Monday, July 21, 2014

The French Quarter Revisited

I thoroughly enjoyed both Herbert Asbury's The French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld (New York: Basic Books, 2008; originally published in 1936) and The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (Harvard University Press, 2012), Lawrence N. Powell's masterful history of French, Spanish and early American New Orleans. Both books render a fascinating overview covering the 1700s and early 1800s, with The French Quarter carrying forward right into the early 1930s.

From these works and exploring on the ground, you can fathom how much structurally the first century set up the ethos of the city and surrounding areas. More narrowly, you can see the architectural design courtesy of the Spanish administration overlaying the initial French settlement in and around Jackson Square aka La Plaza de Armas aka La Place d'Armes in the Vieux Carré. Because of major fires and repair work, many of the visible structural flourishes that remain have a definite Spanish flavor. 

Asbury exaggerates only somewhat with this statement: "The old part of New Orleans is still called the French Quarter, but all of the buildings which date from colonial times are Spanish in design and architecture." (The French Quarter, page 59).  Indeed, walking around the center of Madrid this summer has reminded me very much of the "old part of New Orleans," only Madrid's "old part" is bigger.  

New Orleans is particularly interesting for this reason also: it is and was the only major strategic coastal town or city trading via the Atlantic Ocean in what is currently the USA that was never formally controlled by the British Empire. In fact, the British never managed to capture it at all, and not for lack of trying, even when the Empire controlled East and West Florida (including what is now southern Mississippi and Alabama) -- from the end of the Seven Years War (1763) until the Spanish drove them out during the American war of 1775-1783. French, Spanish, American -- but never British!  

A last gasp of an attempt by the British was made in late 1814, early 1815, and was repulsed at the well-noted "Battle of New Orleans" (Chalmette).

New Orleans clearly has a rich and complex history; it has frequently, through the centuries, suffered mightily from fires, floods and pestilence; yet it persists, with flair. 

Or, as Powell puts it: "New Orleans was never for the faint of heart, not when calamity, cyclonic and otherwise, seemed just around the corner. Yet somehow the town always managed to muddle through" (The Accidental City, page [197]).  Indeed it has. 

Today's Rune: Partnership. 


the walking man said...

i could probably handle the French Quarter of 100 years ago, but today full of boobs and plastic beads...don't get it.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks for the comment, WM~!

More to the Quarter than boobs and beads on Bourbon Street, but then again, boobs & beads are perfectly fine in my book, too.

jodi said...

Erik-I agree with Mark. From what I've heard, it's quite commercial now.

jodi said...

Boobs n beads indeed!