The French Quarter of New Orleans is among the most instantly recognizable places in the world!
Also known as the Vieux Carré (“Old Square”) or Vieux Carré Historic District, it is the oldest section of the City of New Orleans. Founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, New Orleans developed around the Vieux Carré, the city’s central square. Today, the district is commonly known as the French Quarter, or simply “the Quarter,” a reflection of the diminished French influence after the Louisiana Purchase.
Most historical buildings were constructed in the late 1700’s, during a period of Spanish rule, or during the early 1800’s, after the U.S. annexation and statehood. The district is a National Historic Landmark, and numerous contributing buildings have received separate designations of significance. The French Quarter is a prime destination for tourists and local residents.
The French Quarter turned out some of the finest musicians in the world from Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima to Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Dr. John, The Meters and many more.
In the seedy “Storyville days,” between 1897 and about 1910, with all the bordellos and lascivious music clubs reigned in by law but rarely prosecuted, many famous entertainers made their living playing a new style of music called “jass,” often in brothels.
The bars on Bourbon Street were among the first commercial spaces to adopt air conditioning in the 1930’s. Televisions and pressurized draft beer was introduced as early as 1948.
While guys called “policemen” were famed for keeping the gas lanterns in the French Quarter lit for many decades, by the end of the 19th century, the city went all in on electric lighting, installing a huge electric substation at 311 Bourbon Street, once known as “Edison Place.” That place is known today as Musical Legends Park.
The Good Friday Fire of 1788 torched half of Rue Bourbon and much of the surrounding French Quarter, becoming the single most destructive event in the neighborhood’s history.
Royal engineer Adrien de Pauger named the streets in 1721 after French royal houses and Catholic saints. “Rue Bourbon” was an homage to the royal House of Bourbon and not named after the whiskey, as many have assumed.
The French Quarter reflects the art and architecture of the Spanish era. By the 1850’s, the French Quarter had fallen into disrepair. A woman with great resolve and great courage saved it. The Baroness Michaela Pontalba, daughter of the Spanish official Almonaster, oversaw the construction of two apartment buildings flanking the main square.
The apartments still stand and are the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. Baroness Pontalba’s efforts worked and the French Quarter was revived.
The French Quarter again fell on hard times in the late nineteenth century. Many of its now elegant buildings had become little better than slums, home to the poorest immigrants. In the mid-twentieth century, historic preservationists successfully began the authentic restoration of this eighteenth-century “time capsule,” a project that continues to this day.
Rampart Street, Esplanade Avenue, Canal Street and the Mississippi River bound the French Quarter. Although certain areas are well known to tourists, there are actually several distinct neighborhoods. The most well known area is the entertainment section, with its famous restaurants, bars and hotels. Dining venues range from the Lucky Dog vendor on Bourbon Street to the fine Creole dining of Arnaud’s or Galatoires.
On any given day or night, you can hear music from the Bourbon Street clubs, jazz institutions such as Preservation Hall, or the newcomer House of Blues, or just on any street corner. The many antique shops on Royal Street contain treasures. A stroll down Decatur Street culminates at the bustling Old French Market, where the Indians traded long before Bienville arrived.
Off the beaten track, residential streets and old Creole cottages in the lower quarter contrast with the ongoing party that is Bourbon Street.
The “Ladies in Red,” are the streetcars that traverse the streets along the banks of the Mississippi, on the edge of the Quarter. Beyond the floodwalls, which recently saved this historic part of the city from catastrophic flooding, is Woldenberg Park. Constructed atop old wharves, Woldenberg Park provides a relaxing green space to watch the busy river. Tankers sail alongside cruise ships and paddle-wheeled steamboats. At this bend in the river, the reason we are called Crescent City becomes obvious. The sound effects of the Quarter are fascinating—the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez pounds out a happy tune, as a musician on the Moonwalk hails the foggy sunrise; and the vibrant singing of street performers all blend in, in surprising concert.
The heart of the Quarter is Jackson Square, flanked on its sides by the Pontalba Buildings and at its top, by the St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo (the seat of government for the French and Spanish), and Presbytere. At the edge of the upper quarter, Canal Street demonstrates the contrast between the Creole sector (Vieux Carre) and the American sector on the other side.
Double signs indicate that the old French “Rues” end at Canal Street and the American streets begin on the other side. Rampart Street was the edge of the original city and the place where New Orleans buried the throngs of those lost to the yellow fever epidemics in the early years of the city. Although the city has expanded on all sides, its heart remains the French Quarter.
The French Quarter is the oldest part of the city, and after almost 300 years it is still a vibrant area. Start your tour of Jackson Square, named for General Andrew Jackson hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and then to Artillery Park, located on Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square. From here you can see the Mississippi River behind you and Jackson Square in front of you.
The Mississippi was the main artery for trade between Europe and the New World. Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville, was ordered to move the capital of the French Louisiana colony from Fort Biloxi to a location on the River. However, the mouth of the river was dangerous for navigation. The Native Americans living in this area showed Bienville a “secret” way to get from Fort Biloxi, through two area lakes that took them to Bayou St. John. From there, they could easily navigate to this point on the Mississippi. The City was founded in 1718. The streets of the French Quarter were laid out in 1721. Many of the streets running from the river are named for Catholic saints and many of the cross streets are named for the Royal house of France at that time. So Bourbon Street is not named for an adult beverage, but for the Royal House of Bourbon.
Two great fires nearly destroyed New Orleans in the 1700’s. The first great fire of New Orleans started in the house at Toulouse and Chartres (619 Chartres) when on a windy Good Friday, March 21, 1788, Don Vincente Nunez lit a candle at a religious altar in celebration Good Friday that caught fire. Because it was Good Friday, the bells of the St. Louis Cathedral, normally used to alert the population of a fire, were padded to be silent. It is estimated that 850 homes were destroyed in this fire within 5 hours. The second fire was on December 4, 1794, destroying another 212 homes. After this, the Spanish implemented building codes that included thick brick walls, courtyards, and arcades. Examples of such buildings are the Cabildo and the Presbytere, rebuilt after the 1794 fire.
The river itself, the fourth longest in the world, drains 40% of all of America and is over a half-mile wide. Levees were originally about a foot high and formed naturally until Bienville ordered them to be raised to three feet. After that, the French riverfront landowners built and maintained levees to protect them from flooding and land loss. Crevasses, or breaks in the levees, occurred during floods and caused casualties to life and property. After the Americans bought Louisiana, the levee system was turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 1936, state legislation established the Vieux Carré Commission to provide for preservation regulatory controls. Citizens dug in to preserve the quaint and distinctive character of the French Quarter as art galleries and antique stores sprouted on Royal Street and brassy Dixieland-style jazz flourished in Bourbon Street nightclubs. By 1960, Preservation Hall emerged to serve beleaguered musicians. Here Sweet Emma Barrett and other traditional and largely African-American musicians found appreciative audiences. Today, these and other preservation battles are the order of the day as increasing pressure from a tourist-driven economy lures some 10 million visitors annually to the time and foot-worn streets of the Vieux Carré.
Thank you for allowing us to share the sights, sounds and history of one of the most fascinating places on the planet, the French Quarter, in the great City of New Orleans!