New Orleans Culture

The People and Culture of New Orleans

By Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon
Department of History, University of New Orleans

Normally when tourists or first-time residents come to New Orleans, they have a difficult time understanding the city. It looks like no other place in the United States. The first puzzling impression usually comes from the appearance of the French Quarter near many of the city’s hotels. It is more than just a few blocks of townhouses and cottages standing side-by-side, up against the sidewalk. The size of the district startles even those well traveled in the rest of the nation. Few visitors, moreover, are accustomed to such a melange of people moving at all hours of the day and night in the very center of the city. They quickly learn that bars have no closing hour, that the food is spicy, and that the music is pulsating almost everywhere. And they may also take note that the locals talk funny but seldom have southern accents.

Even a prolonged stay brings no easy recognition or familiarity. Someone from a northern city might see something familiar like a Saint Patrick’s Day parade, Italian fresh produce dealers, or some century-old Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and Jewish congregations. They would also recognize soul food restaurants, African American store-front churches, and the lilt of Spanish spoken in the streets. A southern visitor would see familiar colonnaded houses, catch a whiff of jasmine blossoms, and even find cornbread on some menus. But still most residents of the United States will still be puzzled by what they observe in New Orleans — their usual explanation is that New Orleans is a foreign place, more a European than an American city.

But it is an American city — just a very different place with a very peculiar history. New Orleans is a place where Africans, both slave and free, and American Indians shared their cultures and intermingled with European settlers. Encouraged by the French government, this strategy for producing a durable culture in a difficult place marked New Orleans as different and special from its inception and continues to distinguish New Orleans today.

Like the early American settlements along Massachusetts Bay and Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic coast, New Orleans served as a distinctive cultural gateway to North America, where peoples from Europe and Africa initially intertwined their lives and customs with those of the native inhabitants of the New World. The resulting way of life differed dramatically from the culture that was spawned in the English colonies of North America. The New Orleans Creole population (those with ancestry rooted in the city’s colonial era) ensured not only that English was not the prevailing language, but also that Protestantism was scorned, public education unheralded, and democratic government untried.

Isolation helped to nourish the differences. From its founding in 1718 until the early 19th century, New Orleans remained far removed from the patterns of living in early Massachusetts or Virginia. Established a century after those seminal Anglo-Saxon places, it remained for the next hundred years an outpost of the French and Spanish empires until Napoleon sold it to the United States with the rest of the Louisiana purchase in 1803.

Even though steamboats and sailing ships quickly connected French Louisiana to the rest of the country, New Orleans jealously guarded its own way of life. True, it became Dixie’s chief cotton and slave market, but it always remained a strange province in the American South. American newcomers from the South as well as the North recoiled when they encountered the prevailing French language of the city, its dominant Catholicism, its bawdy sensual delights, or its proud free black and slave inhabitants — in short, its deeply rooted Creole or native population and their peculiar traditions. Rapid influxes of non-southern population compounded the peculiarity of its Creole past. Until the mid-19th century, a greater number of migrants arrived in the boomtown from northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania than from the Old South. And to complicate its social makeup further, more foreign immigrants than Americans came to take up residence in the city almost until the beginning of the 20th century.

Foreign French continued to arrive as well as Spaniards and Cubans. Café du Monde at Jackson Square was Spanish in its origins, not French. The largest waves of immigrants came from Ireland and Germany. In certain neighborhoods, their descendants’ dialects would make visitors feel that they were back in the depression neighborhoods of Brooklyn or the southside of Chicago. From 1820 to 1870, the Irish and Germans made New Orleans one of the main immigrant ports in the nation, second only to New York and far ahead of Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore. New Orleans also was the first city in America to host a significant settlement of Italians, Greeks, Croatians and Filipinos. Just before the opening of the 20th century, thousands of Sicilians came into New Orleans to add to the complexity of its population and enrich its culture. Since many of these immigrants came from Catholic Mediterranean countries, they helped to increase the cultural divide with the settled ways of southern Protestants. North Louisianians find this city as strange as anyone from Iowa, Tennessee, Vermont or Georgia.

