A Look Into the French Quarter: New Orleans' Oldest Neighborhood
The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, and easily the most famous. The area has the best sightseeing tours New Orleans offers. The neighborhood, also known as the Vieux Carré, is the center of French Creole culture in the United States, and is filled with buildings that date back to both the late 18th century. The French Quarter is world famous for its architecture, restaurants, and landmarks, not to mention its parties for great activities, like the annual Mardi Gras celebration. The entire neighborhood has received designation as a National Historic Landmark, and it is considered to be the primary tourist attraction for the city. All in all, the French Quarter helps make New Orleans one of the most unique cities in the United States.
The history of the French Quarter dates back to when the city was founded in 1718 by the French naval officer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Bienville, who also founded the Gulf-coast cities of Mobile and Biloxi and was acting under the French Mississippi Company, chose the site of the future city due to the crescent bend in the river that he thought would keep the city safe from hurricanes and tidal surges. After getting permission from the company, Bienville started building preliminary buildings, then transferred troops and supplies from Mobile to New Orleans and got to work. In 1921, Bienville's assistant engineer Adrien de Pauger laid the plans for the eleven-by-seven block rectangle that became the French Quarter.
The builders quickly realized that the spot was vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding, and the New Orleans was largely destroyed by a cyclone in 1721, which helped a great deal in the planning and construction of the French Quarter. To help prevent future flooding, a levee was built along the Mississippi river, and most residences were built in a French Colonial style with living quarters lifted eight feet off the ground, and a first floor storage area that could handle flooding. In 1723, the Capital of French Louisiana was moved from Biloxi to New Orleans.
New Orleans, and the French Quarter with it, continued under French control until 1763. At this time, the French had just lost to the British in the Seven Years' War, better known in North America as the French and Indian War. The two powers and their allies signed the Treaty of Paris, which gave the British control of most of France's North American Territories, including French Canada, a number of Caribbean islands, and the French territory from the Mississippi River to the Appalachian Mountains in addition to Florida, which was ceded by Spain. However, all French lands west of the Mississippi remained in French hands, including New Orleans.
The French king Louis XIV, did not really care to keep the vast Louisiana colony, to which France had devoted very little money or people compared to the British and Spanish colonies. To make up for the loss of Spanish Florida to the British during the war, the king transferred the colony to his Bourbon cousin Charles III of Spain. Even though the colony was now Spanish, the colonists remained staunchly French, and the new owners didn't even send a governor until 1766. The Spanish remained in control of New Orleans for another four decades, and during this time the city became a prosperous city, becoming a hub for the sugar and cotton trade.
During this period, the New Orleans gained the foundations for its future as an American city. The city became an important point of entry for smuggling supplies like guns, money and food to the rebelling colonists during the American Revolution. The Spanish governor of the city at the time, Bernardo de Galvez also led a campaign against the British after Spain declared war in 1779. Galvez and his ragtag Louisianian troops captured forts from Baton Rouge to Pensacola. This made the British have to fight the war on two fronts, and soaked up supplies and resources that would otherwise would have been put to use against the original thirteen colonies in the north.
The French Quarter, along with the rest of New Orleans, burned to the ground in the Great Fires of 1788 and 1794. The only structure left standing from the French rule was the Old Ursuline Convent. The Spanish rebuilt the French Quarter and brought a new architectural style to the city, defined by plastered brick houses, walled courtyards, and wrought iron balconies. Many of the buildings that exist in the French Quarter today are from this time period, including some of the most famous structures of the city like the St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere. The city continued to bloom in size and grow in strength up through the end of the century, which led to the building of many of the mansions, cottages, and townhomes that are now typical of the French Quarter.
In 1800, the Spanish ceded Louisiana back to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso, which was eventually finalized in 1802. Napoleon, who at this time was in control of France, no longer had much use for Louisiana, and he needed funds for upcoming wars against Britain and Spain. An American delegation had shown up to purchase the city of New Orleans for $10 million dollars, but ended up walking away with the entirety of the Louisiana territory for just $15 million dollars, doubling the size of the United States, and making New Orleans an American city for three cents an acre. The deal was signed in Jackson Square, and the site of the ceremonial transfer has been commemorated in the park today by a flag pole in the square.
