Although the area in which it is situated was first claimed for France by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, New Orleans itself was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste La Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, intended to both secure France's strategic command of the Mississippi River and to function as a capital of the province of Louisiana (named for King XIV and his wife Queen Anne).

Initial development of the city was difficult, an indication of the many problems New Orleans would face throughout its history: it is not easy to build a city in a swamp, especially a swamp that is twenty feet below sea level, requiring levees all around it and sinking a few inches a year.

Nonetheless, New Orleans was built in the fashion of European city, with distinct quarters and narrow, pedestrian streets, French architecture and names, and the generally labyrinthine atmosphere of the Old World. Though France's mercantilism was problematic for its colonies, New Orleans grew at a steady rate, and was perhaps the only city in the South which actually posessed an aristocracy (albeit a debauched, depraved, and generally incompetent one).

In 1763, France's economic situation was grim, and its defeat in the Seven Years War necessitated the auctioning of several territories, including Louisiana. New Orleans was sold to Spain, and although the French settlers were somewhat unhappy with this transaction (that's another node entirely), the period which followed saw the growth of the city's economy and the advent of a new, more distinct cultural identity.

Though France eventually regained control of Louisiana, they sold it almost immediately to the United States in a deal for $40 million dollars. The Louisiana Purchase garnered America land from the Mississippi River almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and was considered a superlative achievment for President Thomas Jefferson.

As an American city, New Orleans grew in population to 170,000, behind only New York and Baltimore. The local economy exploded, as well, with the introduction of the steam boat, the cotton trade, and the sugar cane trade. During the nineteenth century, New Orleans' many disparate neighborhoods began to acquire distinct identities: the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Faubourg Marigny, Uptown, and the Irish Channel all became specific miniature cities, with their own cultural and social traditions, which fused together to provide New Orleans with an utterly inimitable urban personality. Mardi Gras, which had been enacted for a century, grew into a larger phenomenon as well, with all manner of parades for the city's many different demographic groups: African Americans, the Irish, French, Spanish, and British whites, the Cajuns, and the Creoles all had their own organizations, and the festival began to define a large portion of the city's social structure.

The Civil War had relatively little impact on New Orleans; the city's participation was minimal, and, as a result, the punitive measures enacted on New Orleans afterward were negligible. The end of slavery was also a comparatively minor event in the city, as its economy was mercantile, rather than agricultural. The very slight degree to which Reconstruction affected the city was a major factor in New Orleans' race relations; whereas in other parts of the South, whites resented blacks for the social changes brought about after the Civil War, in New Orleans these changes were rather mild, and a century later, the Civil Rights movement encountered less opposition in the Crescent City than it did elsewhere.

New Orleans is now a major metropolitan area, complete with suburbs, over two million residents, and a major (if struggling) economy. Analyses of the distinct cultural, racial, and social elements of the city, and their possible basis in its historical and economic heritage, belong in other nodes, which I will hardlink as they are written.

And if you have something you'd like linked here, feel free to /msg me. I'd love to add much more to this write-up.

Neighborhoods:
---French Quarter
---Faubourg Marigny
---Garden District
---Irish Channel

Residents
---Walker Percy
---Anne Rice
---Truman Capote
---Louis Armstrong
---The Marsalis Family
---William Faulkner

As Gritchka helpfully mentioned, I've written an entire node about New Orleans without any significant reference to jazz. Until I can add more, check out Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Congo Square, and general nodes concerning jazz.

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Mercuryblues has noted a number of factual errors within my original w/u, as well as several errors of omission, which I will include here as Mercuryblues sent them to me:

"There is no real Cajun population here in New Orleans. Any Cajuns here were assimilated into the local (different) French culture... While the Civil War didn't impact New Orleans too too much, New Orleans had an ENORMOUS impact on the Civil War. The city at that time was the second largest port in the US, and when it was taken (with little defenses becuase most of the men were off fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia), this pretty much sealed the South's fate in the Civil War.

Also, you left out a huge immigrant group - the Italians. There was never a significant Spanish population compared to others though the city was under spanish administration and that's why the predominant style of architecture in old New Orleans is Spanish (the city was burned down many times so the French stuff is mostly gone).

Some other important people are John Kennedy O'Toole, Fats Domino, Ernie K-doe, Jean Lafitte (for the most part), Better Than Ezra, Cowboy Mouth, and many many more... Also the neighborhoods Mid-City, 9th Ward, 7th Ward, Carrolton, Faubourg St. Martin, Bywater, Warehouse District, Bucktown, Lakeview, New Orleans East, also the traditional name for the French Quarter is the Vieux Carre..."

