Infused with a dizzying jumble of cultures and influences, NEW ORLEANS is a bewitching place. Here, people dance at funerals and hold parties during hurricanes, world-class musicians make ends meet busking on street corners and hole-in-the-wall dives dish up gourmet Creole cuisine. There’s a wistfulness here too, along with its famed joie de vivre – in the peeling facades of the old French Quarter, its filigree cast-iron balconies tangled with ferns and fragrant jasmine, and in the cemeteries lined with crumbling above-ground marble tombs. New Orleans’s melancholy beauty – along with its ebullient spirit – has always come with an awareness of the fragility of life, due at least in part to its perilous geography.
It has become painfully clear to the rest of the world, too, since the events of August 2005, that there’s a lot more to the “Big Easy” than its image as a nonstop party town. Even at the best of times this was a contradictory city, repeatedly revealing stark divisions between rich and poor (and, more explicitly, between white and black); years after Katrina, with the emotional and physical scars slowly healing, those contradictions remain. While you can still party in the French Quarter and the Marigny till dawn, dancing to great jazz and gorging on garlicky Creole food, just minutes away are neighbourhoods that are still struggling to rebuild. That’s not to say that enjoying life is inappropriate in today’s New Orleans – while it was let down not only by nature but also by federal and local government after Katrina, the city’s vitality, courage and stubborn loyalty remain strong. The melange of cultures and races that built the city still gives it its heart; not “easy”, exactly, but quite unlike anywhere else in the USA – or the world.
New Orleans is called the Crescent City because of the way it nestles between the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and a 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 – locals refer instead to lakeside (toward the lake) and riverside (toward the river), and, using Canal Street as the dividing line, uptown (or upriver) and downtown (downriver).
New Orleans began life in 1718 as a French-Canadian outpost – an improbable, swampy setting in a prime location near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Development was rapid, and with the first mass importation of African slaves, as early as the 1720s, its unique demography took shape. The Black Code, drawn up by the French in 1685 to govern Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) and established in Louisiana in 1724, gave slaves rights unparalleled elsewhere, including permission to marry, meet socially and take Sundays off.
In 1760, Louis XV secretly handed New Orleans, along with all French territory west of the Mississippi, to his Spanish cousin, Charles III, as a safeguard against British expansionism. 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 (Haiti). As in the West Indies, the Spanish, French and free people of colour 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.
Louisiana remained Spanish until it was ceded to Napoleon in 1801, under the proviso that it should never change hands again. Just two years later, however, Napoleon, strapped for cash to fund his battles with the British in Europe, struck a bargain with President Thomas Jefferson known as the Louisiana Purchase. This sneaky agreement handed over to the USA all French lands between Canada and Mexico, from the Mississippi to the Rockies, for just $15 million. Unwelcome in the Creole city – today’s French Quarter – the Americans who migrated to New Orleans were forced to settle in the area now known as the Central Business District (or CBD) and, later, in the Garden District.
New Orleans’s antebellum golden age as a major port and finance centre for the cotton-producing South was brought to an abrupt end by the Civil War. Economically and socially ravaged by the conflict, Louisiana was almost brought to its knees by Reconstruction, with the once great city suffering a period of unprecedented lawlessness and racial violence. As the North industrialized and other Southern cities grew, the fortunes of New Orleans slipped.
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 though the Depression hit here as hard as it did the rest of the nation, it also – spearheaded by a number of local writers and artists – 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 – until the slump of the 1950s pushed New Orleans well behind other US cities. The oil crash of the early 1980s gave it yet another battering, a gloomy start for near on two decades of high crime rates, crack deaths and widespread corruption.
By the turn of the millennium things were improving, until Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent floods ripped the place apart. In 2010 the Saints football team, amazingly, won the Superbowl; so deeply emotional was this victory that the election of Mitch Landrieu, the black-majority city’s first white mayor in thirty years, went barely noticed in even the local newspapers. A few months later, the sense of new beginnings was dealt a savage blow from the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its long-term implications for the economy; if ever a city knew how to hold on and to fight back, however, New Orleans is it.