Note: I toured New Orleans several times through the years, and each visit leaves me with new impressions and appreciation for this historic and richly flavored city. I hope I can adequately capture its unique essence in the coming posts.
Let the Good Times Roll!!
Welcome to the city of New Orleans! Or Nawlins as many pronounce it. It’s also called the Big Easy, the Birthplace of Jazz and even Sweet Lady Gumbo, among other names. New Orleans’ rich and eclectic culture today originates from a complex, tragic and layered past. From such a heritage comes a diverse cultural conglomeration of language, ethnicity and food! But best of all, there is a spirit here of resilience, a love of life, celebration and tremendous southern hospitality!! Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez (Let the good times roll)!!
Location, Location, Location!!
It’s located at the mouth of the Mighty Mississippi River. Other major waterways such as the Missouri and Ohio Rivers empty into it farther north making this port city strategic for control of North American transportation and trade routes. Founded by the French in 1718, the first settlers were Canadians, Blacks and Indian slaves, then in 1762, the city passed to Spanish rule. Trade grew with the increasing settlement of British Colonists in the East, many of whom migrated westwards towards the Mississippi River, with some settling in New Orleans. In 1800, the area had not generated the revenue as hoped, and the Spanish secretly returned Louisiana to France, who in turn sold it to the United States in 1803.
A Population Mix of Diverse Flavors
Eventually New Orleans grew in prosperity and in 1803 its population swelled to approximately 8,000, consisting of half white, and half enslaved and free people of color. As the Port of New Orleans continued to prosper through the decades, large numbers German and Irish immigrants settled in the city in the 1840s, adding to the population’s diverse flavor mix.
The Reconstruction Period after the Civil War left the city heavily in debt. (Those Carpetbaggers!) By the early 1900’s, with the growing popularity of the railroad, (See Amtrak Adventures) the river steamboats could no longer compete, and began to disappear. However, it turned out that the towboats and barges could transport more cargo than the trains, and the port prospered once again. In the 1950’s a new railroad consolidation program was completed, further adding revenue to the city.
A Rich and Diverse Culture Today
New Orleans’ richly diverse culture today comes from this combination of European and African American heritage. French-speaking Cajun people, along with ancestors of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants brought Oktoberfests and other European traditions to the growing city. During pre-Civil War era, free persons of color worked as businessmen, musicians, poets, journalists, and landlords. Black freemen and slaves were renowned for their craftsmanship and their musicians were credited for the birth of jazz.
Through Adversity Comes Unquenchable Spirit
New Orleans rose from its share of challenges as well. It once was an entry point of slaves into the country and a major hub for slave trade. A city lauded by many through the years for racial tolerance, tensions grew in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Because of its low land elevation, much of which was reclaimed swampland, the city continually fights the threat of flood waters. The worst disaster came in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, causing 1,500 deaths and billions of dollars in loss. Its aftershocks helped illuminate the chasm of economic and racial disparity within the city.
Joie de Vivre
Through it all, these New Orleans residents are known for their resilience, joie de vivre (joy of life) and unquenchable spirit.
New Orleans’ exuberance for celebration is probably best exemplified by its colorful Carnival season, which culminates in the famous annual Mardi Gras. More on that on the next post, so stay tuned!
But before that, we need to get to New Orleans first. So please join me on my first ever Amtrak train ride down to the Big Easy, on the train called “The City Of New Orleans”!!
Next on New Orleans: Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday!):