This week in history: New Orleans’ French Quarter is Conceived
New Orleans. A city so deep and rich with history that, unfortunately, you can sometimes see it floating through the streets. Well, maybe that’s because the official elevation is two feet below sea level, but you get my drift.
Late August, 1718, the city of New Orleans was officially founded by the French under Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Named after Phillip II, Duke of Orleans, the city is nestled along the outer banks of Southeast Louisiana making it an ideal location for commerce along the Mississippi river. (The city is somewhat shaped like a crescent on the bend of the Mississippi, hence the nickname “Crescent City”). One month following its inception, this week 298 years ago, New Orleans was decimated by its’ first official hurricane; unfortunately, the first of many to come. Much to the colonist’s chagrin, City Officials reacted to the disaster by imposing a grid system for the new buildings which, in turn, became the staple of New Orleans culture and geography- The French Quarter.
If you were to visit New Orleans today and possessed a keen eye for architecture, you would notice that much of downtown, including The French Quarter, is overwhelmingly influenced by the Spanish. Reason being, New Orleans was ceded by the French to the Spanish following Britain’s triumph in the Seven Years War of 1763. In the first 30 years of Spanish rule, two major fires wreaked havoc and destroyed much of the city, including over 1,000 buildings downtown. The Spanish rebuilt the heart of the city in the late 18th century and many buildings still stand to this day in the same grid pattern originally enforced. New Orleans’ retrocession back to France began in 1800, but ownership was short-lived as the territory sold again to the United States as part of Napoleon’s Louisiana Purchase.
New Orleans quickly became the epicenter of southern culture comprised of Spanish, Irish, Germans, Africans and heavily French. Sugar and cotton were the major commodities being cultivated by slaves and exported along the Mississippi River. The British attempted to seize the city during the war of 1812, but were defeated by Andrew Jackson’s army during “The Battle of New Orleans.” (Quick plug – Tennessee became known as “The Volunteer State” due to the number of Tennessee natives who volunteered to fight for Andrew Jackson). Following the war, New Orleans began to prosper again becoming the third wealthiest and most populous city in the US by the late 1830s. By the time of the Civil War in the early 1860s, New Orleans was the only southern state that possessed over 100,000 citizens making it the largest Confederate city. The Union took notice of New Orleans’ political and commercial importance and quickly captured the city for their own at the start of the war. Martial Law was enforced and New Orleans was never able to be recaptured by the Confederacy. Twenty years following the Civil War, New Orleans played host to the 1884 World’s Fair, the World Cotton Centennial. While the Fair proved to be a financial disaster, the city’s tourist economy began to boom.
New Orleans in the late 1800’s was a gumbo of ethnicities and cultures which did not fare especially well with segregation being at the forefront of many political discussions. The racial divide would stay gridlocked until 1961 when prominent business leaders publicly endorsed desegregation of the city’s public schools. Throughout the early 1900s, New Orleans would be like any other major American city at the time. Businesses were booming up until the Second World War. The city began to grow outward post-WW2 giving birth to major suburbs and also the world’s longest bridge over water, The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, measuring just under 24 miles in length. Even with the steady growth, New Orleans was surpassed by many other cities in the 60s including Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and Dallas. The city has survived the last 40 years in major part to the tourism and energy industries. Very few places in America are as cultured and spirited as the Crescent City.
In a city forever ravaged by hurricanes and floods, New Orleans has never backed away from its roots and lost its sense of pride. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced over 600,000 people from the metropolitan area as the flooded side effects were the worst the city had seen in hundreds of years. The levee and floodwall system failed giving way to what is commonly referred to as the largest engineering disaster in US history. The city has been in rebuild mode ever since, with many of the former residents never returning. Roughly 400,000 people and two professional sports team, call the city of New Orleans home today.
If you have never had the opportunity to visit, book a flight before Ash Wednesday in February during the Mardi Gras season. While you’re there, buy a mask, grab a daiquiri, eat a po-boy, explore the French Quarter, and dance the night away to some of the best Blues Bands in the world. Trust me, you won’t regret it.