While we lived elsewhere, whether it was Oklahoma, Arkansas, or New Mexico, we visited New Orleans when we could. The city seemed to always be calling us to come back home, and we kept in touch with some of our friends there through the years. Gene would attend meetings there, when he could, and later would travel there on business from time to time.
In December 2014 we visited again for several weeks before heading to Brownsville and South Padre Island for a Christmas holiday. While in New Orleans, we decided to look for an apartment to rent, planning to winter there, and spend the rest of the year in Santa Fe. We checked out several places to rent and walked around the area looking for possible rentals, and ultimately found a great apartment, right next door to the Air B-n-B at which we were staying. We decided to rent the apartment and move some of our things down to it early the next year, but as we talked about our plans, and where to spend the spring and fall, it was clear that New Orleans would be where we spent most of the year. After a year of splitting our time between the two cities, we made the move to New Orleans as our primary home in 2016 and got our Santa Fe house ready to sell.
Our apartment was in a neighborhood of New Orleans variously known as "mid-city", "Bayou St. John", and "Esplanade Ridge". It was the lower level of an over-under duplex, and laid out as a side-hall shotgun. Located on Ursulines Avenue, near Broad Street, it was and easy walk to grocery stores, pharmacies, coffee shops, the library, restaurants, and entertainment. The Fairgounds, where Jazz Fest happens, was a few blocks away, Treme, where music and second lines happen, was across Broad Street, and the French Quarter was about one mile away, an easy walk down Ursulines or Esplanade, beneath the oaks. The only things we had to drive to were the several medical centers. We quickly came to know our landlady, who lived upstairs, and most of the neighbors. New Orleans is really very much like a small town overall, and that is particularly true in each neighborhood. It is an easy place to live, a friendly place, and the weather mild enough for our daily walks nearly year-round.
Having moved there in the winter, we delighted in being outside and our walking tours and the coffee shops. New Orleans has a long tradition of coffee shop culture in which the venues are meeting places and hang-out spots where customers can spend most of the day at a quiet table. These days, of course, they are largely populated by people working remotely on their laptops or phones, studying students, or folks who love to read and people watch. We fell in the latter category, and also did a lot of knitting in the shops.
We also loved the incredible variety of architecture in the neighborhoods we walked through, and the color palate of New Orleans homes, derived largely from the Caribbean sensibility that permeated much of the town. A welcome change from the rather monotonous, if "quaint" Pueblo Revival style in shades of brown characteristic of Santa Fe.
Another big difference was the lush foliage of New Orleans, with flowers blooming nearly all year round. The frequent rains kept things lush and the plants needed to be controlled, not coddled. And if you did want to water your plants or lawn, there were no restrictions on water use other than the limits of your wallet. But we did miss the deep blue cloudless open sky and the stars at night. These are less visible in New Orleans due to the clouds and the houses and the vegetation.
To us, New Orleans has always been synonymous with Orleans Parish. In Louisiana, a Parish is like a county in most other states. Orleans Parish is the central, oldest, and most densely populated part of greater New Orleans. It also has the highest proportion of African Americans and families living in poverty. Orleans Parish is the place where most of the traditions which define New Orleans developed and flourished and continue to evolve. Orleans Parish lies on both sides of the Mississippi River and includes very old neighborhoods across that river from the main part of the city. There were multiple ferries connecting the two parts of the city until the "Crescent City Connection" was opened in 1958. It was the first bridge crossing the Mississippi in Orleans Parish, the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson having been built in 1935. Again, Orleans Parish was last in line for state money. The Crescent City Connection added a second span in the 1980s and is now one of the most traveled bridges in the nation.
The part of the city lying across the river from the main city is known as the "West Bank", probably because it lay to the right side and was generally to the west as a ship or boat descended the river. The Crescent City Connection joins the main city to the "West Bank", which is actually to the east because of the curving course of the Mississippi River. So actually, traffic traveling on the bridge toward the "West Bank" are on Route 90 West, but are driving eastward. When driving toward central city New Orleans, on Route 90 East, you are driving west. To further confuse the newcomer, as you exit the bridge onto General DeGaulle Avenue on the "West Bank", you are given the option to drive east or west. In this case, if you are going to the West Bank, you take the Avenue to the east. And vice versa.
