POPULATION: 384,320 (city & parish), 1,240,977 (metro) | TIME ZONE: Central | CLIMATE: Humid subtropical (Short, mild winters and hot, humid summers)
If y’all gonna be livin’ here, don’t be sayin’ it wrong. It’s pronounced “New OR-linz.” Not “New Or-LEANS.” And definitely not “New Or-lee-ans.” If you ever hear either of the latter two pronunciations, it’s someone a) being a goofball, b) yanking your chain, c) both a & b, d) being a total tourist, or e) trying to rhyme song lyrics. (If they say, “New Or-lee-on,” they’re probably French.)
It is difficult to live in New Orleans and not get caught up in the whole historical vibe here. This is THE American original. There is no other city like it on earth. In many regards, it’s as if New-Orleans keeps time in a bottle that still has a little absinthe in the bottom. It all began in 1718, when La Nouvelle-Orléans was established by the Mississippi Company, which had a French-granted trade monopoly for the West Indies & North America. The nickname The Crescent City is no mere accident of geography made into a charming moniker. It speaks to the fundamental basis of the city’s existence.
Quebecois French colonizer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville wrote a letter to the Mississippi Company, saying that he had discovered a bend in the Mississippi River shaped like a crescent. In his professional opinion as an invasive New World colonizer, this crescent area would be safe from tidal surges and hurricanes. It would make a great place for the capital of the new colony of Louisiana. The Mississippi Company told Sieur de Bienville to go for it. The city was named for Regent of the Kingdom of France, Philippe II, duke of the French city of Orléans.
In 1763, France ceded the colony to Spain. Goodbye La Nouvelle-Orléans, hello Nueva Orleans. During the American Revolution, the city was an important rebel port. Lots of smuggling of military equipment and supplies happened on the Mississippi. The Spanish maintained control of New Orleans for 40 years, with their influence visible in the Vieux Carré—French for “old city,” this is the area popularly known as the French Quarter. Virtually all of the French Quarter architecture is Spanish. The French took back the area in 1803, and Napoleon sold “New France” to the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase. The city took off as Americans, French, Creoles and Africans flooded in, followed by Irish, Germans and Italians. Sugar and cotton plantations outside the city became a huge part of the economy.
In 1804, the end of the Haitian Revolution saw an influx of thousands of refugees, both whites and “gens de couleur libres,” free people of color (also known as “affranchise,” a word denoting liberation from servitude). The governor and his cronies wanted to restrict the influx of additional free black men, but the French Creoles wanted more French speakers. So, more refugees came, including Haitians who’d first gone to Cuba. The city’s population doubled. The immigrant influx was comprised in almost equal thirds of whites, free people of color and slaves.
During the War of 1812, the British tried to capture New Orleans with a massive force of 11,000 troops. In another great American tradition, General Andrew Jackson patched together a motley crew of fighters: Louisiana and Mississippi militiamen, both whites and free men of color; U.S. Army troops; Tennessee state militia; Kentucky riflemen; Choctaw warriors; and, of course, privateers led by the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte. Backed by the U.S. Navy out on the Mississippi, Jackson’s ragtag band of men trounced the Brits. The Battle of New Orleans is also poetically fitting and in step with the city’s consistent march to its own drum. The battle began on January 8, 1815. The armies had no idea that the war was over. It had ended on Christmas Eve, a week and a half earlier.
Trade in New Orleans became huge. Commodities exports from the nation’s interior, imports from other countries, warehousing and transfer depots, merchant traffic up and down the Mississippi—it was a vibrant and bustling commercial port. Despite being a major center in the slave trade, New Orleans also had the nation’s most significant and prosperous community of free persons of color, many of them educated property owners.
The French-speaking population remained in the majority until after the Louisiana Purchase. Then, the Anglo-American migration began and the city’s population doubled. By 1840, New Orleans was the richest city in the U.S., with the third biggest population. That’s when the influx of German and Irish immigrants began. In the 1850s, half of the city’s schools were still French speaking. The boom times continued until the Civil War changed everything—much to the chagrin of the city’s French Creole elite.
Northern forces under Gen. Benjamin F. “Beast” Butler occupied New Orleans. Butler abolished French in the schools. Between English-only laws, the use of English as the language of commerce and government, and the influx of Irish, German and Italian speakers, French diminished considerably by the early 1900s. Still, about a quarter of the city’s population spoke French daily. About half the population could understand French. But after almost 100 years of publication, the city’s last, big French-language newspaper went belly up in 1923.
Despite falling to Union troops early in the war, New Orleans missed the devastation suffered by so many Southern cities. The Union Army eventually controlled the Mississippi River up Louisiana’s coast. Ex-slaves from rural areas and some free people of color from the city were among the first volunteers in black regiments known as the Corps d'Afrique. In the last years of the war, they were complemented by the United States Colored Troops and became significant players.
