New Orleans: A city steeped in history and cultural diversity

Canal Street Line in New Orleans - Photo by Melissa Parker
Canal Street Line in New Orleans - Photo by Melissa Parker

New Orleans, LA – In 1718, Jean Baptiste La Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, established New Orleans as the capital of Louisiana. At that time the city consisted of a military-style grid of seventy squares called the French Quarter. Bienville thought that area would be safe from tidal waves and hurricanes.

Little did Bienville know that almost three hundred years later his theory would be put to the test during the devastating Hurricane Katrina. But, just as he surmised, the French Quarter would survive virtually unscathed, save for some minor flooding and wind damage.

The Quarter was built on dry land that predated New Orleans’ levee systems and sits five feet above sea level. Occupying 71 blocks of the city, the French Quarter lies between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and from Decatur Street on the Mississippi River to Rampart Street. Today as one strolls down Royal Street, the legacy of the children and descendants of the original Spanish and French settlers can be felt in the architecture and sensed by the sweet aroma of frying beignets.

A must see is the building at 520 Royal Street that was built in 1816 by Francois Seignouret, a French wine merchant and furniture maker. The three-floor mansion is considered to be one of the finest pieces of architecture in the Vieux Carre (another name for the French Quarter).

A primary transportation method in the city is the streetcar system. From 1920-1948 during the height of the New Orleans streetcars, there were almost 20 lines including a Desire Line which was featured in the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, A Streetcar Named Desire. There are currently three operating streetcar lines in New Orleans: the St. Charles Avenue line (the longest), the Riverfront Line, and the Canal Street Line. The St. Charles was established in 1835 and is the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world.

The earliest reference to a Mardi Gras “carnival” appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback to celebrate Mardi Gras and newspapers began to promote the event in advance. The parade can fall on any Tuesday between February 3, and March 9. Next year it will occur on February 16.

French Market in New Orleans - Photo by Marc Parker
French Market in New Orleans - Photo by Marc Parker

“Making groceries” is an old New Orleans expression which means “food shopping.” The historic French Market, which now includes a flea market selling clothes and trinkets, has existed on the same site since 1791. The market began as a Native American trading post on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Since that time, millions of residents have been “making groceries” in that same location.

The Garden District began as a city called Lafayette, named by Americans who started arriving in New Orleans after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Its name was derived from the planting of large, lush gardens next to the homes to help counteract the foul odors emanating from the stockyards near the river. The homes are a confection of wrought iron and Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, built by architects imported from Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The city is filled with magnificent antebellum homes. The “Victorian” was the home of Judge Francois Zavier-Martin, known as the “Father of Louisiana Jurisprudence.” The first Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, he was also the author of the first history of the state. Harriet Beecher Stowe stayed in the home and found her inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin after seeing the slave markets.

One Shell Square on 701 Poydras Street in the city is a 51-story, 697 feet tall skyscraper designed in the international style by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. It is the tallest building in both New Orleans and Louisiana, and was the tallest building in the southeast until 1976.

Audubon Park is bordered on one side by the Mississippi River and on another by St. Charles Avenue. The park is named after artist and naturalist John James Audubon and part of the park is home to the Audubon Zoo. The zoo has an animal collection ranging from the unique white alligators to the extraoridnary white tigers and it also features “hands-on” animal encounters.

Founded in 1718, Jackson Square is home to a large number of historic buildings and landmarks including a statue of Andrew Jackson, Faulkner House, St. Louis Cathedral, and the 1840s Pontalba buildings located on both sides of the square. Jackson Square is roughly the size of a city block and is located in the heart of the French Quarter.

Lake Pontchartrain, the largest lake in Louisiana, covers an area of 630 square miles and has an average depth of 12-14 feet. The second largest salt-water lake in the United States, Pontchartrain forms the northern boundary of New Orleans. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, built about 50 years ago, is the longest bridge over a body of water in the world.

Louisiana Superdome - Photo by Melissa Parker
Louisiana Superdome - Photo by Melissa Parker

Louisiana’s most recognizable landmark is the Superdome, built in the 1970s by Blount International of Montgomery, Alabama. Primarily the home to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and the Sugar Bowl college football game, it is located in the business district of New Orleans. This largest fixed dome structure in the world sustained structural damage as it housed about 30,000 people who were seeking shelter from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The National World War II Museum features permanent exhibitions highlighting the nation’s road to war, life on the Home Front, and the amphibious landings at Normandy and in the Pacific. It is located at 945 Magazine Street and is open seven days a week, 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. It is recommended that you allow at least 3 hours for your visit to the museum.

The annual Jazz and Heritage Festival is held in late April every year. One can see and hear the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Booker T., James Taylor, Erykah Badu, Johnny Winter, and Etta James. Tipitina’s is a red-hot dance hall which features local bands or a few well-known groups such as the Neville Brothers. Preservation Hall in the French Quarter is a showcase for traditional style jazz. You can find music on almost every street corner!

“The Big Easy” (never call it that to a native New Orleanian), surrounded by water, is the land of crawfish, beignets, jazz, Mardi Gras, and streetcars. The sights, sounds, even the smells of New Orleans are different than any other city in the United States. It has endured hurricanes, swamps, fires, floods, and mosquitoes, and still is perhaps the most culturally unique city in America.

Article by Melissa Parker

© 2009 Our Prattville. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

4 thoughts on “New Orleans: A city steeped in history and cultural diversity”

  1. Thank you for writing about the greatness of New Orleans, however, you did not mention Faubourg Tremé, the neighborhood right next door to the infamous French Quarter. There in the 1860s a group of free people of color led a civil rights movement that successfully desegregated the streetcars and schools. They wrote about it in the first daily Black newspaper in the country. This neighborhood is also home to Congo Square where slaves could come on Sunday to trade goods, dance and play music that eventually led to the greatest American art form, Jazz. You can learn more about it at Thanks.

  2. Algiers Point is another historic New Orleans neighborhood.

    It is located directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter and is easily accessible by foot or car with the Canal Street Ferry.

    Algiers Point is like a 19th century small town and contains a large number of Victorian style homes, restaurants, bars and parks. It is a very family friendly neighborhood.

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