From the immediate post WW2 period through the 1970s, Orleans Parish lost population and tax revenues as the surrounding suburbs developed and white residents fled to the new residential developments, largely inaccessible to African Americans for many reasons, including redlining. The adjacent Parishes, Jefferson to the west and south, St. Bernard to the east and south, Plaquemines to the south and east, and St. Tammmany north across the Lake grew in population and to this day remain largely white. As the city itself lost population, businesses, and revenue, it fell on hard times. Formerly the city would have been able to annex growing suburbs. That is how it grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the conservative (white) state legislature ruled that out and generally opposed any legislation that would be good for New Orleans. Despite the fact that the legislators and other governmental figures (think governor) spent a lot of time partying in New Orleans. The highway from Baton Rouge to New Orleans was, for a time, the best road in the state, before the Interstate system reached Louisiana.
We first lived here in the days when the chokehold on the city held by the surrounding white, conservative, areas nearly starved the city to death and crime and violence increased with the increasing poverty. So we have a problem with people living in these suburbs claiming to be from New Orleans, as they usually do. And we always ask "what neighborhood?".
Living in New Orleans requires a sense of humor and a resident soon develops a ambiguous, love-hate, relationship with the city. It helps to know the history of the city, and even more the history of various neighborhoods and "wards" in the city. Knowing the history does not always bring understanding of how things are, but it provides a sort of comfort knowing that things have always been as paradoxical as they are today.
In the matter of directions, for example, the ordinary compass points of north, south, east, and west are of little use in a "Crescent City" that curves along the several bends of the Mississippi River, between it and Lake Pontchartrain, the former "back" of the city. The cardinal directions here are "uptown" (upriver), "downtown" (downriver), "riverside", and "lakeside". A specific business might be thus located on the "downtown, lakeside corner of Broadway at St. Charles". Which is where the K&B was located when we lived in the University area.
To further confuse things, you also have to know that "uptown" and "downtown" have another meaning and refer to the division of the city into the "American" uptown, upriver from Canal Street, and the "French" downtown, downriver from Canal Street. This latter distinction is particularly relevant when talking about the Mardi Gras Indians or the history of the commercial center of the city or of Storyville.
Because New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, there are also other ways to designate a part of town. "Wards" are still commonly used to identify areas and are derived from the old voting districts developed in the 19th century, which evolved over time as the city grew and populations changed. "Districts" are also separate geographic designations, largely based on policing areas and other city functions. And within wards, and sometimes overlapping them, there are popular names for specific neighborhoods. "Black Pearl" is a neighborhood within the Uptown/Carrollton Area, for example. There are many other neighborhoods similarly recognized by the Planning Commission bearing names chosen by or evolved through usage by residents. "Holly Grove" is another neighborhood in the Carrollton/Uptown area. "Holy Cross" is in the lower Ninth Ward. "St. Roch" is in the upper Ninth Ward. "Treme" lies just "above" (lakeside) of the French Quarter and shares its uptown (Canal Street) and downtown (Explanade Avenue) boundaries with the Quarter, and is bounded riverside by Rampart Steet, and lakeside by Broad Street. Originally called "Back of Town", Treme is partly in the 5th Ward and partly in the 6th Ward. It is also in Mid-City. You get the picture.
Historically, the Franco-Creole population generally lived downriver of Canal Street. These neighborhoods were the French Quarter, the areas along Bayou Road/Esplanade Avenue toward Bayou St. John, the faubourgs Treme and Marigny, and "outskirts" further downriver.
The incoming American population generally lived (and worked) upriver of Canal, in the Faubourg St. Mary (dubbed the "American sector" or "quarter" and later the "Central Business District") and the new suburbs (faubourgs) further upriver, created as the former plantations were divided and developed to accomodate the growing population.
Incoming immigrants settled where the could and often ended up clustered between the high ground along the river and the more prosperous areas along the Carrollton Railway, now the St. Charles Streetcar route. They created neighborhoods, often settling close to their work, especially along the riverfront.
New Orleanians of African descent including the Free People of Color and mixed race Creoles, tended to stay in the "downtown" Faubourgs, in the early years of the city's development and expansion after the Civil War. Later, as the city expanded up river, African-Americans populated the margins of the new American neighborhoods, from the Faubourg St. Mary all the way through the new cities of Lafayette, Jefferson, and Carrollton.
Initially, because of the rivalry and enmity between the old Creole (French/Spanish) and the new Anglo (American) populations,the city divided itself into three semi- autonomous "municipalities": The first was the Creole area from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue, the second was the Amerian quarter from Canal Street to Felicity Street, which was up river boundary of the city, and the third was that part of the city downriver of Esplanade Avenue, the new Faubourg Marigny and sparsely populated areas downriver from the French Quarter.
Since each municipality had its own government, the system was inefficient at best, and was abandoned in 1852, around the time the city was further expanding. The "municipalities" were simply renamed "Dictricts", with the First, Second, and Third District being born. A Fourth District was also created, to encompass the annexed City of Lafayette, taken from the neighboring Jefferson Parish.
