December 7, 2010

The French Quarter and the History of Louisiana

The French Quarter is the oldest part of New Orleans. It is the original section of the city, built by the French in 1718 on a high natural levee above the Mississippi River to avoid the risks of flooding in the lower areas. The original capitol of French Louisiana was actually in Mobile (AL). But, after it was flooded, they decided to find another place further inland to avoid the effects of hurricanes (notice the irony as the Gulf moves toward New Orleans now) and higher up to avoid flooding.

A couple still in the French Style

But, most of the French Quarter was destroyed in the fire of 1784, so the current buildings and arcitecture reflect the time under Spanish rule. One of the major changes, where much stricter building codes, requiring fire-resistant stucco on the outsides and brick when possible, and flat roofs, rather than peaked ones.

Decorative flood drains line every building

Nonetheless, the planners of that time still recognized that even this high spot along the river could flood. Thus, they built all of the structures with drains at their base to allow the flood waters to flow into the empty basements and then drain out to the lower swamps to the north. But, despite the damage of Katrina across the city, the French Quarter was one of the only areas of the city that didn't flood. So, these 18th century urban planners apparently knew what they were doing.

The French Quarter has a little bit of everything. Lots of bars, lots of restaurants, music clubs of everything from Jazz, Cajun, and techno, cooking schools, and lots of little knick-knack shops selling Louisiana merchandise. It also has lots of homeless people and crime. Police sirens are constantly blaring and weirdos roam the streets. So, you don't want to walk the streets at night. Everyone told us to take a cab after dark even though it is a quick walk back to the RV Park. But, with Hilina we don't go out after dark anyways.

The Guardian Angels roam the streets

The actual history of this area before the Louisiana Purchase is actually quite complicated. Rather than simply being a French colony, it was a constant back-and-forth between various factions. France and Spain switched possession several times. I did not even realize all of the complicated changes until I saw the displays at the Louisiana State Museum.

One of the dozens of displays at the Lousiana State Museum trying to explain the complicated history of the region

Many of these changes had little impact on the actual people who lived here. That is because both Spain and France were Catholic and let the residents continue their traditions. Spain was a very hands off administrator to this region, so the French and Creole settlers hardly noticed who was in charge.

What surprised me the most is that the Spanish were in charge of the Louisiana Territory until weeks before the Louisiana Purchase. We always hear Thomas Jefferson bought it from the French (Napoleon) for 3 cents per acre. It is true. But, what is rarely discussed is how Napoleon came to reaquire the territory from Spain after decades in Spanish hands. Thomas Jefferson originally just wanted to buy New Orleans, so the United States had a good port on the Gulf with access to the Mississippi and the shipping for the upper Ohio Valley. But, the Spanish had refused to sell the city. In 1800, the French forced Spain to turn over the territory in a secret treaty due to a variety of complicated events occuring in the various duchies of Italy.

But, Napoleon had no intention of holding the territory. He needed funds for his various wars in Europe and wanted to make sure that land stayed out of the hands of the British. So, just weeks after the treaty was formally signed in 1803, he offered Jefferson the whole territory except Canada. Jefferson was shocked and jumped at the opportunity to double the size of the country. Thus, Napoleon immediately sold Louisiana to the United States. He famously said that Britain would someday be challenged by a powerful United States for control of North America. His vision was correct.

Flooding has always been an issue in New Orleans

But, while New Orleans began to grow exponentially due to its key location as the gateway to a continent, it also had numerous issues to overcome. As the city grew outside of the high area of the French Quarter, it began to expand into swamplands. These drained swamps began to subside and flooding was always a concern.


Also, as you can imagine, anytime you stuff hundreds of thousands of people into a low-lying swamp full of mosquitoes carrying malaria and yellow fever, plus poor water purifying and waste disposal systems that can be overwhelmed by floods and storms, disease was prevalent. At the same time New Orleans had the most rapid population growth in America, it also had the highest death rate as well.

Due to the swampy conditions, it was impossible to bury these thousands of dead every year. Floods would come in and literally "raise the dead". The spread of disease was rampant and this lead to the famous above ground cemetaries you see all over the area.

Things continued badly until the 1930's. People continued to move to the city for the economic advantages of jobs and trade and continued to die of diseases like Malaria and Cholera. Only following the Great Flood of 1927, in which some 4 million people lost their homes across the Mississippi Valley, did the Army Corps of Engineers get the primary responsibility to control the waters of our country. Draining of swamps, plus liberal amounts of DDT helped to control and eliminate Malaria. Newer water quality symptoms stopped Cholera epidemics.

So, today you have a beautiful city, but one still suseptible to flooding and hurricanes. It is also becoming more so every day, as the city continues to subside under its own weight and the Gulf of Mexico quickly approaches the city, as the coast is losing 33 football fields every day.

The seawall protecting the French Quarter (behind it) from the Mississippi River

More about the effects of subsidence and hurricanes in the special Katrina post to follow...


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