Americans began to move to New Orleans seemingly overnight, along with refugees from the Haitian revolution, which increased the population of Francophones to the delight of the French Creoles, and helped create the cultural history of the French Quarter we know today. By 1812, Louisiana became had become an official state. The city's place in the union was further solidified in 1915 by the decisive American victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which became the last battle of the War of 1812. The victory prevented the British capture of the city and the land acquired during the Louisiana Purchase. Many of the American soldiers in the battle attributed this victory to a miracle, as many troops gathered the night before in the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter to pray, and General Andrew Jackson even stopped by after the battle to thank the nuns for their prayers.
Over the next 30 years, the population doubled with new settlers, and it became the third largest city in the United States. New railroads and canals made the city become the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean and therefore the world, for the Mississippi River basin, which more or less spread from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains. During this period, the French Quarter became the meeting point of the Francophone and Anglophone cultures of New Orleans. The port of New Orleans also played a major role in the slave trade, which added a West African element to the culture of the city and the French Quarter, and both slaves and freemen of African descent made up a substantial portion of the population.
War came back to New Orleans in 1861 with the American Civil War, and the French Creole elite of the city had their lives turned upside down. The city came under Union control after the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Phillip, a decisive naval battle where a Union fleet under the command of Rear Admiral David Farragut charged up the Mississippi River past the two forts. The Union fleet all but destroyed the Confederate fleet there, and took the city without any real opposition. This action effectively cut the Confederacy off from the rest of the world, and the city remained in Union hands through the end of the war. Union General Benjamin Butler took control of the city, and abolished all French-language instruction in the schools of the city.
In the late 19th century, the French Quarter became a less popular neighborhood to live in, and many long time French Creole families moved out into different neighborhoods in the city. At the same time, European immigrants from Italy and Ireland took up residence in the neighborhood, bringing their own cultures into the mixing bowl that is the French Quarter. By 1905, up to one half of the population were of Italian descent, according to the Italian consul.
The French Quarter had another significant influx of a different variety in 1917 when the Storyville neighborhood that served as the hub of prostitution in the city, was shut down. Much of the vice of Storyville moved to the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street in particular, and the neighborhood began to build its current reputation. This reputation was amplified further during the Second World War, when thousands of servicemen made their way through the city. Bourbon Street proprietors opened a large number of bars, strip clubs, and burlesque shows.
Over 50 different shows could be found on the streets through the 1940s and 1950s, and the servicemen spread the street's notorious reputation far and wide. In the 1960s, the city tried to clean up Bourbon Street, and many of the adult entertainment venues on the street were raided and closed down, but the peep shows and sidewalk beer stands continued, and the theme of vice continues to this day. This reputation of Bourbon Street, combined with the city's liberal open container laws, has caused the street to become one of the more infamous parts of New Orleans' Mardi Gras festivities over the past 20 or so years. The street has become a magnet for the young and uninhibited during the celebration while more family friendly Mardi Gras festivities take place elsewhere in the Quarter and the city.
At the same time as Bourbon Street's rise to infamy, the neighborhood became home to a community of artistic bohemians that helped set the stage for the French Quarter's current atmosphere. The Bohemians were attracted by the combination of cheap rent, as well as the old charm that had started to show signs of neglect by the 1920s. These artists started the Vieux Carre Commission, or VCC, in order to help protect the charm and historical significance of the neighborhood. The VCC's role in preserving the French Quarter was further solidified in 1936 through a referendum to amend the constitution of Louisiana that allowed it to exercise some regulatory power, and the commission began to exercise its abilities more in the coming decades.
One of the VCC's biggest fights for the preservation of the French Quarter began in the 1960s, when plans were released to construct an expressway that would cut through the historic neighborhood. Many people in New Orleans were angered by this plan, so efforts were quickly launched to preserve the historical neighborhood. The preservationists were able to receive recognition of the French Quarter as the Vieux Carre Historic District National Historic Landmark. After pushing the issue all the way to a federal court, the preservationists were able to force the cancellation of the expressway.