With the creation of the Districts also came the "Wards". The Wards were to extend from river to "back of town", but the delineation was complicated by the need, for voting purposes,to equalize populations in each of the wards, and the order of the numbering was also complicated by the city expansion up river beyond it former boundary, Felicity Street, and the later incorporation of areas of the city across the river on the "West Bank". The Wards were numbered with the first Ward starting at Felicity street, and continued downriver. The densely populated French Quarter was divided into three Wards (4th, 5th, 6th),the Marigny 7th and 8th, while the sparsely populated areas further downriver were consolidated into a huge 9th ward, extending from the lower boundary of Faubourg Marigny, Press Street, to the St. Bernard Parish line. The city then turned back upriver as it grew to continue demarking and numbering Wards above Felicity Street, Wards 10 and 11 in the former Faubourg Lafayette and later on, with further annexations of Jefferson Parish, the City created the Sixth District, with Wards 12, 13 and 14 from the City of Jefferson.
the Fifth District (Ward 15) is the Algiers neighborhood, on the Westbank, the second oldest (1719) neighborhood in Orleans Parish. In 1874, when Carrollton was annexed, it became the Seventh Municipal District, Wards 16 and 17.
To further complicate the Ward system, as the city developed drainage systems and grew into newly created land in the former "back of town" swamps and along the lake front, the boundaries of some of the wards were extended in rather awkward fashion to include these new neighborhoods. So the strange looking map of New Orleans Municipal Districts and Wards reflects the piece by piece assembly of the city since 1852 and has remained largely unchanged since 1880, except for the additions along the lakefront.
The people of New Orleans continue to refer to locations largely by neighborhood names. Sometimes the names refer to a landmark nearby, such as "The Fairground Triangle", "Bayou St. John", "Holy Cross", or by business clusters, as "the Cotton District", "Magazine Street" "Central Business District", or by perceived ethnic enclaves, such as "Chinatown", "the Irish Channel", "Little Palermo", or by general locations such as "Mid City", "Parkview", "Lakeview", and some just acquired names from local usage, such as "Black Pearl, "Hollygrove", and"Gert Town". These more traditional names have become standardized in recent times through definitions made by planning organizations, particularly those involved in zoning and development planning.
In time, you learn where these many neighborhoods are, and, for practical purposes, the only area which is referred to by its Ward designation, is the Seventh Ward, the area downriver of Esplanade Avenue to Elysian Fields Avenue. Although the Seventh Ward includes part of the Fauboug Marigny, the latter is not generally included when the term Seventh Ward is used. Rather, the term refers to that part of the Seventh Ward from Rampart to Broad Street, a largely African American neighborhood which as evolved an identity, culture, and history similar to and entwined with that of the Treme. Both areas have been fertile grounds for development of art, music, and culture in the city.
In short, there really isn't an easy way to comprehend a neighborhood other than by knowing a bit of history and spending a lot of time in the city, especially going to neighborhood celebrations and second line parades.
If you live in New Orleans, you also have to adapt to the multi-faceted relationships between the city and water. The climate is sub-tropical and it rains a lot, particulary in the summers, when most afternoons have rainstorms, sometimes impressive. In fact, that was a feature of life n New Orleans that we noticed our first time living here, and learned that if you are out and about, you need to be close to shelter from the rain by early afternoon or, better yet, safely situated in the covered patio of a bar or restaurant so you enjoy the rain over a drink or meal. A tip that may explain the drinking and eating habits and daily schedules of the residents here.
Because the city gets its water supply from the Mississippi River it has water in abundance but the water also has an abundance of bad things in it. This part of the lower Mississippi is known as "cancer alley" for good reasons. There are two water systems in New Orleans, or more properly, Orleans Parish, one for the main part of the city, and the other for the "West Bank" part of the city. The West Bank is actually the east bank of the river, but that is a fact that does not seem to bother folks much. Anyway, because the water supply is for practical purposes pretty much unlimited, the Sewer and Water Board is pretty casual about leaks, most of the time. In Santa Fe, a water leak was an emergency, and the city had spent a great deal of money around the time we lived there installing digital monitors on water meters to detect leaks and notify the authorities immediately. In New Orleans, a modest water leak from a household water meter or on the street seemed to warrent a response time measured in weeks rather than hours.
The only time a water leak constitutes and emergency is if it is large enough to drop the pressure in the main water lines below a certain level. The system has so many small constant leaks, the water pressure must be maintained above a level necessary to sustain all the leaks and still keep a positive pressure within the mains. If a big leak drops the pressure enough that the water pressure in the mains falls below that level, water begins to leak back into the system, contaminiating the water supply with ground water, and resulting in one of the frequent boil water advisories for the affected portion of the city. If one of the main water pumping stations has a pump failure and a drop in pressure, even larger parts of the city may be boiling water or drinking bottled water for several days.
