Jambalaya, gumbo, pralines and beignets stir evocative memories of the heady old days. Rhythm and blues, Dixieland and zydeco pulse into the centuries-old streets. Football fans celebrate a win by the hometown Saints. New Orleans as a unique historic tourist destination is back. Tourists can enjoy the flavor, sounds and exhilaration of one of America’s most exciting cities and they can be a part of the revitalization of this historic Mississippi port town.

Tourism is the forward edge of New Orleans’s Hurricane Katrina recovery. Though saddled by ineffective local and state governments, the tourism organizations and fearless citizens have led the renewal.

For the past year, the tourism infrastructure of the Crescent City has been in a frenzied stage of rebuilding. Hotels like the Ritz Carlton, W, Monteleone, Intercontinental, Omni and International House have roared back to life. And top chefs like John Besh of award-winning Restaurant August and Tory McPhail of historic Commander’s Palace have returned to raise their exceptional restaurants from the hurricane rubble.

The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau has also done its part, working together with neighborhood associations, schools, the restaurant association, the airport, small B&Bs, giant hotels and casinos to bring back the lucrative tourism economy. Slowly, the city has clawed its way back onto the nation’s list of must-see premier destinations.

Tourist neighborhoods are coming back to life

For the most part, the New Orleans that most tourists experience did not suffer the flooding and devastation seen on TV; in fact, it emerged relatively unscathed, physically. The French Quarter, the Central Business District, Magazine Street, the Garden District, Faubourg Marigny and Faubourg Tremé are now just about back to their old selves. Buildings have been renovated, shops are open and restaurants are serving a thankful group of locals determined to breathe life back into the city.

In the French Quarter, carriages again rattle over the cobblestones to the clip-clop cadence of their horses. Powdered sugar wafts across the sidewalk beside the Café du Monde. The bell tolls out the hours in the tower of St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, reverberating throughout the Vieux Carré. Traffic moves fitfully along Decatur Street. Watercolorists, sculptors and souvenir hawkers crowd the French and Farmers Markets.

Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans’s first suburb, comes alive in the music clubs on Frenchmen Street, and the grand old Creole mansion houses along leafy Esplanade Avenue are still spectacular. But across North Rampart Street, in Faubourg Tremé, the bars and restaurants are for the most part closed. The colorful buildings of this onetime French-Creole neighborhood are currently in various stages of repair, but the vibrant flavor of this section, with its quirky houses and voodoo past, is worth a walk during the day.

The Central Business District bustles beneath the city’s clutch of high-rise office buildings. This is where the Anglo-American settlers began what amounted to a new city, leaving the French and Creoles to reside across Canal Street in the French Quarter. Two highlights are the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where soft light filters through massive stained-glass windows to illuminate spectacular religious art, and Gallier Hall, whose facade echoes a giant Greek temple facing Lafayette Square.

The Warehouse District and Magazine Street, once home to giant cotton balers and printing plants, is beginning to reclaim its artists, galleries and antiques auctioneers. The Thirteen Sisters and the Leeds Foundry buildings both stamped an English style on the city, and Julia Street, a nonstop collection of galleries, is unwavering in its drive to regain its position as the “Soho of the South.” Nearby museums are again open for business, including the National World War II Museum, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Confederate Museum.

Fortunately, the Garden District survived the storm well, and tourists once again stroll its streets past gardens shaded by mimosa and magnolia trees to enjoy the neighborhood’s Greek Revival buildings, Italianate brick houses and intricate ironwork. The two-story porches adorn the Victorian houses, which have stunning interiors with soaring ceilings and spectacular chandeliers. Only one is open to the public: the Women’s Opera Guild House, on Prytania Street, which was built in 1858. The nearby Fire Department Museum gives visitors a different view of life in the 1800s with a great collection of antique firefighting equipment.

The New Orleans of disaster

Yes, the tourist’s New Orleans lives again. But there is another, apocalyptic, side of New Orleans. To understand the scale of the coming reformation efforts that will be splashed across newspapers and on TV in the coming months, Americans would be well served by a more sober look at the rest of the city and its governance.

