Down the Delta blues highway and across the Zydeco crossroads, therein lies the crescendo of the Crescent City. In the dawn of the United States, a melody sprung from the adagio of the river Mississippi, and suddenly the streets of New Orleans were filled with a requiem of music, dance, disease, fires, and floods. The wealth of the world sang a serenade to the Old South, beautiful and sad and long since gone broke. But the broken pieces, when fit together, create a colorful kaleidoscope preserved in its constant motion and chaos.
With stories to tell and histories to bear, drama unfolds in the complicated streets – many of which were named for houses of royalty, Catholic saints, and a myriad of sinners from a deep-rooted European past, such as the Heliconian Muses of which nine streets don their names in the Lower Garden District. These archaic goddesses from Greek mythology once inspired the Olympian gods through improvised song, traditional music, primordial dances and epic poetry, and their inspiration continues contemporarily by housing cafés of culinary delights and offering a safe haven to many artists, architects, and antique dealers in the area.
Heritage, lineage, tradition, and history flood this city like rainwater along the banquettes with each colorful tale told in street names such as Conti Street, named for Prince de Conti, a member of the House of Bourbon that once ruled France. The difficult-to-pronounce street Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-it-TOO-luhs) obtained its name from an extinct Native American tribe, and St. Charles Avenue was named for Carlos III, a monarch at the time of Louisiana’s ceding to Spain. This very transfer of Louisiana territory from France to Spain caused an uprising against Spanish rule from six French leaders who were subsequently executed in public by Spanish Governor Alejandro O’Reilly, thus creating the name for Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny.
Along the Mississippi River, Decatur Street was named after a heroic commodore in the War of 1812, however the original cobblestone street was formerly known as “Rue de la Levée” (or Levee Street) due to its parallel position between river and city limits, an ideal location where imported goods were unloaded from the docks, carried across the levee to the original French Marketplace, and sold to the local restaurants and townspeople fresh off the boat. On the opposite side of the Quarter lies Rampart Street, obtaining its name from the wall, or “Rampart,” once built to fortify the early French colonial city and to this day, borders the exterior of the Old Square. Bordering the shoulder of the original city, the wide and busy street of Canal was named for a planned navigation canal never constructed but which was intended to connect the Mississippi River to Congo Square.
These extravagant and historical names are artistically displayed on sidewalk signs through an effective method of encaustic or painted ceramic tiles placed in cement mortar. Each blue-and-white alphabet tile, imported from Germany between 1870 to about 1920, are common in historic neighborhoods, some falling apart, some displaying the original French street names, and some boasting the old Spanish colonial street names.
What’s in a name… what holds history’s secrets… what unlocks the past? The answers lie in the cusp of an unlikely city whose song never fades from the fine thin notes of an old jazz melody. In New Orleans, even the bric-a-brac streets conjure stories to tell, so remember to venture with eyes wide open and an ear listening to the whispering southern winds.