To the north of the city of New Orleans lies an expansive lake, Lake Pontchartrain. However, this isn’t your typical lake. This lake, more than 24 miles around, is so expansive that the far shore cannot be seen. Lake Pontchartrain is essentially an open body of water, and it behaves accordingly. While the lake is great for sailing, it’s the lake’s palm-tree lined shores — the lakefront, as it’s called by locals — that are the main draw for most people.
Let’s start by noting that while there’s much to do and experience on the lakefront, swimming isn’t one of those things. Since the lake is so large, the water can be quite rough, and it’s only been in recent years that the lake is clean enough to swim in. Therefore, if you’re not on a sailboat, you’re likely visiting Lake Pontchartrain to experience what’s happening on the lakefront itself.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, whose wind and water heavily battered the well-loved area, the lakefront was “the” place to be in New Orleans on weekends. The traffic patterns that fed the shoreline park were altered each weekend so the traffic could only flow one direction from west to east. The lanes in the opposite direction were dedicated to providing a safe and spacious place for bike riding, rollerblading, and walking (This traffic pattern altering was discontinued permanently in 2014).
On any given weekend, the lakefront would be teeming with groups of people: young, old, black, white, everyone. It didn’t matter. The lakefront was a well-loved and well-utilized part of the New Orleans landscape. Along the most developed two mile stretch that starts at West End Blvd and runs to Bayou St. John, you’d encounter groups doing everything from crawfish boils to barbecues. It was a joyful place, very much akin to a beach scene, though without the sand.
Sadly, Hurricane Katrina interrupted all of that. The lakefront was severely battered and bruised by the howling winds and pounding waves. Many of the concrete bulkheads were washed out underneath making them both unstable and unsafe. Lakeshore Drive, the road that runs along the lakeshore, was damaged as well and intermittently closed, either partially or sometimes fully, for years afterward. The scope of the restoration project was massive, and the repairs seemed endless. Many wondered if they’d ever complete the project so we could all get back up to the lakefront.
In the end, it took nearly 10 years to restore and repair the lakefront, but guess what? The lakefront is back! It’s been back a little while now (a year so), and of course, it’s taking some time to get people back in the habit of going up there. But it is happening. Slowly, but surely, the weekenders are returning. Those crawfish boils are starting to happen again. People are gathering for family reunions in the shelter areas with barbecue pits and jovial celebration.
As with the swampy waters that surround it, there’s much about New Orleans that’s slow-moving. The restoration of the lakefront was in that category for years, but now that it’s back, we have the opportunity to reclaim yet another piece of our culture. Hurricane Katrina destroyed many things here and damaged other things to the point where we’ve had to wait quite a long time for their return. Luckily for us, the lakefront was one of those that’s finally returned.
If you’re visiting New Orleans, it may be difficult for you to get to the lakefront if you don’t have access to a car. The most visited part of the lakefront is between five and seven miles from downtown (depending where you start and end), and sadly, there isn’t any public transportation that gets you directly from the French Quarter or CBD to the lakefront (One bus can get you to the University of New Orleans’s campus, but you’re still away from the main action). If you happen to rent a car while in New Orleans, take it up to the lakeshore of Lake Pontchartrain. You’ll really be living like a local then.