Just steps away from Chef Menteur Highway, U.S. Fish & Wildlife spokesman Pon Dixson walked down the Ridge Trail Boardwalk, describing the saltwater intrusion that ruined the natural canopy here after Hurricane Katrina and naming the trees his agency has planted since alongside the idyllic path.

Then he stopped to listen. “I hear cardinals and warblers…” he said – and then paused for a loud pop-pop-pop-pop from the highway – “…and Harley Davidson motorcycles.”

That’s the way it is in eastern New Orleans, which delivers leafy nature within the bounds of the city. Ridge Trail, a two-thirds mile boardwalk loop well-known to area birdwatchers, is part of the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, which is said to be the country’s largest urban wilderness area.

Most of the beauty of New Orleans East is not manmade. Compared with the historic New Orleans of popular perception, most of the homes in New Orleans East have a distinct post-1960s “bedroom community” look. Stores and restaurants are most often located in strip malls or lines of concrete and brick buildings connected by parking lots.

Beyond trees and swamps, some unexpected treasures and neighborhood gathering spots can be found in “the East:” at its Art Deco airport, within its sprawling neighborhood gardens and small village of people who live on boats in Lake Pontchartrain.

The East is also home to the best cornbread in town and to the nation’s second largest collection of relics of Vietnamese saints dating to the 17th century.

Po’boys and bahn mi
The Village L’Est and Versailles communities of the East is home to a large immigrant community, which settled here after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Just off Chef Menteur is the wildly popular Dong Phuong bakery and restaurant. But nearly every neighborhood corner store with a kitchen carries what’s billed as the “Vietnamese po-boy” – the traditional French Vietnamese sandwich banh mi.

The Village L’Est community revolves around Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, which started with 11 families in November 1975 and now has more than 5,500 registered members, down from more than 8,000 before Katrina, said parish coordinator Tony Tran, noting that the severed federal levees and storm surge left this area badly flooded and that some sections lacked running water or electricity for months.

The church’s parking lot often smells like coffee because of the Folger’s Coffee Co. roasting plant across the street. On weekends, the church is jammed with worshippers for six different Masses in Vietnamese (morning), English (midday) and Spanish (evening).

In the back of the church, a small chapel holds the relics of Vietnamese martyrs, part of a group of 117 saints canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1998. It’s the second-largest collection of such relics in the United States and attracts pilgrims from around the world, Tran said.

Flowers and flight
Across Dwyer Boulevard, the group Nola Tilth grows flowers on what was an abandoned lot. Megan Webbeking, 41, plucked wilted tops off snapdragons as she sat in a small potting shed on the property, which neighbors cleared of garbage before starting the community garden there.

Anyone who weeds or works in the garden can bring home produce or flowers for their labors, said Webbeking, who gets her “daily dose of nature” there.

A five-minute drive away, Dave Smith can count on stunning views of Lake Pontchartrain from his workplace, the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. Smith, a retired air-traffic controller, retired from the tower here in 2003 and now is the operations director for the airport with a soft spot for the meatloaf from the facility’s restored cafe.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said Smith, explaining how the airport was built in 1934 by crews from the Works Project Administration and Gov. Huey P. Long, who wanted an international airport but didn’t get along with the city, Smith said.

So Long ordered land dredged from the lake – state property – to create a small peninsula of state-owned land in Orleans Parish for his prized airport. Amelia Earhart stayed a night upstairs on the way to California for her last flight

In the 1950s, the terminal became an unsightly gray-stucco, nuclear-fallout shelter. But after the storm, the heavily damaged building and its inlaid terrazzo floors and plaster carvings were restored with $10 million in FEMA historic-preservation money to the Art Deco jewel it once was.

We are all equal on the sea
Next door, the South Shore Harbor Marina, which was also torn up by Katrina, now bustles with weekend visitors and a group of residents, who live on their boats.

Jimmy Ruggiero, 38, a marine electrician and retired jazz bassist, said that his neighborhood is Piers 2 and 3 and that his community includes boats of all sizes. “We are equal on the sea,” he said.

Neighborhood is also the focus at Ma Momma’s House of Cornbread, Chicken & Waffles off Crowder Boulevard, which boasts that 75 percent of its employees are from the East.

Cook Robert Porche, 38, won’t reveal the recipe for the restaurant’s famed complimentary cornbread – “people automatically fall in love with it,” he said.

There’s no architectural significance to Ma Momma’s, which is in a strip mall, but eastern New Orleans customers come for the spirit found inside, where the music and dance show Soul Train runs on a loop on the television and where, after church, customers come in their Sunday best.

“They be debonair, smooth,” said Porche.