To most visitors, the French Quarter is New Orleans: bawdy and elegant, vibrant and laid back, historic and eclectically modern all at the same time. Cramped streets, hidden gardens and quaint townhouses with their pastel stucco and narrow balconies evoke a romantic and rich past. Bourbon Street with its bars and girlie shows, its iconic hotels and fine restaurants seems almost tame in daylight but comes alive at night. Even funerals are distinctive in the Quarter, often featuring a brass band procession. The march to the cemetery is traditionally slow and features a hymn, but the way back is accompanied with the raucous upbeat of jazz. To visit the French Quarter is to enter a world where everything and everyone belong.

People of the Beautiful Crescent

Originally the entire town of New Orleans, the Quarter occupies the most elevated land in the city. This is definitely a relative term where most of the community lives below sea level. In the lovely crescent of land between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Seur de Bienville, began building New Orleans in the year 1718. The fledgling settlement, dubbed the Vieux Carre, was immediately troubled.

Because a dearth of willing colonists existed at the time, France began exporting her criminal population to boost the numbers. Most of the women sported the fleur-de-lis brand on their shoulders that marked them as women of low repute. This expanded the populace and conveniently rid France of a large group of lowlifes, but Bienville was less than charmed. He pleaded with the King to abandon that effort and send people “of good will.” The flood of criminal exiles stopped, but they had made their stamp on the city. This may be the origin of the French Quarter’s reputation for bawdy lawlessness.

The next wave of immigrants was of sturdy German peasant stock, although many of the names appear to be French, probably due to the language barrier. This gave rise to many amusing stories about the names, though most cannot be substantiated. The Germans were joined by immigrants from France, Spain, England, Portugal, Holland, the Canary Islands, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico and various areas of the new United States. The Western Gazette of Auburn, New York noted this in an 1817 story, adding that they were accompanied by “a motley group of Indians, Quadroons, Africans, etc.”

Chief among the residents of the French Quarter were the Creole, that enigmatic group of Spanish and French immigrants who left their indelible stamp on the New Orleans French Quarter. Their tastes and influence are visible today in the architecture of buildings and layout of the streets. Aristocratic and sophisticated, they looked upon the “wild Kaintucks” (Kentuckians) with fastidious disdain. Free people of color, many of them French-speaking, contributed a wealth of skill and creativity to the developing town.

So many nationalities and cultures gathered in this one place that historian Charles L. Dafour would later write that this was “the nation’s first melting pot.” [1] In many ways, this concept bears out. Certainly, the new arrivals joined with early settlers to establish a vibrant and productive city. However, they carried with them a wealth of culture and language that is still apparent in the Quarter.

Built to Last

Swept repeatedly by fire and flood, the French Quarter soon learned to dig itself out, clean itself up and rebuild. The citizens also learned another hard lesson: predominantly wood structures would not last in the exceedingly damp climate with its frequent storms. Crowded together due to the limited land available, wooden buildings were also vulnerable to devastating fires.

Two disastrous fires, one in 1788 and the second in 1794, made it clear that new buildings must be designed and executed to minimize the danger. French Quarter buildings reflect a unique take on tradition coupled with necessity. Since the city was constrained by river to the south and swamp on all other sides, expansion had to be vertical. Most buildings came right up to the street and abutted one another, copying the Spanish courtyard style. Wood frame construction was faced with brick, then covered with stucco.

The hot, damp climate necessitated high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that admitted much-needed light and air. Wooden louvers at the windows allowed air to circulate while protecting privacy for the occupants. Balconies clad with ornate iron lace provided a place for residents to take the air.

The dozen Colonial buildings still standing provide a glimpse of the stately and flamboyant life of early New Orleans. These include Brannan’s Restaurant, the Girod House, Bartolome Bosque, the Cabildo, the Presbytere, Madame John’s Legacy, and the lovely Convent of the Ursulines.

A Melange of Culture and Style

The unique appeal of the French Quarter derives from the distinctive flavor of the hotels and restaurants, shops and bars, vibrant streets and historic buildings  a visitor finds here. Stroll the narrow streets, join a second line parade, or simply explore. The city welcomes you with warmth and style found nowhere else on earth.

Designed to mimic French Quarter row houses, the Royal Sonesta Hotel has become a landmark of Bourbon Street. Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Sweet Emma, also called the Bell Gal because of her unique red garters with jingle bells that rang in time to her music, cut the ribbon for the hotel’s grand opening in 1964. This is just one of the great places to stay in the French Quarter.

Brennan’s Restaurant, located in a 1795 building that originally housed a private bank and the home of a wealthy family, gives a new definition to the term “upscale dining.” Known for its classic setting and inventive cuisine, this is the place that originated bananas Foster, that distinctive New Orleans dessert. Arnoud’s, Broussard’s, and Galatoir’s vie for the visitor’s attention and appetite. It seems that all stomachs lead to the French Quarter.

Birthplace of jazz, New Orleans boasts a distinguished musical heritage. Rich and celebrated traditions from Europe to Africa found a home in the deep soil and soul of the city. From the first opera house on the continent to the mistrel shows, from blues to ragtime to the brass street bands, all found a place and lent their voice to the repertoire. The first recognized jazz musician was cornet player Buddy Bolden whose popular band led street parades in the late 1890s.

The Crescent City’s street sound would not be complete without mention of second line parades, those thumping, loud, eclectic celebrations that seem to spring up out of nowhere. Started after the Civil War to raise money to aid newly freed slaves, they quickly became part of the fabric of life in New Orleans. The Backstreet Cultural Museum on south Claude Avenue maintains exhibits on this and other aspects of French Quarter life.

Visitors to the French Quarter can revel in the nightlife, stroll through a stately garden, indulge in a great meal, take in a show, or just watch Old Man River roll endlessly by. It’s more than a place, more than a sound, more than a river. The French Quarter is a state of mind.

References

[1] Dafour, Charles, “The People of New Orleans,” from “The Past is Prelude—New Orleans 1718-1968,” Ed. by Carter, Hodding; Tulane University, 1968