Mounting violence after the Civil War prompted Congress to pass the Reconstruction Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. The full protection of citizenship was extended to freedmen and free people of color. Louisiana was readmitted to the Union in 1868, and its constitution granted voting rights to men and public education to all. Elections resulted in both blacks and whites holding local and state office. In 1872, Republican P.B.S. Pinchback became the first African-American state governor. The New Orleans school system was racially integrated.
Much of this progress fell apart when Reconstruction foundered, recession hit, and white insurgent paramilitary violence was supported by the Democratic Party. African Americans were disenfranchised and lost many of their rights. New Orleans’ gens de couleur libres fought back, though it wasn’t until the advances brought about by the Civil Rights Movement and the activism of the 1960s that constitutional rights were effectively restored.
Meanwhile, New Orleans’ supremacy as a center for trade was waning with development of the transportation infrastructure around the rest of the nation. The city’s status as a southern banking center also began to diminish. Manufacturing shrank. But the Civil Rights struggle took hold and was vital here. Tourism became a mainstay industry. And there was the flood control industry, so to speak. Pumping and drainage became key in developing low-lying areas near the city.
Eventually, it became apparent that efforts to dry out and develop these areas was also causing erosion and making some parts more vulnerable to hurricanes. The ultimate manifestation of all this: the catastrophic failure of the Federal levee system during Hurricane Katrina in late August, 2005. It’s considered the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. Floodwalls and levees built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed below spec. Over three quarters of New Orleans flooded. Tens of thousands were stranded here. People were rescued or looked for shelter at the Superdome and the Convention Center.
As clean up began, the city was pronounced off-limits. In September, Hurricane Rita followed on Katrina’s tail. It thwarted efforts to bring residents back to the city and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward all over again. The damage in New Orleans was so extraordinary, many residents who evacuated simply never went back. (One city that received a lot of New Orleanians was Houston.) A popular civic effort from the 1990s was the long-running, “New Orleans: proud to call it home” campaign. Not missing a beat in the New Orleanian ability to find humor in the dark times, it wasn’t long before there came a profusion of bumper stickers proclaiming, “New Orleans: proud to swim home.”
About a year later, the estimated population of the city was about half of pre-hurricane levels. It took until 2010 for the population levels to return to pre-hurricane numbers. Though, in typical New Orleans fashion, the city never missed throwing Mardi Gras or the Jazz & Heritage Festival, two of the major, mainstay New Orleans events. The Superdome was repaired and renovated, and the Saints returned for their 2006-2007 season. (Riding the ongoing wave of Katrina adversity and recovery, the Saints won 13 games of their 2009 season and qualified for the Super Bowl. They went on to trump the Colts 31-17 in Miami.)
No discussion of New Orleans is complete without mentioning the world-famous cuisine. When you look at the multi-cultural history of the city, it’s probably no surprise that the food here is a mashup: it’s filled with French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, Cajun, Chinese and even Cuban flavors. The cooking here is typically Creole, haute Creole or New Orleans French. (Or American, which can be delivered in some really interesting ways). Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of seafood. Some famous New Orleans culinary inventions are the po' boy and muffuletta sandwiches, oysters Rockefeller and bananas Foster.
Creole cuisine is unique to the area. It’s influenced by flavors from France, Spain, West Africa and Native America, as well as Germany and Italy. It can be rich, saucy and complex. The “holy trinity” is often in evidence: onions, bell peppers and celery. Tomatoes figure prominently and okra is common. Cajun cuisine is evolved from the Acadians, French-Canadian colonists kicked out of Canada by the British. Cajun cooking is partly French and also capitalizes on the holy trinity, but is usually heartier and more rustic than Creole. It’s also easier to cook. Shellfish, pork and game are common. It can be fiery hot or not, but almost always has many flavors and spices, with garlic and hot peppers being mainstays. Soul food, comprised of simple and affordable ingredients, traces its roots back to West Africa and is also popular here.
Along with the food, music is a way of life. This is the birthplace of jazz. New Orleans was possibly the only place where African slaves were allowed to have drums. On Sundays, they would get together in Congo Square, in what is now Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé. Hundreds of Africans would congregate, play music and dance. Eventually, American folk and European influences permeated the music. Much of the musical heritage identified with New Orleans grew from here. Congo Square has literally influenced work by a range of artists, from 19th-century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk to Wynton Marsalis, R&B Singer Teena Marie to hard rockers Great White. Speaking virtually, Congo Square has influenced any American musician you’ve ever known.
