Vieux Carré, an impossible beauty with style and panache, is like a woman. She is seductive, voluptuous, and vulnerable, and for more than three hundred years, a vibrant history of resilience and elegance has crafted the quintessential great mistress of the South. As a repository of cultures reigning from African and Native Americans to the French and Spanish known as Creoles, the French Quarter and her surrounding neighborhoods thrive on a heartbeat from many walks of life. The rhythms on these streets capture and enlighten the diverse nature of history and heritage in the original site of New Orleans.
After a swampland beside a winding river was claimed for the French in the 1690s, a new colony developed to serve as a main highway for trade in the New World. As a city was laid out in 1721, the gridline streets remained French until 1763 when the colony was sold to Spain. Disaster struck at the end of that century when two ruinous fires destroyed the early French structures of colonial New Orleans. Under Spanish rule and new building codes, the city was rebuilt with flat tile roofs, stuccoed masonry walls, and florid ironwork, creating what is recognizable today as the Vieux Carré.
In 1803, New Orleans was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase, a transaction that took place in the Cabildo’s Sala Capitular. Suddenly the town was filled with newcomers, rough-and-tumble Americans who were not welcomed by the Creoles and original inhabitants. A divisional highway named Canal Street was built between the Old City and the new American Sector, and soon the city branched out into new neighborhoods where the old “Rues” changed to “Streets” with different Americanized names.
Turn-of-the-nineteenth-century New Orleans held tension between two cultures living different lifestyles, mannerisms, and values, and Canal Street stood as a median between the two worlds. This middle stretch of the street became known as “neutral ground,” for it was only here on this neutralized spot where the two cultures could meet between sections of the city to do business without conflict. Nowadays, the public transportation of streetcar systems runs up and down the neutral ground, waxing sentimental.
At times, it seems the whole city has a sense of humor out its disorderly past. Ironically, where the Spanish architecture reigns is known as French quarters, and where Americans built up the outer city has a twisted sense of direction not by compass but by waterway, i.e. Upriver, Downriver, Riverside, and Lakeside. Across the meandering river that cuts the city into two banks, the East Bank sits geographically west and the West Bank is due south, and therefore the terminology and boundaries of New Orleans can be confusing, challenging, and historically significant.
With confusion comes the charm and character of a city all the more endearing. She is the motherland of jazz, the daughter of France, the grand belle of the Old South, and the queen jewel on the Mississippi. She has passed through the hands of many masters, proudly displaying her history in a thriving lifestyle of beautiful architecture, legendary artistic inspiration, and unique locales that carry on her traditions. New Orleans stands as a southern anchor to the past, and whatever tribulations may face her future, the mystery and muse of Île d’Orléans will always persevere with spitfire-faith and latitude of attitude.