New Orleans

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Laissez les bon temps rouler!


New Orleans Gumbo

The history of New Orleans has made the city very different in character from any other city in the USA. Today it is a gumbo of different cultures. The city was founded in 1717. Scottish financial wizard John Law, who was Controller General of Finances of France under King Louis XV, was a gambler and a brilliant mental calculator. Law believed that money was only a means of exchange that did not constitute wealth in itself and that national wealth depended on trade. In May 1716, Law set up the Banque Générale Privée (“General Private Bank”), which developed the use of paper money. Like a modern day financial speculator Law set up a get-rich –quick scheme (Dubbed the Mississippi Bubble) which almost bankrupted France but did increase the population of the French colony in Louisiana from 700 in 1717 to 8,000 in 1721. Law deemed that a town named in honour of the French Regent, the Duc d’Orleans, should be established 30 leagues above the entrance to the Mississippi, which would also give access to Lake Pontchartrain.

Many hardships were endured along with political and religious discord. Large numbers of black slaves were imported. After the governor, Bienville, was recalled to France relations between the colonists and the indigenous population deteriorated. No one in France managed to make any money out of Louisiana and, in 1762, Louis XV gave it away to Spain. Those in New Orleans who had prospered under the lax rule of the French feared the reputation for strictness that adhered to Spanish rule. Dissatisfaction with the rule of governor Ulloa turned into open rebellion in October 1768 and Ulloa left for Cuba. Spanish authority was re-asserted by General Alejandro O’Reilly (those bloody Irish get everywhere). Generations of New Orleans resident referred to him as “Bloody O’Reilly”. The reality was that, for his day, he was lenient with the rebels and under Spanish rule, New Orleans prospered as never before.

Napoleon wanted to acquire an overseas empire and pressured Spain to cede back Louisiana. President Thomas Jefferson was alarmed at the possible threat to American trade and was under pressure to take military action to seize New Orleans. Diplomacy won the day and after negotiations lasting only two weeks, France sold the whole of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million.

Louisiana joined the Union in 1812. In the same year, the US declared war on Great Britain. The war, which ended with the defeat a large British force at New Orleans by US forces led by Andrew Jackson, (with the help of the pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte). As is usual with the deadly accountancy of war, the precise numbers of casualties in the Battle of New Orleans are disputed. All historians agree that American losses were small and British horrifically large. Ironically, a peace treaty had been signed two weeks before the battle.

New Orleans enjoyed over 50 years of prosperity after this, mainly thanks to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi. New Orleans became a tollhouse for the region because almost all goods had to pass through the city. The handling of transhipments made a good living for factors, insurers, shippers and stevedores. Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840 New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation.

Sadly, the prosperity was not permanent. Slow erosion began in the 1830s, when the Erie Canal began to divert the commerce of the upper Midwest to the East and New York. By the early 1850s, railroads accelerated the rate of diversion to the East. New Orleans weathered the Civil War better than most Southern cities. However, following the war, Louisiana, was under martial law. White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century.

Huey P Long, known as the Kingfish, was elected governor of Louisiana in 1927 and built what many consider to have been a dictatorship. Long was a populist who improved the roads, built hospitals and expanded social welfare programmes. One of his mottoes was “every man a king”. Another was “L’état est Huey”. Long stifled democracy through his vast political patronage system and demanded loyalty without dissention. The Kingfish was assassinated at the age of 42 and succeeded by his brother Earl who used similar methods.


New Orleans is below sea-level and has more miles of canals than Venice. In the early 1900s it was still mainly swamp and flooding was a great problem until an engineer called A Baldwin Wood invented the Wood Screw Pump, which enabled the Sewerage and Water board to construct an underground drainage system. New Orleans is like  an island. The Mississippi curves around it on one side, Lake Pontchartrain and its marshes on another side and the Gulf of Mexico on the southern rim. It could be considered the northernmost island of the Caribbean. There is a black majority in New Orleans, although whites have the economic power and the heritage is European.