The Crescent City
The Big Easy
The City That Care Forgot
Laissez les bon temps rouler! (Let the good times roll)
Proud to call it home
RANDOM SONG ABOUT THE CITY
"Goin' Back to New Orleans" by Joe Liggett, as covered by Dr. John with a slew of famous New Orleans musicians
PRO SPORTS TEAMS
New Orleans Saints (NFL)
New Orleans Pelicans (NBA)
New Orleans Zephyrs (PCL)
New Orleans Krewe (IWFL)
New Orleans Jesters (NPSL)
ALSO KNOWN FOR…
Introducing voodoo to the U.S.
The birth of jazz
Boobs for beads (don’t do it)
A Mississippi Delta accent that sounds like Brooklyn
Dancing in the street
Being the most haunted city in America
The oldest continuously operating restaurant in the U.S.
The oldest continuously operating cathedral in the U.S.
Coining the name “Uncle Sam”
The country’s largest municipal park
The world's first equestrian statue where the horse has more than one foot off the base
Giant frozen daiquiris (don’t do it)
Po’ boy sandwiches
Being one of two U.S. states that do not have counties
The French Quarter
The country’s first opera performance
Drive-through daiquiri stands
The nation’s best pharmaceutical school
The Tremé neighborhood and the HBO series, Tremé
Bourbon Street (don’t do it)
The Carousel Bar
Drinking in the street—legally
Tons of French street names that are in no way pronounced like French
Inventing poker and craps
The country’s greatest number of historic districts
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest continuous bridge
Not burying their dead, but putting them in above-ground tombs
Ann Rice, Elmore Leonard, James Booker, Truman Capote, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Louise Armstrong, Allan Toussaint, Mahalia Jackson, Reese Witherspoon, Harry Connick, Jr., Ellen DeGeneres, Edgar Degas, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, Jeanne Lafitte, Pierre Lafitte, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Tyler Perry, Carl Weathers, James Carville, Bryant Gumbel, Ray Nagin, Cokie Roberts, Terence Blanchard, Big Al Carson, Mahalia Jackson, Wynton, Branford & Ellis Marsalis (Jr. & Sr.), The Neville Brothers, Randy Newman, Eli & Peyton Manning, Mel Ott, Marie Laveau, Babe “Mr. Bojangles” Stovall
One of the first things people think of when talking about New Orleans is the French Quarter. And it is charming. One challenge with living there full time is that it means your living in other peoples’ vacation. We love the Quarter, and frequently stay there when we visit. But for something approaching a normal living situation (whatever that might actually be in New Orleans), it’s advisable to look elsewhere. Keep the Quarter as that special gift you get to visit periodically.
That said, if the idea of a truly historic neighborhood near the quarter is appealing, you might enjoy The Garden District. Historians consider it one of the country’s best-preserved collections of historic Southern mansions. The Garden District proper is where you’ll find the bigger, more exquisite homes with more exquisite price tags. The Lower Garden District is less exquisite with more affordable properties. Both get good scores for education and amenities.
If an artsy neighborhood holds appeal (not that you won’t find that almost anywhere around here), consider Downtown/Warehouse District. In the 19th century, this was an industrial neighborhood with grain, coffee and produce storage for shipment through the port. In the latter 20th century, it began evolving into the “SoHo of the South.” You’ll find loft living here, nightlife, restaurants, artists and (oh, yes) The Superdome.
Getting away from the hubbub of the Quarter, the Uptown/Carrollton area to the west has much to recommend it. This neighborhood is one way to get away from the tourists and have terrific access to amenities, good schools—and oh, just maybe, a home that’s still on the Mardi Gras parade route. It’s walkable. It’s bikable. And hey—Whole Foods is here.
Want out of the city and into the ‘burbs? About 20 minutes from town is Metairie. The name is from the French word for a small tenant farm. In this case, small is relative. If it were incorporated, it would be Louisiana’s fourth largest city, and it’s the fifth largest census-designated place in the country. With a population bumping the 140,000 mark, it’s a charming city on Lake Pontchartrain. With plenty of amenities, it offers a relatively low median home price around $210,000 and a wide array of housing options. You can find a 1-bed/1-bath condo for about 50K, a 6-bed/5-bath mansion on the lake for about $2.5 million, and a wide array of affordable properties in between. That includes plenty of inventory in the 300K range that are decent sized family homes. There’s also easy access to boating, fishing and swimming at Lake Pontchartrain.
About half an hour directly across the lake from Metairie is Mandeville, which has a much different vibe. A town of about 11,000, it has grown up from a weekend destination for New Orleanians. If you want a multi-million-dollar mansion, it’s here—along with an array of historic cottages, modern townhouses and ranch-style homes. Good schools here as well. Not to mention Ruby’s Roadhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1920s.