Water drainage in the city is also an ongoing issue in how the city's relationship with water. In the 19th century, a drainage system was developed for the city, but it was not until the early 1900's, when A. Baldwin Wood, an engineer with the city, invented a type of axial screw pump specialized to function in the drainage system for the city. The pumps were first installed in three pumping stations on Broad Street, located at the low points of the city. They are low-lift pumps powered by 2,000 HP electric motors, which are running to this day. Because the Mississippi River at New Orleans is above sea level the water in the river runs downhill to the Gulf. Lake Pontchartrain, at the "back" (North) of the city, is directly connected to the Gulf, so it is at sea level. The drainage system was designed to pump water into canals that drained into the Lake.
The pumps and the systems used in New Oreans were revolutionary for the time. Engineers and authorities from the Netherlands visited New Orleans to study the system and adapted the Wood pumps for their land reclamation projects. The Dutch, however, evolved a very different relationship with their water choosing to co-exist with it rather than treat it as something to be removed entirely. A difference in approach that became relevant in the 21st century.
Once the city had installed a drainage system and several pumping stations, it became possible to drain the water from the swamps and wetlands between the high ground along the river and the several high ridges near to the lake. Metarie Ridge runs roughly parallel to the edge of the Lake and connects near the entrance to Bayou St. John with the Gentilly Ridge, which runs further east, parallel to the Lake, and the Esplanade Ridge, which runs roughly perpendicular to the two, down to the high ground near the river, which was the French Quarter. Bayou Road, which runs roughly parallel to Esplanade Avenue, was the portage shown by Native Americans to the early French Settlers as the dry land route from the Lake to the River.
In the early days of New Orleans, sailing ships often had trouble locating the navigable entrance to the River, as the delta had many, many "mouths". It was easier to find the "Rigolets", the entrance to Lake Borgne, then enter Lake Pontchartrain, sail into Bayou Saint John, to offload cargo. From the shores of Bayou St. John, goods would be tansferred to the new city by portage along Esplanade Ridge.
From the earliest days of the city, there were homes and businesses along the Bayou and the portage route to the river. Later people settled on the high ground nearby, the Ridges mentioned above, a process which accelerated in the early 1800's. After the Louisiana Purchase, when the "American Quarter" developed, above Canal Street, wealthy Americans built in the "Garden District" suburbs, newly created upriver from the commercial downtown, and linked the central city by early railroads. Wealthy non-American New Orleanians, those of French or Spanish heritage, the "black Creoles" of mixed race, and the Free People of Color built along Esplanade Ridge, the "Creole Garden District". Gentilly Ridge was the site of more modest fishing camps and farms, and developed later.
Draining the swamp and drying out the wetlands in the former "Back of Town" opened large areas of land for development at a time the city was expanding. It also began the process of removing water from the water-soaked soils of the city which resulted in subsidence of large areas of the city. Gradually, the city evolved a bowl shape, with the high ground along the river and the lake, and the Ridges, forming the edge of an area that sank even deeper due to the success of the drainage system. The drainage system adapted as it needed to add more pumping stations, more canals, and lift water higher and higher as the city sank.
With each heavy rain storm, New Orleanians get to see the drainage system working, or not working, as the case may be. The drainage pumps run on electricity generated by power stations run by the Sewer and Water Board, because the motors powering the pumps are designed for a different electricity than is otherwise used. The power generators sometimes fail or need maintenance as do the pumps. Today there are a total of 120 pumps in 24 pumping stations. Canals no longer drain passively to the Lake, but require massive pumping stations for the final lift of the water out of the city, over tall levees bordering the lake. The overall pumping capacity of the entire system is said to be over 45,000 cubic feet of water removed per second. Or, in practical terms, the system can handle the water from a rain storm at the rate of 1" of rain in the first hour, and 1/2" per hour there after. Or, in the experience of one living here, when it rains hard, water accumulates in the streets and enters the drainage system. If the rain continues, the water in the streets gets deeper, from six inches to several feet depending on the neighborhood. And then, one can watch as the water level gradually goes down. If everything is working.
All dependent, of course, on functioning pumps, pipes, and "catch basins". Catch Basins are the point of entry into the drainage system. They are everywhere in the city. There are over 65,000 of them, and they are not the responsibility of the Sewer and Water Board, the folks who maintain the pipes and pumps. The are the responsibility of the Public Works Department. Another city agency entirely. And perhaps inter-agency cooperation and coordination is not as smooth and effective as we might hope in New Orleans.
