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The Land of the Graceful Survivor

New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz, the home of the second line, the victim of Katrina. No. They’d hate me using that word. New Orleanians are not victims, they’re survivors, and they do it with style.

I trust New Orleans, because even though it’s been through mind bending catastrophe, even though nature ripped it apart people dance, they sing, they eat and they laugh. In the face of so much, New Orleanians are so alive. They greet you on the street, they hug, they want to feed you.

These people answer to the higher power of community over all else, because they know, when disaster strikes, your people are the difference between survival and death.

When I was asked to visit, I knew immediately I wanted to focus on the aspect of the city I find most incredible. I wanted to look past Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras, to find the soul I’m struck by every time I visit. I wanted to explore the things locals do. I wanted to meet some of these people, who’ve been through hell and still smile and create beauty. I wanted to understand that elusive thing that makes New Orleans a singular place on earth. What I found was magic. Pure, raw, magic, everywhere.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright

Early on, we were connected with Blaze Edwards, people curator and visual artist, who works with the Ace Hotel. He became an essential pillar of the trip, putting us on to the real things the locals do and giving us a crash course in the soul of the city. Blaze told us about Get Up And Ride, a weekly communal bike ride that solidified itself as our favorite experience of the trip. We rented “blue bikes” and kept up with the throng, blasting music as we wove our way from Lafayette Square, through the city and down past the Ace where we dipped into Seaworthy for the best poached shrimp I’ve ever had.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright
Photo: iO Tillett Wright

A town that values community as much as New Orleans has many programs to take care of it’s own, like Son Of A Saint, a mentor program for fatherless boys, or The Neighborhood Story project, which publishes books by local New Orleans natives, bringing their biographies to their neighbors.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright
Photo: iO Tillett Wright

I got to meet Zereaux, local boxer hero on the come up, and Syrena Johnson, a graduate of the renowned Liberty’s Kitchen program, which helps local young which helps at-risk youth with workforce training and leadership development.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright

New Orleans is home to a thriving drag community, which recently had an avant garde makeover courtesy of drag hero, Vinsantos. Her ten week intensive drag workshop has produced a new crop of queens less concerned with “passing” than with originality.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright

We did our best to try every restaurant we could: Peche, Seaworthy, Willie Mae’s, Bacchanal. Even boiled crawfish by the side of the road blew our minds. We explored brass bands on Frenchman, unbelievable singers on Royal Street, cocktails in the Bywater, Gumbo uptown and Po’boys in the Garden District. We shopped at DNO, and I got a haircut from The Parker, another excellently Ace curated spot.

Photo: iO Tillett Wright

I’m not usually one for “tourist stuff”, but on day three, we drove out to Slidell and went on a swamp tour, and God do I recommend it. Being out in the middle of a river, ducking trees in the swamp or feeding wild pigs, it doesn’t matter that you’re in a group. You might as well be all by yourself surrounded by all the cicadas and butterflies – except for a guide to make sure your leg doesn’t get taken off by a water moccasin.

The flavors, the smells, the music, the dance, the style – New Orleans has a flair, and a strength, that makes it an irresistible place. I only hope that everyone who visits makes as much of an effort as we did to veer off the beaten path, because the reward is rich.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeinNOLA.

iO Tillett Wright is an artist, activist, actor, speaker, TV host and writer. His work deals with identity, be it through photography and the Self Evident Truths Project/We Are You campaign, or on television as the co-host of MTV’s Suspect. iO has exhibited artwork in New York and Tokyo, was a featured contributor on Underground Culture to T: The New York Times Style Magazine. He has had photography featured in GQ, Elle, New York Magazine, and the New York Times Magazine. iO is a regular speaker at Universities, discussing expanding one's circle of normalcy, and embracing those that are different than you. A native New Yorker, iO is now based in Los Angeles.

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