New Orleans is a large metropolitan city, an international port and a "melting pot" of many races and cultures. It is also a remarkable collection of historic neighborhoods, many of them as separate and distinctive as if they were separate townships or small villages.
Updated June 2000 | In 1889, Charles Dudley Warner, writing in Harper's Magazine, concluded: "New Orleans is either the most cosmopolitan of all provincial cities... or the most provincial of all cosmopolitan cities."
New Orleans essentially is an "island." (It may well be the only "inland island" in the United States). It is squeezed between the Mississippi River and the nation's seventh largest lake (Pontchartrain), surrounded on all sides by a giant oak-cypress swamp. Napoleon Bonaparte referred to it as the Isle d'Orleans. Early French settlers called it "leflotant," the floating land.
As such, Island Orleans was both isolated and insulated from the mainland for almost 250 years. Thus, it was able to develop, without threat of dissimulation, its own unique cultural innovations: jazz, Creole cuisine, Mardi Gras, above ground burial sites ("cities of the dead"), cultural rites (including the famous jazz funerals) that resisted the homogenization that depersonalized many American cities in the 20th Century.
Until World War II, few Orleanians ever left their city - or cared to. Being Islanders, they had little choice. The first Metropolitan bridge was not built until 1958. The first causeway to span the Lake, 24 miles long, was not completed until 1957. The semi-tropical, ever-green climate and geography both isolated and insulated them, and the port, with its world-wide reach, guaranteed a pleasant level of prosperity.
The emergence of neighborhoods
Native Orleanians grew up in separate sections, or faubourgs (French for suburbs). These neighborhoods were, in effect, individual hamlets. Since 90% of the area originally was swamp or water, they were scattered sites, built where "ridges" or natural levees offered elevation above the recurrent floods.
This city, "built where God never intended a city to be built," grew up on patches of separated high ground. Most American cities expanded outward, a continuum, from a central core of solid rock or solid ground. They were able to leap rivers or climb hills and their neighborhoods were contiguous, attached and part of a municipal whole. Where other great cities radiated outward, in effect, exploited, New Orleans gathered itself inward, literally long before they were annexed into the City itself.
Until 1890, the area was a collective of disconnected suburbs - neighborhoods without neighbors. In many cases they were divided by language. The original French Creoles spoke French and disdained the "Americans" who arrived 90 years later. The Germans, Irish, Italians, West Indians added to the "unbelievable babble of a dozen languages and scores of dialects in the city's marketplaces."
At various times, ten separate townships were created, independent of the City. To further the confusion, the City actually subdivided itself into three separate cities of Municipalities (1835-1852). The Creoles and the "Americans" created separate governments, Uptown and Downtown, separated by Canal Street's famous "neutral ground."
Other distinct townships (Lafayette, Jefferson City, Freeport) were eventually incorporated by 1870. But the individualistic character of these separate districts, and their many well-developed neighborhoods has been preserved and retained.
A comprehensive study, "Neighborhood Profiles in Change" (1979), revealed an astonishing 71 separate and definable neighborhoods* within the 363 square miles that comprise the city limits (25% of which is still unreclaimed swamp). Some are as small as 10 x 10 city blocks, enclaves like Black Pearl. Some are as large as 50 acres (sprawling Carrollton).
The attachment to neighborhood remains so strong that many third and fourth generation residents take pride in living in their "grandfather's house." In addition, many neighborhoods (some dating back to 1800) have maintained much historical character, with ten now listed as National Historic Districts. The Uptown Historic District is the second largest in the USA with over 10,700 structures. The largest downtown Historic District, Esplanade Ridge, lies just below the French Quarter, home of the "last Creole aristocrats."
This article was written by Mel Leavitt, a prominent ambassador for the Crescent City whose legacy lives on through his writings and stories. It is used courtesy of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau Public Affairs Department. Updated June 2000.