Summertime, and the living is not exactly easy in New Orleans, where the heat and threat of hurricanes drag on for months. But for three centuries and counting, residents have found ways to not only survive but thrive through the season. For some, it means getting out of dodge. For others, it’s about cooling off by any means necessary — 30-minute sno-ball lines included.
Escape to the North
“Though a winter resort, New Orleans is preeminently a summer town — a city of galleried houses, of gardens, of flowers, and of shops which open wide upon the street,” writes Julian Ralph in an 1892 report from New Orleans for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. While modern-day residents might scoff at the characterization of New Orleans as a “summer town,” Ralph goes on to describe the Caribbean — influenced architecture that makes summer heat tolerable — but just barely. Anyone who can afford to do so, he writes, leaves town: “The Americans … exchange the heat for the mountains and the forests. The wealthy among the Creoles are apt to go to France, and there are many who divide the year thus.”
Snow and ice to beat the heat
New York has its Mister Softee trucks, but New Orleans has its sno-ball stands. When temps are high, one can see groups of New Orleanians queuing loosely in front of matchbook-size storefronts, waiting for the sweet, ice-cold refreshment of powdered ice piled high and topped with brightly colored syrup. Entire books have been written about the joys of New Orleans sno-balls (or “snowballs,” or “snoballs”), such as Megan Braden-Perry’s “Crescent City Snow: The Ultimate Guide to New Orleans Snowball Stands.” Many residents stick with their preferred neighborhood spot, but others have been known to play sno-ball bingo, seeking to hit as many different stands around town as they can.
A beach in the East
Lincoln Beach was Jim Crow’s answer to Pontchartrain Beach, the lakefront amusement park that catered only to Whites during segregation. In 1954, the city opened Lincoln Beach on a 17-acre lakefront site in New Orleans East. Its amenities and diversions paled in comparison to the bigger, fancier Pontchartrain Beach, but it still had “two swimming pools … a bathhouse, a restaurant, and rides and attractions,” according to writer James Cullen’s history of the site for Antigravity magazine. For more than a decade, it gave the city’s people of color a place to cool off in the summer. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, demand plummeted, as African Americans were eventually allowed entry to Pontchartrain Beach. Lincoln Beach closed a year later.
A city that floods
Street flooding has been a part of New Orleans life since its inception. Particularly in the summer, storms find a way to press pause on daily life, despite the development of the city’s levee and drainage systems. Residents are well-acquainted with the ritual of moving their vehicles to higher ground in advance of heavy rains.
A woman and child hold onto an “exit only” sign, surrounded by water, in the flooded parking lot of a K&B drugstore
In May 1978, cars at a K&B parking lot are seen huddled against the side of the drugstore to avoid stormwater, while a woman and child wait out the flooding on a signpost. (THNOC, photograph by Luis Castrillo, 1985.143.1)
For children and the young at heart, street flooding presents an opportunity to step out of the ordinary. One perennial feature of summer storms is local news footage and photographs of people making the best of it, floating down their blocks in kayaks, canoes, and innertubes.
A decadent end to the summer
Labor Day weekend typically marks the official end of summer here in the United States, but in New Orleans, the real capstone to the season is Southern Decadence, the annual LGBTQ+ pride weekend that features parties galore and the hottest, sweatiest parade of the year. As the event’s official history goes, “Southern Decadence began in 1972 with a group of friends who playfully called themselves the ‘Decadents.’ … All were young, mostly in college or recently graduated, and counted among themselves male and female, Black and White, and gay and straight.”
One of the Decadents was leaving town to return to Chicago and bemoaned the lack of entertainment happening over the holiday weekend, so the group held a going-away party “marked by spiked punch and a lot of drug use, especially marijuana and LSD.” (It was the ’70s, after all.) The next year, the group began its tradition of parading the Sunday before Labor Day, soon adopting the New Orleans custom of assigning a grand marshal to lead the procession.
Fifty years later, Southern Decadence is a New Orleans institution and mainstay of the tourism economy, attracting thousands of visitors to the city to partake in the fun.
Editor’s note: This story is an excerpt from a post on The Historic New Orleans Collection’s First Draft blog. Visit hnoc.org/firstdraft to read more.
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