New Orleans Theme 1: Creole Heritage

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During our short time in New Orleans, we discovered three persistent fascinating themes.

The first theme is the enduring deep complicated French and Spanish heritage of New Orleans. From the first French settlement in 1699 until the sale of the greater Louisiana territory to the US in 1803, and even after, New Orleans was Creole, that is French, Spanish, Caribbean, mixed-race and Catholic. The culture, values and character of the city contrasted starkly with the British/American, Protestant, all-work-no-play way of being elsewhere in the young US.

We were taught from the start that Creole and Cajun are not the same thing. You don’t put Gumbo and Jambalaya in the same sentence. 

The Creoles are the product of the French and Spanish colonists, and free (and not-so-free) Africans and perhaps Native Americans. Creole culture was the rich New Orleans world of European opera, music, literature, cuisine, and social life. These were Catholic people. Enslaved people were part of Creole culture, including the indignity and cruelty of enslavement. And there was some fluidity between enslavement and free Creole society. One tradition was called Plaçage. European men would enter into civil unions with women of African, Native American or mixed-race descent. Their children were recognized in Creole culture as free mixed-race people. Plaçage became associated with New Orleans as part of its cosmopolitan society. 

Cajuns, on the other hand, came from French settlers from Acadia, which was what today is Quebec and Newfoundland. In France, they had been Catholic farmers and artisans, not aristocrats. When the British became the political power in these regions of today’s Canada, they demanded that the Acadians convert to Protestantism. Refusing to renounce their Catholicism, the Acadians fled to French — and Catholic — Louisiana. Being agrarian, they settled not in New Orleans, but in the countryside west of New Orleans. Their language, food, music and culture comes from their rural heritage, quite different from the urban aristocratic Creole culture.

New Orleans is a Creole City, surrounded by Anglo and Cajun territories.

The architecture of the French Quarter (started in 1718 and developed through the 1800s) follows from European and Caribbean precedents. We had seen images of the buildings of the French Quarter before: two-story colorful buildings with filigree iron railings, which conceal verdant private courtyards inside. But as we started to walk around in the Quarter, the number of picturesque blocks and buildings amazed us. Perhaps you’ve visited some famous historic city in the US, and found just a few blocks of that history, surrounded by the majority of a standard modern American city. Not here. The Quarter comprises 78 square blocks. We had no problem losing ourselves in this unique and charming urban district.

Right down the middle of the Quarter, running parallel to the Mississippi River, which is about four blocks away, is infamous Bourbon Street. The difference between the adjacent gracious streets, like Royal, Chartres, Dauphine and Decatur Streets, and Bourbon Street is like the difference between Downton Abbey and Caesar’s Palace. Perhaps I exaggerate. From our perspective, we were happy that we were visiting on cool sunny very-off-season days. The bars were open. The bands were playing. The neon was shining. But no one threw up on our shoes.

We imagined streets-full of revelers on a steamy summer night, drinking out of their fishbowls. We felt a little bit old, and thankful for some calm.

During our walking tour of the Tremé neighborhood, our guide explained some nuances of the traditional houses of the district. Many are called Creole Cottages. They include a paired sequence of rooms, front to back, without hallways to access them. This type of house probably originated in the Caribbean. In the 1700s, New Orleans, Havana and what is now Haiti were intimately connected through commercial and slave trade. This circuit of trade also included France, Spain, West Africa and Canada.

When the Americans started to impact New Orleans in the 19th century, they couldn’t understand how a house could have rooms that ran one into the next, without any privacy in the rooms. In response, they built hybrid Creole Cottages with a central hall pushed in the middle of the rooms on each side of the house; some just added an exterior covered walkway down one side.

The physical details of room layouts, roof forms and building materials may intrigue architects and architectural historians. But I found myself being much more interested in what the fact of Caribbean-inspired construction said about the people and culture of New Orleans. People came here, perhaps were forced to come here, from Caribbean islands and from Africa. As anyone would do, they built their houses, prepared their food, entertained themselves, expressed their identity in the ways they knew from before. The houses speak of upheaval, resourcefulness, stubbornness, creativity, oppression, and more.

You can see the difference between the French/Spanish and British/American when you walk around the Garden District. Once the Americans started to arrive in New Orleans and establish their businesses, and to push into New Orleans society, they had no interest to live in the (decadent) French and Spanish style. One of our guides said that the Creole culture valued work as the way to live fully, to go to the opera, to play music, to socialize at showy balls. The American culture was to work, in order to work, and live a little bit.

In what we call today the Garden District, the commercial Americans built larger and larger free-standing houses. They chose architectural styles of the moment, all to flaunt their wealth and power. Meanwhile, the Creoles remained discrete, except for lots of opera and parties.

The two communities stayed separate, each not well understanding each other. The Creoles resisted the intrusion of the American ethos — for which we are thankful. Their strength of cultural identity means we have unique New Orleans today.

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