After some spectacular street flooding in August of 2017, and weeks of finger pointing and changing explanations, the city began to seriously look at the drainage system function. Pumps failed or were down for maintenance. Power generators the same. And catch basins had not been maintained or even checked for years, if ever. Catch basins get plugged with tree roots and debris, are shifted and broken by subsiding soil and fractured sidewalks. And in one spectacular example, catch basins in one small part of the city, on one steet (St. Charles Avenue), for a distance of five blocks (Poydras to Canal) yielded 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads, when cleaned later in 2017. Continuing clean up the next years yielded in 2019 an automobile (Mazda 626) missing since Katrina in 2005, various other parts of car chassis, and general debris, retrieved from one major drainage canal, the Lafitte canal, at the entry into Bayou St. John.
So you can begin to appreciate why New Orleanians are surprised by few things.
The continuing subsidence of the soil beneath most of the city also contributes to the renowned New Orleans potholes. Streets in poorer neighborhoods and streets that are not thoroughfares tend to get maintenance and repair later or never. The potholes can be merely annoying - the sort of thing that bends wheels, re-aligns suspensions, and throws passengers about - to prodigious cavities that can swallow half a vehicle. The response of the Department of Public Works is most generally to place a traffic cone in the hole to alert oncoming traffic to the danger. Since potholes are living things that grow and deepen constantly, disappearing traffic cones are also a fact of life here.
The cause of the potholes also makes the repair of the larger one a major undertaking. Streets seem always to be torn apart for utility work, drainage system repair, or resurfacing. And, as one might expect, when a residential street's potholes are finally repaired and the street resurfaced, complaints about the increased traffic and faster traffic replace complaints about the potholes.
Sidewalks are not much better off than the streets here. Ground subsidence affects the sidewalks, too, but more so the roots of the trees that shade our streets and homes. Especially the live oaks. But the oaks are dear to the hearts of New Orleanians and are to be preferred to level sidewalks. At least in the more prosperous neighborhoods. Live Oaks are treasured for their age, their spreading branches and the shade they provide on hot, sunny, summer days.
They are ecosystems unto themselves, supporting a wide range of plants, some parasitic, some not, as well as insects and small animals of many kinds. In stretches of Esplanade and of Ursulines, they are also roosting areas for the Black Crested Night Herons, displaced by Katrina from their usual roosting sites in coastal areas. The herons are large, heavy, somewhat ungainly birds that primarily eat small shellfish and crustaceans in the shallow waters, and can make do with what they find in Bayou St. John and nearby lake shores. Their nests are large and the progeny clumsy and slow to develop flight, so many die on the streets beneath the oaks. The birds also produce prodigious amounts of droppings making long stretches of the streets "no parking" areas, except for the unwitting.
The huge trees are old, often 200 years or more, and suffer damage from storms as well as invasions by roaches and termites. They need to be trimmed away from power lines and also trimmed of dead and infested wood. There is little money available to care for the oaks, so they are often at risk of removal and neighborhoods often rally to save the trees in their part of town. Oaks in areas of largely African American populations are more at risk of removal, and many of those neighborhoods are without shade trees and completely lacking any of the live oaks that once lined their streets. Contrast the oaks of Ursulines Avenue above (lakeside) of Broad, in Bayou St. John, with those below (riverside) of Broad, in Treme. What a difference one block makes.
Ursulines Avenue "above" Broad Street, in Bayou St. John.
Ursulines Avenue "below" Broad Street, in Treme.
During the crush of "urban removal" in the 1950s and 1960s, when federal funds were used to build the interstate roadway system and to "renew" blighted urban areas, Treme was particulary victimized by the process. Interstate 10 was laid out as an elevated fourlane highway along Claiborne Avenue, the "black wall street" of New Orleans. Claiborne Avenue runs roughly parallel the river through roughly the middle of Treme, between Rampart Street on the riverside and Broad Street on the lakeside. In the post reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, Claiborne had become lined with black owned and operated businesses, the commercial center where African Americans shopped and partied during the times when the white commercial center of Canal Street was unavailable to them. At the time the Interstate 10 route was being planned, the same planners designed an attached loop of the highway which would turn riverside along the edge of the French Quarter, then turn again to run along the levee, separating the Quarter from the river before disgorging downtown into the white commercial center of Canal Street and the adjacent downtown "Commercial Business District". Both neighborhoods, Treme and the French Quarter protested the planned highways, but only the Quarter residents prevailed and prevented their portion of the roadway.