The only way I know what year it was when I moved to New Orleans was that it was the year of the 'King Tut' exhibition, 1977-1978. I had been staying in and around Washington DC the previous year, and for various reasons which seemed sufficient at the time I decided to walk to Boston to spend the summer there. I got about as far as Plymouth and took a bus the rest of the way.

 

This story isn't about Boston so I'll omit all that happened there- I worked as a day laborer for a while and on one particular assignment- bagging nuts in a nut factory as I recall- one of the other vagrants (why be shy? It's a beautifully descriptive term in any case ,from the Latin vagari, to wander) mentioned going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras as a way to spend the winter. The bus fare left me with about $75 as my total capital so it was not perhaps the best thought out move, but the trip itself was interesting, as I'd never gone from North to South before by bus. The bus passed through a lot of very small towns, and I remember how the atmosphere changed, became more laid back and less frenetic the further south I traveled. The trees, even, seemed to become less ambitious, bending lower with their limbs draped artistically with moss like an old lady's feather boa.

 

I arrived in the 'Big Easy' as its residents call it late one evening in a light drizzle which put paid to the idea of sleeping on a park bench, something I'd never done but one thing you learn as a vagrant is to play up to the stereotype.

 

Instead I wandered into the French quarter hoping to find cheap lodgings. I'd already been offered a bed for the night at the bus station by a charming young lady representing the local Bornagain's- that was what I called the groups of young people who had just discovered Jesus; nice folk on the whole, unlike the humorless fanatics who came later, but that scene was definitely not what I was looking for.

 

The French Quarter on the other hand most definitely was. Everywhere you looked there was someone with a backpack. This was November, and Mardi Gras was coming up in February which meant that the local businesses were taking on lots of extra help. Restaurants, Hotels, you name it, all you had to be was reasonably able bodied and sober, and if you were picturesque into the bargain, so much the better. The atmosphere was rather like that of a house of prostitution gearing up for a visit by the Sixth Fleet.

 

I was hailed from a second floor balcony by a young woman with a German accent. Was I looking for a place to stay? I admitted that I was, and she said, 'Come on up, there's room here, three dollars a night!' Room there was, on the balcony itself, open to the sky which had fortunately stopped drizzling. About a dozen young people were already bedded down, and it was warm for November. 'Is this your first time in New Orleans?', the German lady wanted to know. ' You'll love it,'she went on, 'It's a crazy place.' We spent the rest of the night arguing politics, oblivious to the occasional light rain.

 

In the morning everyone went their separate ways, looking for more sheltered accomodations and, of course, jobs. I landed a spot in a Japanese restaurant which had a takeout booth on the street called, appropriately , Takee-Outee, (political correctness had not been invented yet, and anyway this was New Orleans) It sold what was called Teriyaki, chicken or beef on a skewer served on a cardboard container of fried rice. In later CV's I was to call my position that of a 'short order cook' which was a pardonable exaggeration. It was a great job in one sense because I got to eat the leftovers at the end of my shift, and also I could be part of the night life in the Quarter without actually being in it, sort of like tending bar.

 

I found a room in what I thought was a cheap hotel, but I should have realized that in a city like this 'cheap' depended on what you could put up with. I quickly found another place, a shaky wooden three story rooming house so badly undermined by termites that all the floors leaned downhill. ' Ah'm goin' to fix her up someday,' confided the owner, looking me over speculatively, 'If'n I could find me somebody to he'p.'

 

Then I saw an ad advertising rooms for rent at a price I couldn't believe. The address was on the other side of the appropriately named Rampart street, which should have prepared me. Let me explain. Along with the influx of restless young people with backpacks, every winter a great many hobos came to New Orleans to escape the Northern Winters. As Mardi Gras loomed, the police gently but firmly herded these indigents over to the other side of Rampart, so as not to annoy the tourists. The hobos carried no backpacks, only a history which they would exchange, suitably embellished, in return for charity. I have to say that these days I tend to view what are now called the 'Homeless' with a certain contempt. 'Got any spare change?' is pretty thin gruel compared to, 'Excuse me mister/lady, Could you help a fella down on his luck? I usta be a (insert whatever profession) till I started on the booze, yep, it was the booze done me in, I remember once down in Philly...'

 

Anyway the room proved to be a bare concrete cube, en suite in a former hotel; no heat, no electricity, and no hot water. You got a camp bed and table and chair, and you had to buy your own padlock for the door. I loved it. Concrete plus no heat meant no bugs. Cold baths with a bucket over your head in the old bathtub didn't bother me, and I grew to like living by candle light. Just me and the candle, surrounded by the dark. Ah, Bohemia.