Only a short walk or drive away from tourist neighborhoods the devastation from Katrina is overwhelming. The floodwaters are gone, but the Lower 9th Ward is a complete and utter wasteland. During a two-hour tour of the neighborhood in late October, not one habitable building was seen. The immensity of destruction is amazing and cannot be comprehended through TV coverage and magazine photos alone.

On the other side of the city, the once-thriving upper-middle-class neighborhood of Lakeview presents another expanse of ruined homes. Here, about 10 percent of the houses seem to be in some stage of repair or rebuilding, but the lurking presence of hundreds of empty building lots and abandoned homes missing their shingles, windows, gutters and siding underscores the problems of rebuilding and neighborhood renewal.

The rejuvenation of this city’s bedroom communities will take the good part of a decade. Currently, the city leaders and state government seem frozen — without a plan to rebuild the social infrastructure. City services have only recently been returned to many neighborhoods outside of the downtown district. While the parochial schools opened almost immediately after the hurricane and provided a rallying point for returnees, many of the city’s public schools in habitable areas are still shuttered.

The local neighborhood associations in areas such as Lakeview, Gentilly and Faubourg Tremé have served as catalysts for reconstruction, organizing such fundamental operations as trash and debris removal. But these organizations do not have the funding that is needed to make broader headway, even with the help of local private businesses.

Those who have returned to New Orleans to repair their homes, restart their businesses and reclaim their lives started with an uncharacteristic sense of city unity and civic determination. However, the lack of any kind of coherent plan at the city and state levels is frustrating many of these urban renewal pioneers.

Historically, New Orleans has been seen as a city saddled with a dysfunctional government of warring bureaucratic interests. According to many, this failure to work together and keep the levees repaired, despite record levels of funding, is partly to blame for the enormous damage.

It seems little has changed. Currently, city leaders are not coming to the forefront and are not responding to their citizens, who are clamoring for short-term and longer-term direction. This cannot go on. Planners need to make arrangements to spend the billions of dollars that have already been allocated to the reconstruction fund. Local associations are meeting, making plans and proposals, but when their ideas are passed to City Hall, action comes to a standstill or the projects are sent back to neighborhoods for additional study.

The longer this recovery effort drifts without a rudder, the more difficult it will be to reconstitute the city and begin the transformation of the social fabric that makes New Orleans special. Without some positive action by the city and state leaders, the public unity and single-minded determination that was kindled in the wake of Katrina will be squandered.

Tourism makes a difference

Given the governmental failings, the major impetus for rebirth must come directly from the citizenry. Of course, those people are mired, like people everywhere, in their day-to-day existence — trying to earn a living, get their kids to school, have the car repaired. It is a great challenge that they face, and my hat goes off to them for the almost miraculous effort they have made so far.

Obviously, they cannot do it alone, so when you make your plans for a warmer-weather vacation, think about New Orleans. In fact, make it a New Year’s resolution. The city’s hoteliers, shopkeepers, painters, musicians, chefs, waiters, busboys, taxi drivers, construction crews, truckers and engineers will welcome your contribution to the renovation of their city, and you can become an important part of an historic effort to reconstitute a major metropolis.

Notes:

While in New Orleans, I was the guest of the International House, 221 Camp Street, 504-553-9550. The hotel provides understated luxury in the center of the business district only a block and a half from the French Quarter. I also spent nights with friends in various area neighborhoods. I was hosted to a memorable dinner at Restaurant August (301 Tchoupitoulas Street, 504-299-9777), long hailed as one of the best eateries in a city famous for its cuisine. Restaurant August owner and chef John Besh has been recognized as one of the best chefs in the city by the James Beard Foundation and is a leader in the city’s tourism renewal. The table favorites were the crispy pork belly with Belle River crawfish agnolotti, tarragon, asparagus and sweet peas (as an appetizer) and the Moroccan-spiced duck with soft polenta, roasted-duck foie gras and Midol dates (as a main course). The wine list was excellent with both affordable and vintage wines.

Other fine restaurants I visited during my time in New Orleans were the venerable Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon Street, 504-525-2021) for the Friday before Halloween (which is wild if you can get a table), The Bank Café in Marigny (2001 Burgundy, 504-371-5260) for its exceptional mussels and French fries, Port of Call (838 Esplanade, 504-523-0120) for its famous hamburgers, and Luizza’s by the Track (1518 N. Lopez, 504-943-8667) for its renowned gumbo.