The wide median ("neutral ground") of Claiborne was lined with huge live oaks, as was the edge of the Avenue, and had become a gathering place for African Americans and other residents of Treme and the Seventh Ward. From Saturday parties and Sunday family picnics, to celebrations of all kinds, it was a blocks long gathering place, reaching from the uptown side of Canal Street, present day Tulane Avenue, all the way to St. Bernard Avenue, and beyond. It was also the gathering place for brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians at Carnival time and St. Joseph's day.
The first step in building the elevated highway was removal of those oaks. The second step was cutting off many of the streets of Treme to build off and on ramps to the highway. And the third step was the removal or gradual starvation of the many businesses along the Avenue. Some survive to this day, a reminder of former glory, just as some of the columns supporting the highway have been painted by street artists to resemble the oaks they replaced. Other columns are painted with images of important landmarks and people associated with the glory days of the Avenue and of Treme.
Pretty much all tourists coming to New Orleans tour a cemetery, or at least get the chance to take a tour. The cemeteries, often called "Cities of the Dead", a term coined by Mark Twain disparaging the architecture of New Orleans, refers to the fact that most burials are in above-ground tombs or vaults, or even in the outside walls of some of the cemeteries. But the cemeteries also tell a story of the city and the story, not surprisingly, has a dark side, or several dark sides.
Cemeteries abound in New Orleans and there were many burial sites in the old city that were relocated or simply built over in the early history of the town. Revisiting for a moment,the geography and topography of the orginal city and the surrounding land, remember the "high ground" was located where the frequent floods deposited sediment which accumulated over time to form well demarcated "ridges". Perhaps the best known of these is the high ground along the Mississippi itself, which was that part of the city settled and build upon earliest. Although it must also be noted that from the first settlement, the residents began to reinforce and build up the riverside berm to make the levees of today. The other important ridges were the Metatarie Ridge, the Gentilly Ridge, and the Esplanade Ridge. The Metarie Ridge lies along the swampland bording the lakes above the early city. It roughly paralls the river and the lake front curving through present day Metarie from the west to about the location of City Park and the Museum of Art today. The Gentilly Ridge similarly runs along the boundry between lakes and swamp toward the north east, from about the location of the present day Fairgrounds through the parts of the city named for it and on to the east. The Esplanade Ridge originates at about the junction of the other two ridges and runs to the southeast to the river. This ridge is approximately the location of Esplanade Avenue and Bayou Road today and was the land route from the shore of Bayou St. John to the high ground near the river, about where Governor Nichols street is today. This land connection was shown by the indigenous peoples to the early French settlers, and was used as a portage when the city was mostly supplied from the Gulf via Lake Borne, Lake Pontchartrain, and Bayou St. John.
As the city of New Orleans grew, the tendancy was to utilize high ground along the ridges for cemeteries, race tracks, and entertainment venues. Thus today, many of the largest cemeteries are found on the "ridges". There are multiple cemeteries located in Metarie, where it is adjacent to Orleans Parish. One of the Canal Street Streetcar lines runs from the Casino by the river to the Cemeteries in Metarie, popular tourist destinations thus anchoring both ends of the route.
Near the Metarie cemeteries, within the city limits of New Orleans but also on the high ground of the Metarie Ridge, is Holt Cemetery, one of the six cemeteries owned and operated by the city. St. Louis #3 is on the Esplanade Ridge, near Bayou St. John. Lafayette #1 is in the Garden District, on high ground near the river, across Washington Avenue from Commander's Palace Restaurant.
Historically, once the city itself had been laid out on the riverside high ground, demarking roughly today's "French Quarter", the difficult lives of the settlers, the poor sanitation of the city, and the frequent epidemics of various diseases made the issue of disposition of corpses an important one. After a time of burying the dead within the limits of the city itself, mostly in-ground burials in vacant lots or burials along the levees or in open "public" land, in the late 1700's city officials and the Catholic church recognized that this practice was no longer practical or possible or safe and around 1789, the Saint Louis Cemetery was established just outside the city limits, above (lakeside) of Rampart Street. Because this location was removed from the high ground along the river, in the "suburbs", or "back of town", the land was lower and the high water table made the construction of above ground tombs a necessity, as the residents discovered after a few years of in-ground burials. And floating coffins after rainstorms.