 

As Mardi Gras approached I noticed the permanent residents were beginning to gird themselves for the coming storm. The lady who served me grits and eggs for breakfast at the local diner became short of speech, the cops from being laid back and lazy became mean, and overall the atmosphere was hardly celebratory as the Big Easy braced itself for Carnival.

 

Of the actual celebration I have little memory. There was one night as people were arriving and all the roads in the French Quarter were bumper to bumper, and the staff of the restaurant ran up and down the lines of cars selling drinks. The rest is just a blur of grotesque costumes, parades of floats, and noise, noise, noise. I had always hated crowds and this event did nothing to alleviate the feeling. Years later I read John Rechy's 'City of Night' which had a section on Mardi Gras. Quoting from memory, one of the characters says something like this:' You think all those folks out there is wearin' masks? Mardi Gras, people wear they own faces! Devils! Whores! Monsters! And some, just some,mind you -Angels!' It felt accurate.

 

Morning and Ash Wednesday came at last, and the hungover street crews gathered up all the beads, paper streamers, discarded costumes and other wreckage. The weather turned nasty, rain and sleet pelted down and the streets of the French Quarter glistened emptily under the street lights. It was cold, a damp penetrating cold that filled my unheated concrete cube and I retreated to my sleeping bag with a book. I visited the Tut exhibition on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain and began to make little Egyptian-style figurines in clay to give my hands something to do. I could have left but for some reason I stayed on, with no idea why.

 

Gradually the weather warmed, and the sun returned. From warm it became hot, and the equatorial sun stung exposed skin. What with the cold showers and all the grease from the cooking, I developed an unusually deep tan on my German-Scottish hide. I found a pair of discarded shoes that fitted me well enough, and a denim jacket with a ripped sleeve in another dumpster; I removed both sleeves and had myself a vest. I had brought my big concertina, a german style diatonic with double reeds that was really too loud to play indoors but was just right for busking.

 

I had tried playing on the streets for the first time in Georgetown outside DC with fair success- it's an area with many nightclubs and restaurants where all the diplomats and such go to relax. Now here in the Big Easy I found a different kind of world. The parks and squares began to fill with wandering musicians, and everyone just found a spot and put down a hat or an opened instrument case. You weren't supposed to play for money but there was little enforcement of the statute, and anyway most of us played for fun.. The concertina was very similar in sound to the traditional Cajun button accordion and for the first time I felt at home as musician. I played mostly the ballads and folk tunes I'd been playing since childhood, and one afternoon a man in a suit who looked to be fresh from a martini lunch came over and asked me if I knew 'Lili Marlene'. It's a song from WW2 where it was sung by the troops on both sides and I had learned it from my father, so I obliged.

 

The next thing I knew I was auditioning for an office full of Festival organizers, and signing up to do two sets at the Jazz Festival in a couple of weeks, billed as 'Mr. Concertina'. The New Orleans Jazz festival was only in its second year, and bore little resemblance to the commercial monster I hear it has become. I felt they were just filling up space, but I have never been so nervous as in the weeks before the show,

 

In the event it was easy. The sun beat down, everyone was in a lazy, appreciative mood, and I sat on my little bandstand in front of the mike and did a little patter between songs to introduce each one. I didn't sing; I was too busy concentrating on keeping enough air in the bellows. In between my two sets I listened to the other bands. I must have been in a section of the field devoted to local artists, for at the next stage a group of boys with long black braids were honking their way through a song the refrain of which was something like, ' An' the wild Tchoupitoulas gone stomp some rump! Stomp some rump! Stomp some rump!...etc.' The Tchoupitoulas Indians, the original inhabitants of the region, were supposed to be extinct but they sounded alive enough to me. Later on I got my first look at people from the Bayous, the maze of waterways in the surrounding swamps, bare chested young men dancing a curiously elegant two step with their ladies.

 

I received two offers of employment. One was from a restaurant owner who wanted someone to play walking between tables while the patrons were dining, the other was some guy who said he was making a record of traditional Cajun music and would I sit in as back up? Which is how somewhere out there is an LP record of me playing along to, 'O-oh Papa Joe, ou allez vous? Ye-s, I go-o down dat ol' Ba-you.'

 

Then the owners of the pottery where I was getting my little clay figures fired asked me if I would do a series of Egyptian figures to sell, and a woman who had been listening to me play asked me out to dinner, and on the way back we picked up her little boy who looked up at me and murmured sleepily, 'Are you my new Daddy?' He wasn't apprehensive, just mildly curious.

 

The city was like a cat who approaches you, circles your ankles and sniffs at your pant cuffs, then jumps up into your lap and starts to purr. It was a warm and welcoming place for me, but I was fresh from two failed marriages and having none of it. So I left. Years later in 2005 I heard about the devastation caused by the big storm which moved me to write the poem published under Hurricane Katrina

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