The French Quarter is the oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans. The other name for it is “Vieux Carré”, or just “The Quarter.” This unique cultural hub has a long and storied history that has been preserved through the centuries, making it a magnet for tourists, musicians and artists to the region. The home of jazz, Mardi Gras and Creole cuisine is known for its vibrant atmosphere, which is mainly driven by the locals.
History of the Quarter and its Creole origins
The French originally settled the area between today’s Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue by the Mississippi River and inland till Rampart Street during the reign of Louis XIV in 1718. They used it as a military outpost and named it after the governor of France, Duc d’Orleans. France first tried to build the population by sending over slaves and prisoners from their African colonies, and then through shady dealings with the governor, a speculator lured a few citizens from the Old World with tales of gold. The new settlers only found decay and hostile surroundings and began to revolt. By the time France tried to bring a more respectable air to New Orleans, the lifestyle was already known far and wide as being beyond saving. In spite of this, New Orleans soon became the capital of the territory. By this time, the descendants of the original French settlers came to be known as Creoles.
In 1762, Louisiana was transferred to Spain’s Charles III out of sheer indifference and the French could not get it back for four decades. Immigrants from Spain mixed with the original French colonials and their descendants came to be known as Creoles of Colour, distinguishing them from the Francophone Creoles. Creole slaves were those born from African slaves and European immigrants. Around the same time, French Canadians looking to escape the British invasion of the maritime region of Arcadia made their way to New Orleans and became known as Cajuns.
The French won back Louisiana briefly, until U.S. President Thomas Jefferson bought it in the Louisiana Purchase and it became a part of the United States. After this, New Orleans saw rapid growth and development among the free and enslaved population and the port became a major point of commerce between the Old and New Worlds. The failed invasion by British forces in 1815 led the people of New Orleans to seal their loyalty to the United States and the plantations of cotton and sugar cane brought immense wealth to the French Quarter. Immigrants from Germany, Africa, Ireland and the rest of America poured in, creating a melting pot of cultures, religion and language.
The politics of the Civil War created a two-tier system of classifying people as “black” or “white”. This meant that the mixed race Creoles were suppressed and began to leave the French Quarter, leaving only the Francophone Creoles to live there. However, even they began to move out to other areas of the city when Italian and Irish immigrants started to move in. By the 1920s, a bohemian art community developed in the Quarter and they led preservation efforts, ultimately resulting in the French Quarter being designated as a National Historic Landmark. The neighbourhood started to promote tourism in the 1980s, and today it houses a mix of residences, hotels, restaurants, bars and other tourist related commercial properties. Today, Creoles make up a very small percentage of the inhabitants of the French Quarter, but their culture and influence is present and preserved at every corner.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that you have stepped into a European city when you’re in the French Quarter. Any addition or renovation to the neighbourhood’s buildings has to be approved by the Vieux Carré Commission, so the architectural landscape is a mix of French, Spanish, Creole and American styles.
Two devastating fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed almost all the buildings of the Quarter and the Spanish took it as an opportunity to rebuild in a decidedly Spanish style. From four decades of Spanish rule, houses were built as fortifications from fire, with plastered brick common walls, covered passageways and single chimneys being predominant features. Courtyards were also walled off and perfect for parties. After 1850, wrought iron lattice balconies and stooped porches were other Spanish elements that were added to most houses. However, the French elements that survived the great fires and Spanish rule were the gardens that had flowers in the middle with walkways surrounding them, the city plan, the central square, Old Convent and Charity Hospital, suburbs or faubourgs, heavy trusses and many more. All of the Quarter’s unique architecture can be taken in through home tours run by New Orleans’ tour companies.
Music for the soul
There’s music and food at every turn in the French Quarter, with Bourbon Street leading the way in entertainment. Restaurants, pubs and live music venues stay open till the wee hours of the morning and the vibrant atmosphere is unlike any other in the country. The city has a rich tradition of jazz, blues, R&B and zydeco, with musicians taking the stage every night across the quarter.
The sounds of guitars, accordions, rubboards and drums make up the distinctive dance music of zydeco that originated with black Creoles in the Louisiana Bayou. The lyrics are usually in a mix of French Creole and English. While live zydeco is not played on a regular basis in the Quarter, you can hear lots of it at the music festivals that are held in the city, and the Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl is one venue that the best Zydeco musicians hold court in.
Jazz is the real star in the Quarter, with old and new performers upholding the city’s music traditions. Some historians say that jazz first took root in the French Quarter around 1847, when the rhythms of African drums combined with European classical horns to produce a new and vibrant sound. Since then, it has slowly evolved and is now a part of the fabric of everyday life in New Orleans. Frenchmen Street is where you’ll find the best live venues, but the whole neighbourhood is filled with rollicking establishments that transport you to a bygone era. Mixed in with the jazz you’ll also find R&B, blues and reggae.
Food for the soul
Creole cuisine was created in New Orleans, with the influence of French flavours being the strongest, and Spanish, African and Caribbean elements thrown in. Rich sauces, tomatoes and local herbs add to the freshness of the seafood and old traditions are carried on in today’s French Quarter restaurants that produce gumbos, étouffées, and other dishes. The three common ingredients of chopped green peppers, celery and onions are used liberally and many dishes take on varying levels of spice. Many classic and modern cocktails originated here, so a visit to a pub on Bourbon Street to sample a few, like a Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz or Hurricane, is a good idea.
Visiting cafes, like the legendary Cafe Du Monde, is another way to immerse yourself in the Quarter. Coffee with chicory is the predominant brew of choice, as during the Civil War, the Creoles found a way to stretch their rations of imported coffee by adding locally grown chicory to the blend. Pair your cup of cafe au lait with a French doughnut or beignet, a fried square of dough that’s dusted with powdered sugar.
The French Quarter helped make New Orleans the way it is today. The multicultural city is a mix of the old and new that can draw everyone from art and history buffs to foodies and shoppers. Whether you’re looking for the excitement of the parades and parties of Mardi Gras or the nostalgia of one of America’s oldest cities, the French Quarter delivers on every front.