In a recent first visit to Mobile, Alabama, a port city of 195,000 on the shores of Gulf of Mexico, the downtown architectural styles and vibe kept reminding me of another place. Then there were the street names: Royal, Dauphin, St. Louis, and Joachim, with black wrought iron balconies over the sidewalks.
New Orleans! Yes, that’s it! Parts of downtown Mobile, founded by the French in 1702, resemble New Orleans’ famous French Quarter and languid residential areas.
But why isn’t this similarity publicized and showcased to perhaps attract more visitors to Mobile?
“It just isn’t,” responded Tara Zieman, communications director at Mobile’s Visitor Center.
To help me solve this mystery of virtually un-proclaimed “twinness,” she referred me to the curator of the Mobile Carnival Museum, whose charming name is quintessentially American Deep South: Cartledge Weeden Blackwell III. Indeed: “Cart” was born in Selma, holds three degrees from the College of Charleston, and is an expert in 19th and 20th century architecture in southeast America.
“As the oldest city of Western habitation on the American Gulf Coast rim, Mobile is justly proud of its heritage,” Blackwell said. “Being compared to New Orleans as being a twin, which is a compliment in some sense, is a simultaneous slap in the face. Mobile was settled at an earlier date and possesses a glorious past. New Orleans too has its own points of uniqueness. Mobilians and New Orleanians like to be considered according to their own conditions and specialties.
“Mobile and New Orleans share historical threads, especially in architecture. Climate, location, development and fashion combined, result in similarity of look and feel of both the built environment and lived experience. Early colonial residents in both communities constructed balconies to cool interiors and provide outdoor living space,” Blackwell said.
“A (Mobile) grid plan is of obvious European derivation. Courtyards harking to a Spanish heritage and French doors and colonial galleries are common,” he added.
Although Mobile has interesting museums, restaurants, and worthwhile family attractions, recent cheapest round-trip Houston to Mobile airfare topped out at about $800.
“Oh yes, Mobile is famous for those high air fares,” said a local businessman.
I opted to fly from Houston to Pensacola for about half that, then drove to nearby Mobile in an inexpensive rental car.
Mobile’s 2019 Mardi Gras parades and celebrations are Feb. 2 through March 5.
When I asked: When is your Mardi Gras parade? Blackwell sent me a link, but sidestepped revealing more.
“While I am a member of a mystic society, I cannot tell you which one it is, or when the parades are, for that is part of the mystique,” he responded.