New Orleans, Louisiana is world-famous for its French Quarter, also known as “the Quarter” or “the Vieux Carré (Old Square).” Tourists and locals alike love this district for its lighthearted, fun-filled atmosphere. However, the French Quarter is not just a place for lively Mardi Gras parades and never-ending parties. It also has a fascinating history and boasts a unique, vibrant culture.
History of the French Quarter
The French Quarter dates back to 1718, when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville established New Orleans. Although the Spanish ruled Louisiana from 1762 to 1800, the Vieux Carré’s inhabitants maintained an overwhelmingly French culture. They continued to speak the French language, look to France for the latest trends, celebrate Mardi Gras, and cook their food with a generally French flare. The Spanish still had a lasting impact on the Quarter, however, essentially changing its look and significantly influencing its cuisine.
Although the French regained Louisiana in 1800, they never reestablished a supervisory presence there. In 1803, the territory became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. Despite this change, residents of the French Quarter maintained their French identity. The Quarter remained culturally distinct from the sections of New Orleans Anglo-American newcomers settled, which most notably included the Garden District. Although they had technically become Americans themselves, the French Quarter’s inhabitants referred to the newcomers as “les Américains,” and it was highly uncommon for Anglo-Americans to settle in the Quarter.
By the time of the Civil War, the ownership of slaves had been a part of life in the French Quarter for well over a century. However, the French Quarter was distinct from the rest of the American South in that it was also home to many free blacks, known as “gens de couleur libres.” These free blacks were often educated and prosperous. Although they did not actually marry free women of color, the wealthy white men of the Quarter frequently kept these women as long-term mistresses. In fact, white Kreol men commonly housed their mistresses and illegitimate children in the Vieux Carré, providing for them amply.
After the Civil War, wealthy individuals of French descent lost prevalence in the Quarter. During the late nineteenth century, the district became home to many impoverished people, including Sicilian and Irish immigrants. Over the years, much of the Quarter became dilapidated. Thanks to revitalization efforts that began around the middle of the twentieth century, however, the Quarter has regained its old charm.
From its earliest days, the French Quarter has been a center of Kreol (or “Creole”) tradition. Originally, the term “Kreol” referred to an individual of French or Spanish descent. Many of the people who fit this definition led privileged lives in the Quarter and tended to see themselves as Europeans, regardless of how long their families had been living in Louisiana. Gradually, however, the “Kreol” term also came to be applied to Louisianans of mixed ancestry. Most of these Kreols claimed a mixture of French and African descent, but some had Native American origins as well.
Kreols in the Vieux Carré were distinguishable from Anglo-Americans in other parts of New Orleans in that they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, but they also maintained other distinct traditions and customs. One important part of Kreol culture was its cuisine. African and Native American ingredients combined with French, Spanish, and later Italian ones to create such dishes as jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée, and red beans and rice. An even more famous aspect of Kreol culture, however, was voodoo. Voodoo, which combined the principles of Catholicism with African spiritual beliefs and was associated with “black magic,” was said to be prevalent among black Kreols in the French Quarter. In fact, one of the Quarter’s most famous residents, Marie Laveau, was widely acknowledged as the “Voodoo Queen.”
The French language is no longer universal in the Quarter, but Kreol food and rumors of persisting voodoo remain a vital part of its appeal for visitors. The Kreol people have also left an easygoing, fun-loving legacy in the French Quarter. The Vieux Carré’s famous Mardi Gras festivities, which take place annually before Lent, and many bars are the most visible manifestations of this legacy.
Because a pair of massive fires destroyed most of the Quarter’s original French-style structures in the late eighteenth century, the majority of its oldest remaining buildings are actually Spanish. The Spanish rebuilt the French Quarter according to their own tastes and customs, but also took measures to prevent fires from devastating the Quarter again. They introduced the multi-level townhouses, elaborate balconies, isolated courtyards, tile roofs, and bright colors that still make French Quarter buildings unique today. In addition, they constructed their buildings with stucco, as opposed to siding made of wood, and ensured that these buildings were positioned closer to the street.
Some of the most famous Spanish buildings in the Quarter include the Baroque-style Cabildo and the Presbytère. However, the impressive St. Louis Cathedral and a number of stilt-raised homes are important examples of surviving French architecture.
The French Quarter is home to a number of authentic Kreol restaurants. Antoine’s, the oldest of these establishments, has been open since 1840. Other well-known Kreol restaurants in the Quarter include Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, and Broussard’s. These restaurants serve their own unique dishes, but patrons can also find such classics as red beans and rice here.
New Orleans is frequently called “the birthplace of jazz music.” As a result, the French Quarter is home to a number of jazz clubs. These include Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse and the Maison Bourbon Jazz Club. Blues clubs, including the House of Blues, are also popular.
A Spectacular Place to Visit
The French Quarter is the heart of one of America’s most colorful cities. Whether tourists arrive here for Mardi Gras or come during another time of year, they are sure to find plentiful entertainment both day and night. For those who do not find the party life appealing, fine dining, exceptional music, and historic sites make the Quarter a place worth seeing.