New Orleans
"History and Geography"

 

 

There's a lot more to NEW ORLEANS - the "Big Easy," the "city that care forgot" - than its tourist image as a nonstop party town. The mixture of cultures and races that built the city still gives it its heart; not "easy" exactly, but quite unlike anywhere else in the States - or the world.

New Orleans began life in 1718 as a French-Canadian outpost, an unlikely set of shacks on a marsh. Its prime location near the mouth of the Mississippi River led to rapid development, and with the first mass importation of African slaves, as early as the 1720s, its unique demography began to take shape. Despite early resistance from its francophone population, the city benefited greatly from its period as a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1800. By the end of the eighteenth century, the port was flourishing, the haunt of smugglers, gamblers, prostitutes and pirates. Newcomers included Anglo-Americans escaping the American Revolution and aristocrats fleeing revolution in France. The city also became a haven for refugees - whites and free blacks, along with their slaves - escaping the slave revolts in Saint-Domingue.

As in the West Indies, the Spanish, French and free people of color associated and formed alliances to create a distinctive Creole culture with its own traditions and ways of life, its own patois, and a cuisine that drew influences from Africa, Europe and the colonies. New Orleans was already a many-textured city when it experienced two quick-fire changes of government, passing back into French control in 1801 and then being sold to America under the Louisiana Purchase two years later. Unwelcome in the Creole city - today's French Quarter - the Americans who migrated here were forced to settle in the areas now known as the Central Business District (or CBD) and, later, in the Garden District. Canal Street, which divided the old city from the expanding suburbs, became known as "the neutral ground" - the name still used when referring to the median strip between main roads in New Orleans.

Though much has been made of the antipathy between Creoles and Anglo-Americans, in truth economic necessity forced them to live and work together. They fought side by side in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, the final battle of the War of 1812, which secured American supremacy in the States. The victorious general, Andrew Jackson, became a national hero - and eventually US president; his ragbag volunteer army was made up of Anglo-Americans, slaves, Creoles, free men of color and Native Americans, along with pirates supplied by the notorious buccaneer Jean Lafitte.

New Orleans' antebellum "golden age" as a major port and finance center for the cotton-producing South was brought to an abrupt end by the Civil War. The economic blow wielded by the lengthy Union occupation - which effectively isolated the city from its markets - was compounded by the social and cultural ravages of Reconstruction. This was particularly disastrous for a city once famed for its large, educated, free black population. As the North industrialized and other Southern cities grew, the fortunes of New Orleans took a downturn.

Jazz exploded into the bars and the bordellos around 1900, and along with the evolution of Mardi Gras as a tourist attraction, breathed new life into the city. And although the Depression hit here as hard as it did the rest of the nation it also heralded the resurgence of the French Quarter, which had disintegrated into a slum. Even so, it was the less romantic duo of oil and petrochemicals that really saved the economy. The city now finds itself in relatively stable condition with a strengthening economy based on tourism.

One of New Orleans' many nicknames is "the Crescent City," because of the way it nestles between the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and a dramatic horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River. This unique location makes the city's layout confusing, with streets curving to follow the river, and shooting off at odd angles to head inland. Compass points are of little use here - locals refer instead to lakeside (towards the lake) and riverside (towards the river), and using Canal Street as the dividing line, uptown (or upriver) and downtown (downriver).

Most visitors spend most time in the battered, charming old French Quarter (or Vieux Carré), site of the original settlement. The heartbreakingly beautiful French Quarter is where New Orleans began in 1718. Today, battered and bohemian, decaying and vibrant, it's the spiritual core of the city, its fanciful cast-iron balconies, hidden courtyards and time-stained stucco buildings exerting a haunting fascination that has long caught the imagination of artists and writers. Official tours are useful for orientation, but it's most fun simply to wander - and you'll need a couple of days at least to do it justice, absorbing the jumble of sounds, sights and smells. Early morning in the pearly light from the river is a good time to explore, as sleepy locals wake themselves up with strong coffee in the neighborhood patisseries, shops crank open their shutters and all-night revelers stumble home.

The Quarter is laid out in a grid, unchanged since 1721. At just thirteen blocks wide - smaller than you might expect - it's easily walkable, bounded by the Mississippi River, Rampart Street, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and centering on lively Jackson Square. Rather than French, the famed architecture is predominantly Spanish colonial, with a strong Caribbean influence. Most of the buildings date from the late eighteenth century, after much of the old city had been devastated by fires in 1788 and 1794. Commercial activity - shops, galleries, restaurants, bars - is concentrated in the blocks between Decatur and Bourbon. Beyond Bourbon, up towards Rampart Street, and in the Lower Quarter, downriver from Jackson Square, things become more peaceful - quiet, predominantly residential neighborhoods where the Quarter's gay community lives side by side with elegant dowagers and scruffy artists. And it is in this area that you will find the center of Southern Decadence activities.

On the fringes of the French Quarter, the funky Faubourg Marigny creeps northeast from Esplanade Avenue, while the Quarter's lakeside boundary, Rampart Street, marks the beginning of the historic, run-down African-American neighborhood of Tremé. On the other side of the Quarter, across Canal Street, the CBD (Central Business District), bounded by the river and I-10, spreads upriver to the Pontchartrain Expressway. Dominated by offices, hotels and banks, it also incorporates the revitalizing Warehouse District and, towards the lake, the gargantuan Superdome. A ferry ride across the river from the foot of Canal Street takes you to the suburban west bank and the residential district of old Algiers.

Back on the east bank, it's an easy journey upriver from the CBD to the Garden District, an area of gorgeous old mansions, some of them in delectable ruin. The Lower Garden District, creeping between the expressway and Jackson, is quite a different creature, its run-down old houses filled with impoverished artists and musicians. The best way to get to either neighborhood is on the streetcar along swanky St Charles Avenue, the Garden District's lakeside boundary. You can also approach it from Magazine Street, a six-mile stretch of galleries and antique stores that runs parallel to St Charles riverside. Entering the Garden District, you've crossed the official boundary into uptown, which spreads upriver to encompass Audubon Park and Zoo.

In August of 2005, the devastation which resulted from Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of over 80% of the city changed everything.  However today, there are more restaurants and hotels open than before the storm, with the city's population at well over 75% of pre-storm levels.  And virtually anything that a tourist would like to do awaits you. 

 

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