[Paleopsych] The Week: The evolution of the Big Easy

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Wed Sep 21 22:25:50 UTC 2005

The evolution of the Big Easy
[I love the last line.]

    Its French Quarter is actually Spanish, many of its streets are below
    sea level, and many of its former public officials and judges are in
    jail. How did New Orleans become the nations most eccentric city?

    Why was the city built below sea level?

    Founded in a marsh in 1718, Nouvelle-Orléans has always been a victim
    of its location. The French chose the site, on a crescent of soggy
    land extending into the Mississippi River, because it was the last
    landing place before the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico; they
    envisioned it as a booming port serving fur trappers and other
    traders, and a fitting capital for Frances burgeoning North American
    empire. But in its first four years of existence, the settlement was
    leveled four times by hurricanes. Engineers begged the French
    commander, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, to relocate above the
    swamp, calling it a place where God never intended a city to be built
    and where only the madness of commercial lust could ever have tempted
    men to occupy. But de Bienville refused, unwilling to forsake its
    strategic location.

    How long was the city under French control?

    Fewer than 50 years. New Orleans was ceded to Spain in 1763, along
    with the rest of Louisiana, when France lost the Seven Years War. (As
    quid pro quo, Britain took Florida from Spain.) The famous French
    Quarter, with its ancien régime street names, such as Bourbon and
    Royal, is actually Spanish in design, the French-built city having
    burned down in the fire of 1788. Yet French influence lived on in
    Creole society--a heady mix of French, Spanish, black, and Catholic
    cultures that made New Orleans unique among American cities. Over the
    decades, the French influence was reinforced by the influx of
    aristocrats escaping the 1789 French Revolution and French colonists
    and slaves fleeing the 1809 slave revolution in Haiti.

    Was New Orleans always deeply segregated?

    No. Racial segregation in French and Spanish colonies was far less
    strict than in British ones, so it became a haven for mulattoes
    escaping from plantations. As in many of its colonies, Spain fostered
    the growth of a free black population to fill service, shopkeeping,
    and other important economic roles (though entry to the clergy, the
    professions, and government was barred). As a result, the city gave
    rise to a prosperous class of free blacks, some of them slave-owners
    themselves. At the start of the 19th century, with most
    African-Americans in this country in bondage, a third of the black
    residents of New Orleans were free.

    When did New Orleans become part of the U.S.?

    When Napoleon conquered Spain in 1800, New Orleans returned to French
    rule, but merely two years later, Napoleon decided to sell all the
    territory west of the Mississippi to the United States for just $15
    million, or 3 cents an acre. (The Louisiana Purchase instantly doubled
    the size of the U.S.) Britain made a vain effort to seize the city in
    the War of 1812, but it was repulsed by a ragtag army of
    Anglo-Americans, Creoles, freemen, and slaves led by Gen. Andrew
    Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. The glorious victory inaugurated
    a golden era: Steamboats laden with cotton and sugar poured into the
    city, at that point the main port of entry for ships bringing slaves
    to work the plantations. The population doubled: By 1840 it was
    102,000, making it the fourth-largest city in the U.S.

    Why was this period so glorious?

    The flood of immigrants in the antebellum era--Irish and Germans added
    to the mix--contributed to a freewheeling, raucous blend of culture,
    language, religion, and cuisine that gave New Orleans renown as the
    city that care forgot. By 1840, both blacks and whites began pouring
    into the streets every year to celebrate Mardi Gras. Wealthy white
    landowners took their mulatto mistresses to mixed-race quadroon balls
    (for people of one-quarter black ancestry) or octaroon balls (for
    those one-eighth black), adding to the citys reputation for glamour,
    tolerance, elegance, and wickedness. Life in the swamp remained
    hazardous: Another hurricane flooded the city in 1849, and mosquitoes
    caused 23 separate outbreaks of yellow fever, with an 1853 epidemic
    killing 8,000 people. But New Orleanians partied on, with even
    funerals having a festive, musical air. One observer said that
    residents possessed a love of life that borders on defiance.

    When did the good times end?

    The Norths victory in the Civil War made New Orleans what it had never
    been before: a segregated city. In the Souths angry backlash against
    Reconstruction, in which Northerners legalized interracial marriage
    and gave blacks full legal rights, segregation and white supremacy
    permeated all aspects of life. In 1892, Homer Plessy, a 30-year-old
    octaroon shoemaker, was jailed for sitting in the white carriage of a
    New Orleans train and refusing to leave. His appeal went all the way
    to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling,
    the court not only upheld the conviction, but laid down the separate
    but equal doctrine that was used to justify segregation in the South
    for half a century.

    Did the city remain segregated?

    Largely. But in the citys impoverished black neighborhoods, the
    culture that transformed New Orleans into a tourist mecca was born.
    Musicians such as Joe King Oliver and Louis Armstrong blended the
    blues, hymns, and dance tunes into a new musical form called jazz;
    after honing their chops in Chicago in the 1930s, jazz musicians came
    home and began attracting flocks of tourists. By the 1990s, more than
    10 million visitors poured into to the city every year, lured by jazz
    bars, Mardis Gras, the French Quarters Creole and Cajun restaurants,
    and the drunken reveling on Bourbon Street. Whether theyll continue to
    come remains in question, though jazz musician Joe Lastie says the
    city has a spirit that cant be conquered--or drowned. You cant keep
    New Orleans down, he says. Were always going to bounce back.

    The capital of corruption

    For more than a century, New Orleans has been one of the most corrupt
    cities in the country. The undisputed champion of the political arts
    was Huey Long, alias Kingfish, whose populist program of road building
    and free schoolbooks propelled him to the governorship of Louisiana in
    1928 and, later, to the U.S. Senate. The levels of graft in his
    administration were outrageously high even by the standards of
    Louisiana politics; and though he survived being impeached on charges
    of bribery, he was assassinated in 1935 by the son-in-law of a
    political opponent. His legacy remains, and Louisiana ranks third in
    the number of elected officials convicted of crimes. In recent years,
    14 state judges were convicted of corruption, and more than 50 police
    officers were convicted of crimes that included rape, murder, and
    robbery. Two are currently on death row. As a former congressman once
    said: Half of Louisiana is under water, and the other half is under

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