The Storybook Land of the City of Dreams

The century-old archway of greenery along St. Charles Avenue may be the longest live-oak canopy anywhere, and it is the passageway for those who live downtown to the Uptown neighborhood. The area, with its rows of mansions, academic towers of knowledge, and even the happy cries of jungle animals echoing in backyards near the Audubon Park and zoo, has a storybook-esque feel to it.

It seems only apt that Carnival parades begin here, with their lithe queens and masked men throwing beads to the masses below. Said crowds travel regularly to Uptown, in search of the neighborhood’s dentists, doctors and plentiful retail. While Main Street programs across town aim to build up waning business corridors, Uptown’s main artery of commerce, Magazine Street, has long thrived, to the point that it gas eaten up all the residential homes along the street, says well-traveled designer Gerrie Bremermann, who says that she shops in all of the nearby stores.

“I don’t think that there’s a street in the world like it,” she said.

After raising three children, Bremermann entered the world of design at age 45. Twenty-two ago, she bought 3943 Magazine Street, which she filled with her signature mix of old and new furnishings – French antiques, modern art, and lush fabrics – and became one of the city’s grand dames of interior design, known best for her “white houses,” with largely white walls and furniture.

“I’ll terminate here,” Bremermann said, as she held court in her fabric room recently in a commanding way that made clear her end is nowhere near.

Flora and Fauna
Several blocks away, the live oaks have also thrived where they were rooted, at least 100 years ago, said John Benton, president of Bayou Tree Service, who said he has a soft spot for the native tree. “It’s extremely tolerant of urban conditions. It doesn’t like to die,” said Benton, who also likes the way the tree ages.

“I like the idea that as it gets older it holds its beauty – it gets more majestic.”

Benton estimates that the St. Charles canopy includes roughly 1,000 live oaks, including about 300 young oaks Bayou Tree helped to plant a few years ago. In coming years, like the queens that ride past them, they will be groomed for their role in Carnival. Their lower limbs will be trimmed back to accommodate the krewes’ tall floats, and their mossy branches will be draped with plastic garlands of beads.

But neighbors near the Audubon Zoo are farther removed from the parade route. So they’re less likely to catch a snatch of “If Ever I Cease to Love” and more apt to hear other Uptown melodies, from furry black pairs of siamang gibbons like Crown and Syndi. The two, like all siamang pairs, socially connect by grooming each other and singing complex duets, original compositions that can carry about a mile and last for about 15 minutes a pop, said Courtney Eparvier, the zoo’s curator of primates and sea lions.

School Ties
As in most river cities, those who could move uptown from the oldest sections of the city of New Orleans were considered fortunate, since used bathwater and other refuse flows downriver. But a key cluster of Uptown residents, at Loyola and Tulane universities, can’t be lumped in that category, since they have yet to put down roots or earn their fortunes.

As a result, youth is part of the integral rhythms of life here in Uptown, as students paint their faces for Green Wave games, accompany St. Charles traffic on their bicycles and pack neighborhood coffee houses with blurry-eyed study groups at exam time.

Tulane’s service-learning requirements, instituted after Hurricane Katrina, encourage students to go beyond typical college boundaries.

Freshman Helena Beckstad volunteers at KIPP school each week. Aeshna Sarkar, also a freshman, is helping to train a puppy that will eventually become a service dog for a quadriplegic owner, as part of a program called TuStep. These efforts put them “outside the Tulane bubble” said Sarkar, who said that social outings are often to cliched spots like the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street or to tried-and-true student destinations like the Elmwood movie theater, Walmart, and Metairie, on routes traveled by Tulane’s entertainment shuttles.

Benjamin Griswold, a freshman from Los Angeles, said that compared with the walled-in campuses he knew from California, Tulane is much more part of the surrounding Uptown neighborhood. “There is always cross traffic coming through” on the campus street grid, which connects to the rest of the city and the St. Charles streetcar also helps him feel connected to his neighbors and the surrounding city.

Yet the Tulane bubble also insulates its students when they leave the campus. Keith Hill, who drives the university shuttle’s Green Line from the campus to medical-school buildings downtown, asks for IDs before anyone boards his van, because he’s only allowed to carry Loyola and Tulane students, staff and faculty. In this charmed world, students who leave behind phones, wallets, jackets, umbrellas and classwork can return to the van and get it back. “Everything’s a learning process,” Hill said.

Less youthful Uptown homeowners with learning in mind often head to a different neighborhood institution: Harry’s Ace Hardware on Magazine Street. Bremermann Design staffers head there regularly to pick up the rulers they can never find, Gerrie Bremermann said. Longtime Harry’s floor manager Jeff Davis said that the store’s most frequently sold items are paint and light bulbs. But the most commonly sought item is “advice,” he said.