In the classic best-of-times, worst-of-times, two different cities sit here, though visitors can explore one city without ever touching the other.
One New Orleans contains the residential areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and they are mere skeletons of their days before August 2005, though in some neighborhoods, volunteers are among the workers rebuilding houses.
French Quarter has a clean look in 2008 Quarter photos by Judi Dash
The other city is New Orleans' playpen, including the French Quarter, which is party headquarters.
The Quarter, right, looks as if the rains of 2005 never happened, except in a good way, because the streets and buildings are fitter and cleaner than ever.
As a conscience soother, local officials say that New Orleans will gain no matter which city you choose to visit: Houses need rebuilding and could use more volunteers, but the revelry of the French Quarter and outlying hotels, restaurants and music places fuels the local economy and employs 80,000 people, paying the mortgage.
"Don't feel guilty about having fun in New Orleans," says Sandra Shilstone, who leads the city's efforts to appeal to tourists. "Even the folks in New Orleans dance and sing. It's part of their heritage." Local folks need your vacation money, she says, and your fun is serious business to the people who are trying to get their lives back in order.
Click for New Orleans info or call 800-543-6652. Eating well, feeding the economy
I dropped a few bucks into the local economy, mostly for seafood, and I recommend four of my best eating experiences:
Perfectly sauteed redfish with a heaping pile of fresh spinach ($25) and jalapeno grilled shrimp ($8) at Grand Isle (504-520-8530) at 575 Convention Center Blvd., across the street from Harrah's Casino.
Cafe Amelie is dog friendly, which pleased Spirit, left, a first-time visitor from Beachwood, Ohio
Cochon de Lait, which is a spicy pulled pork sandwich on ciabatta ($12), at lunch under an umbrella on a brick courtyard at Café Amelie, right, in the French Quarter at 912 Royal St. (504-412-8965)
A wonderfully messy shrimp Po Boy ($16) in the Swizzle Stick bar of Café Adelaide in the Loews New Orleans Hotel at 300 Poydras St. (504-595-3300)
Louisiana Drum piquant, a local fish served with crabmeat ($33.50), and a plate of spicy crispy oysters ($8.75) at Upperline, below, one of the best restaurants in New Orleans -- a pricey neighborhood joint full of charm, history and a homey atmosphere that includes an amazing collection of regional art covering the walls.
Art fills the walls at Upperline
Upperline owner JoAnn Clevenger compares the New Orleans of today to a famous old house being restored after a serious storm.
Of the 9 rooms in the house, 6 are finished and dazzling, but 3 are still a mess.
Now, she says, is a good time to come for the party in the city's 6 best rooms.
After the party, though, you may want to pick up a hammer and take a look at the other 3 rooms, joining volunteers from all over the world who are helping to restore neighborhoods flooded after Hurricane Katrina.
Building a fence for Mr. Stripling
Our van of volunteers arrived in New Orleans' old Treme neighborhood on a cool April morning made for manual labor.
Mr. Stripling's house in the Treme neighborhood Photos by David Molyneaux
We were assigned hammers and paint brushes at 2030 St. Ann Street, called a shotgun house because rooms follow one after the other from front to back without a hallway or unnecessary walls that would stop a breeze or a bullet.
In the dead of summer, precious breaths of wind may trickle into the front window of a New Orleans shotgun house and wander through all the rooms, leaving unimpeded through a back door or window.
Losing a wife and a home
The double house, about 100 years old, is owned by Vincent Stripling, 64. It has not been occupied since August 2005 when the waters of Hurricane Katrina rose and floated Mr. Stripling out, like most of the rest of this city's residents.
Before the flood, he lived here with his wife, who died in a hospital during the storm. Her life was celebrated in a jazz funeral in this neighborhood known for its musical roots. Treme was one of the first places in the United States where freed blacks could own property.
In August 2005, Treme was under water. Since the storm, Mr. Stripling has lived in a trailer, working as a cleaner at Harrah's casino, spending his spare time getting his house back in order, removing the moldy walls and buying roofing, windows, doors and siding with a government $40,000 loan.
He is out of money, but some work goes on, as volunteers from Rebuilding Together put finishing touches on the house that has been in the Stripling family for 43 years.
Organizing volunteers to rebuild houses
Rebuilding Togetheris an organization that pledges to help people who own their own homes. The New Orleans team has rebuilt some 90 houses in five neighborhoods since Katrina, thanks to a stream of volunteers that continues to make New Orleans a prime destination for working vacations.
"We want to bring people back home," said local director Camille Lopez, "but we don't do anything fancy."
Fence building among SATW volunteers in New Orleans
Our task was to help provide some privacy to a small backyard that faces a trashy lot, an abandoned store and a busy road.
So, we set about constructing a privacy fence from recycled boards rescued from buildings torn down nearby.
The only new wood was stakes set in the ground to hold the recycled boards, which we nail-gunned to the stakes, primed white and painted a dark green.
Our group included one-day volunteers from Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Stockholm. All were editors and writers meeting in New Orleans the next day in a professional development session of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).
Longer-term workers included Cambria Marinelli, 25, from Boston, and Grady Minnis, 27, of Meadville, Pa., both AmeriCorps volunteers and Michael Dion, 61, of Bexley, Ohio, who said this was her second volunteer effort in New Orleans, following a visit in 2007 with Elderhostel.
We sawed, nailed, swept, shoveled and painted -- a rewarding and productive day.
In a matter of hours, we built a fence for Mr. Stripling.