St. Louis Cemetery, later St. Louis Number 1, was initially a Catholic only burial ground, but before too long, by 1804, Prostestant burials were permitted in the land immediately adjacent to the original Catholic cemetery. Today, St. Louis #1 and St. Louis #2 (1823) are the oldest cemeteries still in operation and are owned and maintained by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.As the city grew, cemeteries were added in the new neighborhoods and neighboring towns. Cemeteries were also founded by various organizations to serve special populations, recognizing the increasing diversity of the growing city. Some cemeteries of note include the following:
Located at 1427 Washington Avenue, (across from Commander's Palace restaurant) this cemetery was founded in 1833 as a municipal cemetery in what was then the City of Lafayette, comprising what is today most of the "Garden District", and the "Irish Channel". Lafayette #1 fills one city block, is laid out in a cruciform pattern to permit processions through it, and was non-denominational and non-segregated from its early days. It is owned by the City of New Orleans, which annexed the City of Lafayette in 1852 and took over the cemetery at that time. It is presently closed to visitors due to significant deterioration of the structures within and work to repair them.
This cemetery is at 2110 Washington Avenue, in a working class neighborhood, today largely African-American. It was founded in the early 1850s as a municipal cemetary and is dominated by tombs of organized labor societies, African-American working class societies, French and German benevolent organizations, and social Aid and Pleasure Societies.
Located adjacent to Lafayette #2 Cemetery at 2220 Washington Avenue, this cemetery is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. St. Joseph Cemetery #1, established in 1854 by the St. Joseph German Orphan Asylum Association for German families in the surrounding area and to supply income for the Asylum, which had been opened the previous year by the Sisters of Notre Dame.
St. Joseph Cemetery No. 1 was laid out in a grid plan with clearly delineated aisles marked by family tombs and plots, with space in the rear for victims of yellow fever. After about 20 years of operation, the cemetery was full and the city gave permission to expand the cemetery into the block behind it, forming St. Joseph Cemetery #2 in 1873. St. Joseph Cemetery #2 was also a grid plan with many of the memorials in the form of coping style monuments.The Archdiocese of New Orleans acquired it from the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1968.
There was a mortuary chapel, St. Mary's Chapel, within St. Joseph Cemetery #1, a small frame church originally built in 1844 for the German congregation of the current St. Mary's Assumption Church on Constance and Josephine streets. The original church was dismantled, reduced in size and relocated to the cemetery in 1858 when it was replaced by the existing church. In 1996, the Chapel was dismantled again and relocated to 1516 Jackson Avenue to replace an earlier Chapel. A replacement mortuary chapel was constructed within the cemetery in 1998.
Holt Cemetery is a "potter's field" cemetery located next to Delgado Community College, behind the right field fence of the college's baseball facility, Kirsch-Rooney Stadium. The cemetery is named after Dr. Joseph Holt, an official of the New Orleans Board of Health (famously involved with city health issues concerning Storyville, the Red-light district of New Orleans) who officially established the cemetery in the 19th century. Holt Cemetery is one of the Historic Cemeteries of New Orleans.
The cemetery was established in 1879 to inter the bodies of poor or indigent residents of the city. Funeral processions to Holt Cemetery were generally around, rather than through, the city. The original cemetery was 5.5 acres and it was expanded in 1909 to 7 acres. Nearly all of the tombs are in-ground burials. When originally established, families of the deceased were given ownership of the graves at Holt Cemetery in exchange for the cost of digging the grave and subsequent maintenance of the plot.
Most of the graves and tombs at Holt Cemetery were not commercially or professionally produced but were instead fabricated by families of the deceased, giving the cemetery a strong personal touch.
The cemetery contains the remains of known and unknown early blues and jazz musicians, including Babe Stovall, Jessie Hill and Charles "Buddy" Bolden. The battered remains of Robert Charles, at the center of the 1900 New Orleans race riot were briefly interred there, then dug up, and incinerated by a mob. In 1973, four victims of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack, Ferris LeBlanc and three unidentified males, were buried in a mass grave at the cemetery.
The city of New Orleans performed $450,000 in repairs and upgrades to Holt Cemetery in 2013 and 2014. Some of the graves and tombs themselves remain neglected however. New burials continue at Holt Cemetery, and many the graves show evidence of frequent visits and various cultural artifacts.
Carrollton Cemetery No. 1, also known as the Green Street cemetery was founded around 1849 as the municipal cemetery for the city of Carrollton. The cemetery was included in the 1874 annexation of Carrollton to the City of New Orleans. The cemetery contains many in-ground burials with several aisles of above-ground tombs.
Carrollton Cemetery is a four-block area bordered by Adams, Hickory, Birch, and Loweline. Lowerline was the downriver boundary of Carrollton, separating it from adjacent New Orleans. It was originally segregated by race. The cemetery reserved one section for white families, and another, smaller section for black families. Today, the traditionally white section features more elaborate above-ground tombs, while the “colored” section features more modest inground copings and open-framed chambers, reflecting racialized economic inequalities rooted in slavery and racism.
