Edtior’s note: This overview was written before Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, sharply diminishing the population and destroying entire sections of the city. New Orleans’ most famous area, the French Quarter, received relatively moderate damage and was one of the first areas to be revived. The bouyant spirit of this ebullient city and its citizens ensure that parts of New Orleans will return to their former glory, but long-term prospects for the city as a whole remain unknown.
New Orleans is an intoxicating fusion of cultural diversity, reflected in its music, festivals, and cuisine, and is affectionately known as “the Big Easy.” The city has a population of some 500,000 residents (nearly 1.2 million in the greater metropolitan area) comprising people with Creole, Cajun, Anglo, and African backgrounds. There is a sense of timelessness about the place, especially in the French Quarter — formerly known as the Vieux Carrè — where muledrawn carriages set the pace of its streets.
Positioned at the crescent of the Mississippi River, 105 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, the city’s elevation drops to 10 feet below sea level in some areas. Though protected by levees and enormous pumps that drain excess water into Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding bayous, New Orleans remains susceptible to floods.
The historic district was first settled in 1718 by Jean Baptiste and named in honor of the Regent of France. During both the French and Spanish rules, New Orleans served as the territory’s capital and became part of the United States under the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. When Louisiana was admitted to the Union in 1812, New Orleans served as the state’s first capital until 1830 and again from 1831 to 1849. The city was also center stage to the conflict with Britain in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans.
When the steamboats arrived along the Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century, New Orleans entered the Golden Age as a leading river port and commercial center. Its prosperity came to a halt during the Civil War (1861-65), as the city was under Union occupation. Cut off from the world markets, New Orleans’ isolation came with dire financial and racial consequences during Reconstruction (1865-77). The demise of its river trade and traditional plantation economy together with civil rights for former slaves led to increasing racial discord.
New Orleans was reinvigorated at the beginning of the twentieth century when the city gave birth to the sound of jazz. Jazz is as energetic today as it was when Buddy Bolden led jazz funerals with his cornet, and Jelly Roll Morton first brought the sound of Dixieland to the once-flourishing bordellos.
The New Orleans Jazz Age spawned many noted musicians including Sidney Bechet, Edward Kid Ory, and Joe “King” Oliver. The city’s undisputed crown prince, however, was Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, who first entertained people on the streets as a teenager when he was a resident at the Jones Colored Waifs’ Home.
The best place for authentic Dixieland jazz is at the decayed dwelling of Preservation Hall on St Peter Street. There are no seats and little ventilation, but the atmosphere makes up for the lack of creature comforts.
All along gaudy Bourbon Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, is an assortment of Cajun, blues and jazz bars. Other nighttime revues are also located within a sixblock stretch.
The only way to explore the historic French Quarter is on foot. Bordered by the river and Canal Street, the Quarter remains the city’s main attraction. Many of the early nineteenth- century townhouses feature secluded rear gardens and cast-iron galleries. Starting from Jackson Square’s St Louis Cathedral, which was rebuilt in 1794, many of the street names disclose French influence: Bourbon, Chartres, Toulouse, and Burgundy. The most resplendent is Royal Street, brimming with antique shops, galleries, and fine restaurants. Off Royal is St Louis Street, the site of Antoine’s, the city’s oldest family-owned restaurant.
A tour of historic places should also include the Old Pharmacy Museum, which preserves the original La Pharmacy Fran\347aise dating back to 1823; the Inn on Bourbon (formerly the French Opera House); Napoleon House; Beauregard-Keyes House; the Old US Mint (part of the Louisiana State Museum); and the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest surviving Creole dwelling in the city. Other architectural landmarks along Royal Street include the Court of the Two Sisters, the Cornstalk Hotel, and the notorious Haunted House at 1140 Royal Street.
Voodoo, a belief system based on African spiritualism, was practiced in New Orleans in the nineteenth century. At the Voodoo Museum at 724 Dumaine Street, visitors can delve into the origins of voodoo.
The Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street exhibits the documents of the Louisiana Purchase together with artifacts, Civil War paraphernalia, and a host of cultural and historic heirlooms. Off Royal Street at Pirates Alley is the Faulkner House, where novelist William Faulkner wrote his first essay, “A Soldier’s Pay,” in 1926.
At the edge of the French Quarter is the old French Market and Warehouse District. Along with the garish casinos, the Riverwalk Marketplace complex is the city’s major shopping area. Here visitors can jump aboard the steamboat Natchez or visit several museums and attractions including Jackson Brewery, the Aquarium of the Americas, the Confederate Museum, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, and the Piazza d’Italia, which was featured in the opening scene of the movie \”The Big Easy.\” The open-air pavilion of Cafè du Monde has also been a favorite for locals for over a century.
Bordered by Iberville, St Louis, Robertson, and Basin Street, Storyville’s legalized brothels flourished for 20 years until the US Navy closed down the district in 1917. It is unwise to stroll these streets or Armstrong Park after dark. Within the park is the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, home to the New Orleans Ballet and Opera.
Old Congo Square—now Beauregard Square—was the actual birthplace of jazz. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, slaves were allowed the freedom to gather in the square every Sunday, where they would sing and dance. The rhythm and instruments used in these rituals, historians believe, are part of the origins of jazz.
The wide boulevard of Poydras Street is home to New Orleans’ Superdome, where the annual Sugar Bowl football game is played. On Rampart Street is Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church, formerly the mortuary chapel for yellow-fever victims, built in 1826.
Canal Street, which separates the Quarter from the Garden District, sits in the very heart of New Orleans’ commercial area and is the terminus of the St Charles streetcar line, leading to the neighborhood established by wealthy Americans after the Louisiana Purchase. Many of the Greek Revival-style houses feature lush landscaped gardens with ornate cast-iron gates. Examples include Payne-Strachan House; the landmark Pontchartain Hotel; Bultman House, which was the inspiration for Tennessee Williams’ drama, Suddenly, Last Summer; and Brevard House, the private home of author Anne Rice. Along Magazine Street are numerous Creole cottages and faded Victorian mansions now housing New Orleans’ premier antique galleries.
New Orleans has many unique cemeteries, also known as “the Cities of the Dead.” Because of the city’s low elevation by the river, interred residents are buried in mausoleums and above-ground tombs. Row upon row of crypts feature elaborate marble monuments, adorned with crosses, angels, and the occasional voodoo charm.
New Orleans’ cultural life is centered on festivals such as the Jazz and Heritage Festival (known as Jazz Fest) each April, and the Carnival Season, which starts 12 days after Christmas, culminating in the world-famous Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is a festival of masked balls, street parties, and float parades which draws visitors from around the world.
If you miss the carnival, Mardi Gras World across the Mississippi River at Algiers tells the complete story, and features massive figures, floats, and props. New Orleans is famous for its Cajun and Creole restaurants. The selection of food includes jambalaya, crawfish bisques, mudbugs, andouille, and gumbo.
New Orleans International Airport is located west of the city, off I-10. There are also numerous train and bus links.