Jul 2oo9 Walking the Vieux Carré
Walking the Vieux Carré
No trip to Louisiana or the gulf coast for that matter is complete without a visit to New Orleans and no visit to the Crescent City is complete without a visit to the Vieux Carre, or French Quarter.
The French Quarter is the oldest and most famous neighborhood in the city of New Orleans. When La Nouvelle Orléans (“New Orleans” in French) was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste de Bienville, the city was originally centered on the French Quarter, or the Vieux Carré (“Old Square” in French) as it was known then. While the area is still referred to as the Vieux Carré by some, it is more commonly known as the French Quarter today, or simply “The Quarter.” The district as a whole is a National Historic Landmark, and contains numerous individual historic buildings on the National Registry of Historic Places. The French Quarter was lightly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as compared to other areas of the city and the region as a whole.
Many of the buildings in the Vieux Carre date from before New Orleans became part of the United States, although there are some late 19th century and early 20th century buildings in the area as well. Since the 1920s the historic buildings have been protected by law and cannot be demolished, and any renovations or new construction in the neighborhood must be done according to regulations to match the period historic architectural style.
Most of the Vieux Carre’s architecture was built during the Spanish rule over New Orleans. The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 and another great fire in 1794 destroyed most of the Quarter’s old French colonial architecture, leaving the colony’s new Spanish overlords to rebuild it according to more modern tastes and strict new fire codes, which mandated that all structures be physically adjacent and close to the curb to create a firewall.
The old French peaked roofs were replaced with flat tiled ones, and now-banned wooden siding with fire-resistant stucco, painted in the pastel hues fashionable at the time. As a result, colorful walls and roofs and elaborately decorated ironwork balconies and galleries from both the 18th century and 19th centuries abound. In southeast Louisiana, a distinction is made between “balconies”, which are self supporting and attached to the side of the building, and “galleries” which are supported from the ground by poles or columns.
Long after the U.S. purchase of Louisiana, Creole descendants of French and Spanish colonists lived in this part of town, and the French language was often heard there as late as the start of the 1920s.
When Americans began to move in after the Louisiana Purchase, they mostly built just upriver, across modern day Canal Street. Canal Street became the meeting place of two cultures, one Creole and the other American. Local landowners had retained architect and surveyor Barthelemy Lafon to subdivide their property to create an American suburb. The median of the wide boulevard became a place where the two contentious cultures could meet and bilingually do business. As such, it became known as the “neutral ground”, and this name persists in the New Orleans area for medians.
In the late 19th century the Quarter became a less fashionable part of town, and many immigrants from southern Italy and Ireland settled in the section. In the early 20th century the Quarter’s cheap rents and air of age and neglected decay attracted a bohemian and artistic community.
In the 1980s many long-term Quarter residents were driven away by rising rents as property values rose dramatically with expectations of windfalls from the planned 1984 World’s Fair nearby. More of the neighborhood became developed for the benefit of tourism. The French Quarter remains a combination of residential, hotels, guest houses, bars and tourist-oriented commercial properties.