brought in executive chef Chris Barbato—formerly of Commander’s Palace, one of Nola’s most iconic restaurants.
This article was published by American Way magazine. Feature photo from Morgan & Owens.