When we first lived in New Orleans (1968) and rented a small shotgun/neighborhood storefront to use as a stuio, it was located on Birch Street near the corner with Adams. At that time, the graves in the black family section had mostly hand lettered wooden grave markers. And the cemetary operators had a prominent sign in that section stating: "Graves must be kept clean or they will be reused".
A few blocks away, bounded by Adams, Spruce, Cohn and Lowerline Streets is Carrollton Cemetery No. 2, or St. Mary's Cemetery. Originally the property of St. Mary's Nativity Catholic Church, it was taken over by the City of New Orleans in 1921. It is two blocks in area, half the size of Carrollton Cemetery No. 1.
While early New Orleans cemeteries are noted for their maze-like and crowded nature, these later suburban ones imposed an urban grid with main streets, side alleys, and space between tombs. Carrollton and St. Mary reflect the German ancestry of many early Carrollton residents and are visually connected to the neighborhood as the cemetery lacks the high walls that surround most of the older, downtown, cemeteries.
New Orleans’ iconic aboveground cemeteries are an adaptation to the frequent flooding that makes burial unsuitable. But the tombs deteriorate in Louisiana’s extreme weather particularly from the high moisture and the rampant vegetation. They also face break-ins and vandalism from treasure-seekers. City-owned Valence is less famous than some of New Orleans’s 42 other graveyards, so maintaining it hasn’t been anyone’s priority for a long time. The city does a passable job trimming the grass, but upkeep of the tombs falls to their owners, the majority of whom have died themselves or otherwise disappeared over the years. That leaves it to independent volunteer groups to fix the crumbling landmarks.
For about five years, we spent a month or two in Santa Fe in the summer, making sure to be there for the entire Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and spending some time at the Santa Fe Opera both as volunteers in the Costume Shop and attending dress rehearsals and the occasional performance. This arrangement got us out of New Orleans for much of the "hurricane season" and let us overdose on chamber music every summer.
But in time, the travel back and forth and the expense of it led us to reconsider the convenient lifestyle we had. In latter 2019 we decided to relocate to a "retirement community", Woldenberg Village, in Aliers on the West Bank. We made the move in December of 2019 and within a few months, the first wave of COVID 19 had the entire city on its knees with horrifying death and morbidity numbers and a shuddering economy, dependent on tourism.
The retirement community turned out to be a good place to hunker down during a prolonged lockdown of the city and an even longer self isolation. We each had our crafts and the space there to pursue them. Ellen her knitting and stitching and Gene his ship model building and print-making. We pretty much avoided all social contact, especially any large group indoor activities and with all the local concerts and music venues closed down, we did not feel we were losing out on anything much. It was a very productive time from the craft standpoint. Ellen did a lot of needlepoint and participated in online classes. Gene build a total of 5 ship models and gradually acquired equipment and supplies for a very nice printmaking studio.
There is information on Gene's printmaking here.
If interested in the ship models, start with the Ship Modeling in General page and visit the particular model of interest from there.
As time went on, we began to feel the confinement of living in a small closed community. Also the "independent living" community we were in changed character over the second year we were there as older and more infirm people moved in. We don't think there was anything unique about the situation there, and feel the changes were related mostly to the difficulty of an aging population to find suitable housing and access to assistive services. But as the more able-bodied residents moved away or suffered declining health and the majority of the residents had significant physical or cognitive limitations, it became more and more the equivalent of an assisted living facility. Home health aids and nurses sometimes seemed as numerous as residents in the community center. Perhaps these changes would not have been a problem for us if we had not been "confined to quarters" there for two years.
Regardless of the changes in demographics of the resident population, as the city began to open back up, we wanted to resume our concert-going and long walks to coffee houses we had enjoyed when we lived on the "east bank". But commuting across the river required a car and required navigating the bridge, the Crescent City Connection, which was never easy and sometimes intimidating.
Very soon we missed terribly the events and venues we had so easily attended and as the symphony concert season announced its resumption, we realized that it would be very difficult to attend those concerts or any of the other evening programs we enjoyed.
So, after two years in the retirement community we had thought would be our last home, we moved again. It was a difficult decision, as we had for years considered the "continuing care retirement community model" to be the ideal one for us. But once we had made the decision and completed the move, we realized that it was the best for us, and also that the community we were in had changed around us and no longer met our needs.
We moved to the Bywater neighborhood described sometimes as the "Bohemian" part of New Orleans, a description that sounds redundant at best. We found a large loft apartment in a converted mill building that could fit all our stuff - including the craft supplies and equipment.
And just like that, we were taking long walks again, visiting coffee shops, small restaurants, shops, and bars, and going to concerts again.