Along the muddy embankment of the Mississippi River, a swamp once rested quietly in its murky haze of Native Americans and wildlife. Like the fated eye of destiny, the French founded this riverside curvature in 1718, mapping out a grid for a colonial military outpost. Suddenly a small civilization budded, filled to its foamy brim with convicts and immigrants.
In the early vision of a military engineer, the original city was to be surrounded in fortification, barricaded like a medieval fort with the river as its moat to keep out the unwanted and protect its precious exports. These barricades were never built, but other security devices have been used since the dawn of La Nouvelle Orléans. This city succumbs to the feverish pitch of vulnerability, both in climate and culture.
After early settlers positioned their new lives inside the narrowly gridded streets of Vieux Carré, construction began as strong immigrant hands laid the groundwork for an urban territory of brick, wood, and stucco that still stands today. Colonial man secured house and home from intruders, conflagrations, and other cataclysms by imaginative fashions of decorative obstruction and ancient torture. It is a romanticized image: these jagged forms of injury or death for anyone or anything that might wish to cross its threshold, but in the French Quarter are the remains of horrific history.
While the street view of the Quarter’s homes is, in actuality, the back of the house – its interior hidden by external walls and balconies – many entrances lead from street to courtyard simply by an iron gate clearly visible to the public eye. Once inside, the secret gardens of tropical and fragrant foliage enchant visitors with banana trees and colorful cannas. But before viewing internal brickwork winding with bougainvillea and wisteria, one must get past the locked gate dangerously armored with protruding shards of cement-stuck glass or spear-like ironwork that is aesthetically appealing yet able to rip flesh from a trespasser leaping the gate.
The bloodlust of the Quarter grows deeper even in a literary format, the hot-blooded veins of Old Town bubbling with Shakespearian reference and close-call castration. Legendary cast-iron spikes protrude the top of balcony poles and have been dubbed “Romeo Spikes.” These 19th century mini-spears were clasped to the ground-floor poles hoping to prevent romantic “Romeo” from shimmying up the balcony for a moonlit visit to “Juliet.”
Perilous or passionate, the history of Vieux Carré has its own cheeky manner of creating or preventing damage and destruction. For these same balcony poles that could lead a suitor to his beloved are also the balcony poles that are popular to climb during the revelry of Mardi Gras. Inebriated partygoers on Bourbon Street have a hankering for clawing elbow-and-fist up poles to reach the partying patrons on overhanging balconies. As a tradition begun by the Royal Sonesta Hotel, every pre-Mardi Gras season, the act of “Greasing the Poles” begins. This time-honored ceremony takes place in full public view, involving wildly dramatic pole-rubbing with petroleum jelly brought out on trays like offerings to the Greek gods of Carnival.
Whether gleaning towards danger or depravity, New Orleans has a sense of humor in its history, and while this city may have suffered through turmoil and titillation, there’s still a good time to be had by all.