Gretna: The small Louisiana town that time (and Hurricane Ida) spared
It faces New Orleans across the wide Mississippi, yet Gretna, Louisiana, with its small town historic charm, is far from a mirror image. Gretna resides in the same Jefferson Parish as Hurricane Ida-ravaged Louisiana communities Lafitte and Grand Isle. Yet its turn-of-the-century gingerbread homes and stately public buildings stand firm, with hardly a scratch.
The city’s under-the-radar status has spared it – saved it from bulldozers that have leveled buildings in other communities. It dwells in a pocket of time and space that has bubbled it from the rat-race suburbia that surrounds it and, ultimately, protected it from Hurricane Ida’s wind and water that plagued a swath from Louisiana to New Jersey in late August 2021.
Gretna’s modern-day identity dates back to the German immigration of the 1700s and a blacksmith who performed quickie weddings. The town’s history is told in the facades of its architecture and faces of early settlers’ descendants – later joined by Irish, Italian and other nationalities incoming to New Orleans’ customs port – who still populate the historic district.
In this age when travelers seek real, hometown experiences and eschew over-touristed destinations, Gretna is becoming a notable destination for everyone from history-savvy travelers to NOLA weekenders. It takes no more than a day or two to tour the historic and cultural sites of Gretna, but the more time you spend with people who live there, the more the core town permeates your being.
DAY TRIP GRETNA
Gretna is the ultimate day destination, one that will call you back again and again. Start your visit at the Heritage House Welcome Center, where history seeps into its pores. It occupies a mid-19th-century home that was moved to its current site and renovated on the historic district’s main, lovely Huey P. Long Avenue. (Local lore has it the infamous former Louisiana governor bribed the town to get his name on the street signs.)
Engage friendly staffers Summer Cook and Maryam Bahman, both dyed-in-the-wool Gretna residents, to hear their stories about community, throwing corned beef and cabbage ingredients off of St. Patrick’s Day floats, liquor bottles buried under houses and the secrets behind some historic homes.
Then head down the oak-lined boulevard to admire the homes leading to Gretna’s sustenance and bane: The Mississippi River. A grassy levee, popular with weekend strollers and cyclists, protects the town from the fickle river waters that rise in summer to cover the amphitheater that hosts Gretna’s annual shindig Heritage Festival and concert series in October.
The heart of the district, “Huey P,” as locals call it, is a veritable who’s who of historic sites, starting with the German-American Cultural Center. Where primary school students once learned their three Rs in the early 1900s, visitors now get an education on German immigrant contributions to Gretna’s past.
The town’s bygones tie as intricately into the railroad as the river; the two run parallel to each other. Two early 20th-century depots and a 1951 caboose are part of a complex that includes the covered site of the Saturday Farmers Market & Art Walk.
Closer to the river, the stately 1907 courthouse, renovated as city hall, reigns in baroque style as Gretna’s proudest preservation effort. Inside, get to know famous Gretna residents, then capture the lovely columned building on camera, framed through the Jefferson Memorial Arch, which was built in 1923 to honor local war vets.
EAT, DRINK, GET MARRIED
Food and beverage establishments, both old (Common Grounds) and new (Stained Glass Wine House), converge where Huey P and the river meet. Plan on breakfast in the unassuming dining room of the first and late night sips at the latter. River Shack provides another lively nightlife option nearby.
For lunch, there’s Gattuso’s, part of the Louisiana Oyster Trail and deeply ingrained into local tradition. For dinner, The Red Maple rates as a fine culinary institution. Dating back to a German-American family, it sports a residual Alpine lodge feel.
That brings us to the historic district’s second vital artery, Lafayette Street. Don’t miss the majestic 1926 St. Joseph Catholic Church and Gardens (site of annual St. Joseph’s Day Altars observances in March) and Hook and Ladder Cemetery. The latter, with its ornate above-ground tombs, was originally devoted to dearly departed firefighters in 1859.
Down the street, past vintage storefronts holding hardware shops and hair salons, you can further explore Gretna’s devotion to its fire corps at the 19th-century David Crockett Fire Co. No. 1, home to a fire museum and the oldest continuously active volunteer fire company in the state.
It’s part of the historical complex where the “Golden Girls” – engaging volunteer ladies who live and breathe local history – tour you through four homes and buildings that concretely share stories and confidences of bygone Gretna characters and events.
Here lives the blacksmith shop that gave Gretna its name, after the Scottish town Gretna Green, known as a destination for UK couples looking for runaway weddings sans all the red tape. No one knows how many quickie weddings the “marrying judges” have performed at Gretna’s blacksmith shop, but they continue to this day every February 14th.
The historic complex survived Hurricane Ida, even the slightly shabby blacksmith shop, and Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant feels grateful. “The wind took its toll on our beautiful old oaks,” she says, “but the oak canopy along Huey P. Long survived.” She tells how the city of Gretna, in a telltale show of heart, held a free concert to raise money and provided supplies to its neighbors not so fortunate.
Just like back in the 1930s, when Gretna was spared development destruction because its geography provided more land to build new, in 2021, the town’s placement lay just inland enough to have missed Ida’s wrath a few miles to the west.
Thank geography. Thank luck. Thank good karma. Just thank the powers that be for Gretna’s survival in this whirlwind world.
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