These variant patterns describe the black as well as the white population of the city. During the 18th century, Africans came to the city directly from West Africa. The majority passed neither through the West Indies nor the American South. They developed complicated relations with both the Indian and European populations. Their descendants born in the colony were also called Creoles. The Spanish rulers (1765-1802) reached out to the black population for support against the French settlers; in doing so, they allowed many to buy their own freedom. These free black settlers along with Creole slaves formed the earliest black urban settlement in North America. Black American immigrants found them to be quite exotic, for the black Creoles were Catholic, French or Creole speakers, and accustomed to an entirely different lifestyle. Immigrants also augmented the ranks of the city’s black population when thousands of Haitians fled to New Orleans from that troubled island’s revolutions long before Americans confronted its refugees in the late 20th century.

The native Creole population and the American newcomers resolved some of their conflicts by living in different areas of the city. Eventually, the Americans concentrated their numbers in new uptown (upriver of Canal Street) neighborhoods. For a certain period (1836-1852), they even ran separate municipal governments to avoid severe political, economic and cultural clashes. Evidence of this early cleavage still survives in the city’s oldest quarters. A ride on a St. Charles streetcar will take a visitor away from the exotic French Quarter (the original downtown old city or Vieux Carré of the Creoles), initially through a business district more like that of the rest of America, and then through neighborhoods such as the lower and upper Garden Districts that look a little like Charleston or Savannah. Further still, through the University district, neighborhoods emerge filled with Victorian homes once common in American cities. Because the highest ground in this largely below sea level city runs along the natural levees of the city, the streetcar takes its riders on a passage through historical eras and their evolving architectural taste. Indeed, one of the city’s nicknames, the Crescent City, came from the pattern of its growth along the river, which made a large bend through the delta starting at the original French settlement and moving out to the once separate town of Carrollton. The streetcar, the oldest surviving trolley in the United States, was constructed to connect those two 19th century settlements.

Similarly, a bus ride along Magazine Street would show the diversity of ethnic shops, just as a ride up Esplanade Avenue would reveal the evolving tastes and habits of the city’s Creole population. And, of course, a stroll through any of the unique cemeteries, called “the Cities of the Dead,” vividly show the multiplicity of names, birthplaces and languages of the various peoples who made up the population of the Crescent City.

Finally, New Orleans’ peculiar ways need more explanation than a variant colonial past and a wildly diverse population. After all, California once belonged to Mexico, and today it draws more domestic and foreign transplants than any other place in the nation. Yet visitors seldom consider it “foreign.” Quite to the contrary, California has come to define what is quintessentially American. On the other hand, New Orleans has remained an American province with a variant way of life. What is most intriguing about the city is its ability to fashion a public culture that transcends all of its varied peoples. They are more than a mosaic of identities, instead, they have to share a new cultural identity. Neither race nor nationality excludes any group from this common ground. What the city’s denizens celebrate is less the Old World cultures of their ancestors and more the new way of life that evolved in New Orleans. The food, the festival, the music are shared pleasures, because somehow a novel ethnicity, born of the New World, has emerged in New Orleans. Creole cuisine, jazz and other forms of local music, Mardi Gras — all these famous attributes of the city give New Orleans a powerful sense of identity.

It is a live culture. If visitors make an effort, they can find a vibrant urban folk culture still producing new forms and practitioners. There are the neighborhood restaurants opened by bold creative chefs, the autumnal brass band parades in central city neighborhoods, the young lions of jazz now dominating the local scene as well as the world beyond, and the recently created Jazz & Heritage Festival. All these recent developments testify to the remarkable power of the city’s culture to absorb new influences and fashion delights that continue to amaze not only much of the world, but also the inhabitants of New Orleans themselves.