While the plans for building the expressway were struck down, the fight to preserve the charm continued as the French Quarter's reputation as a tourist attraction grew. Hotels, condominiums, and bed and breakfasts popped up throughout the district, and while the VCC was successful in ensuring their architectural styling fit in with the charm of the neighborhood, they were unable to stem the flood of tourists. Many longtime residents were pushed out of the neighborhood as the French Quarter was developed to take advantage of tourism, and property values shot up. However, not all residents left, and the neighborhood still has a wide variety of shops, residences, hotels, bars, and restaurants, as well as a number of tourism-focused commercial entities. Despite the influx of tourism, the French Quarter has managed to maintain its old charm. Every day, thousands of visitors wander through the streets of the French Quarter, taking in the historical architecture, exploring 18th century streets, and experiencing the culture of the city.
The cultural center of the French Quarter has always been Jackson Square, a historic park which is located at the front of the neighborhood. Jackson Square was originally designed as a military parade ground at the center of French colonial New Orleans, and in 1803 it became the site of the official signing of the Louisiana Purchase, making the former French and Spanish city into an American one. The plaza was renamed in 1815 after Andrew Jackson, who led the defense of the city against the British in the War of 1812, and in 1856 a statue was erected in his honor in the middle of the park. Jackson Square has also long been associated with a thriving art scene. Visitors will often see a variety of painters, professional and amateur alike, using the space as a studio, taking inspiration from the park and the history that surrounds it. Musicians and street performers also play and perform along the park's edges, entertaining crowds for tips.
Jackson Square is surrounded by many of the most recognizable buildings and attractions in the French Quarter. On the north side of the park lays the St. Louis Cathedral, whose three beautiful spires dominate the skyline of the Quarter. St. Louis cathedral is actually the oldest cathedral in the United States, and it is one of the few cathedrals in the country to face a public square. To the left of the church is the Cabildo, the former seat of the colonial government during both French and Spanish rule. To the right of the church is the Presbytère, which was designed to match the Cabildo. The Presbytère was originally built to house clergy, but instead was used as a courtroom. Today, both the Cabildo and Presbytère have been restored and converted to museums.
Jackson Square is framed in the east and west by the Pontalba Buildings, which house both shops and apartments, and to the south of Jackson Square lays the Mississippi River levee and Washington Artillery Park. The park allows visitors to access a boardwalk that runs along the top of the Levee, affectionately known by locals as the Moonwalk, after Mayer Moon Landrieu who championed the path. To the right of Washington Artillery Park is the world-famous Cafe du Monde, which has been serving its chicory coffee and beignets since before the Civil War. The coffee shop is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it isn't unusual to see a line forming out the door. On the other side of the park is the former Jax Brewery building, which now houses a variety of businesses, and the Toulouse Street Wharf, which is the home of the Steamboat Natchez, which offers riverboat tours.
Visitors to the French Quarter would also be remiss to skip out on exploring the restaurant and dining scene, as the neighborhood includes a wide variety of excellent choices, both new and old. Some restaurants in the area have been around since the 19th century, including Antoine's, the oldest family run restaurant in the United States. Antoine's is known for perfecting or inventing a number of famous dishes over the years, including oysters Rockefeller, baked Alaska, and escargots a la bourguignonne, and the restaurant features a wine room with a capacity of 25,000 bottles. On the more modern side, the French Quarter is also home to several widely acclaimed restaurants, including NOLA, which is run by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. To fully explore the area's restaurants would probably take a lifetime, as there are interesting and highly regarded choices on almost every street corner.
Those who wish to visit the French Quarter are also spoiled for choice when it comes to places to stay. The Quarter features international hotel chains, charming bed and breakfasts, timeshare condominiums, and small guest houses and luxury cottages like the Audubon Cottages. One of the more well-known hotels is the family-owned Hotel Monteleone, built in 1886 in the Beaux-Arts architectural style. Hotel Monteleone has been a favorite place for visitors to the neighborhood for decades, and was the hotel of choice for Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner when visiting New Orleans. The hotel also features a rotating carousel bar, a heated rooftop swimming pool, and two restaurants.
With the historical sites, excellent restaurants, and Creole culture, the French Quarter offers one of the more unique urban exploration experiences in the country. The neighborhood's variety of offerings makes it a place worthy of detailed exploration over the course of several days. Every corner hides something new, and historic architecture from a variety of design styles are everywhere. If you want a trip that will genuinely surprise you over and over again, you'll definitely want to check out the French Quarter for great vacation ideas in New Orleans.