New Orleans had attracted a steady trickle of tourists since the 18th century but they had been mainly wealthy individuals who had no impact. The New Orleans Exposition of 1884-85 failed in its grandiose aim of bringing new industry but it did mark the beginning of mass tourism. Journalist bored by the Exposition wrote about the charms of the city and visitors from the north became interested in discovering this exotic place in their own country.


The city has suffered more than its fair share of fires, floods and hurricanes. The city has gone underwater 27 times, about once every 11 years. Each time, the fractious French, Spanish, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns raised the levees and rebuilt. Hurricane Katrina exposed the weakness of the levee system and the authorities reacted with staggering incompetence compared with the way Sri Lanka dealt with the tsunami. The rebuilding process after Katrina ignored the lessons that should have been learnt from the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Global warming is raising the Gulf faster than at any time since the last ice age thawed. Sea level could rise several feet over the next century. Even before then, hurricanes may draw ever more energy from warming seas and grow stronger and more frequent.

However, businesses have steadily reopened and the major festivals continue every year. Tourist areas weren’t flooded.

The BP oil spill in 2010 saw 4 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico . A chunk of the $15 million BP initially sent to Louisiana in June 2010 funded emergency advertising to quell misperceptions that New Orleans was laden with oil.

New Orleans has been plagued for decades by economic decline—just a single Fortune 500 company is still headquartered there—shrinking population, failing schools, and high crime.

Oliver Houck sat in his office, hands locked behind his head, pondering the question on everyone’s mind. “There are people who will fight to the death to stay here because it’s such a damned joy to live here.”


The international airport for New Orleans used to be called Moisant Field. Now it is called Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. It is 15 miles from the city.  There are no direct flights from Colombo to New Orleans. We flew from London to Washington DC and stayed with friends on our way to visit family in Louisiana. Emirates fly daily non-stop from Dubai to Washington. They also fly to Houston. There are internal flights to New Orleans from other US cities. Union Passenger Terminal in the Central Business District is the arrival point for Amtrak trains from Washington and other cities. The terminal also serves Greyhound intercontinental buses. Major road routes into town are Interstate 10, 55,90 and 61.


We stayed at the St Charles Guest House in the Garden District. This was on the strength of enthusiastic reviews in “insider” guides. I see that it is still getting rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Dennis the proprietor was pleasant and helped us organise a trip to the bayous. However, we did not see the charm in shared bathrooms, peeling wallpaper and dim lights. There is no restaurant – breakfast comes in packets from vending machines. One review says “stay away from this rat hole”. Although the Garden District is but a short ride on the streetcar from the French Quarter, next time I go I will book a more expensive hotel in the quarter itself. It was a bit scary waiting for the streetcar late at night and was not easy to get a cab.

In the De Luxe category, the Royal Sonesta is on Bourbon Street itself. In the Expensive category, the Monteleone on Royal Street has 600 rooms and is the oldest hotel in the Quarter. Paul McCartney once stayed at Le Richelieu on Chartres Street. Macca is known to be careful with his money. This converted macaroni factory is classed as “Moderate”.

At certain times of year, it is best to book in advance. We went at Halloween, which is like a mini-Mardi Gras. Hotel rooms will be scarce and expensive around Mardi Gras, Jazz & Heritage Festival. and Superbowl. You will get exceptional hotel deals in July and August but you will also get heat and humidity.


The word” Cajun “has accrued a derogatory connotation akin to “cracker” or poor white. The even more pejorative demotic is “coon ass”. The word itself is a corruption of “Acadian”. In 1755, six thousand French speaking settlers were forcibly removed by the British from a settlement at the Bay of Fundy and ended up after many hardships in Louisiana. Many more who escaped deportation were imprisoned in Halifax and moved to New Orleans in 1765. The colonial government found a use for them in raising cattle. Their frugality and industrious were an asset but also a source of friction with those with French Creole pretensions.

The French frontier elite of former army officers attempted to re-create along the banks of Bayou Teche their vision of feudalistic France with themselves as the aristocracy. On the other hand, recently discharged French enlisted men developed a group identity and fierce individualism, which gave them much in common with the displaced Acadians.

Those exiled from Nova Scotia intermarried with other ethnic groups including Native Americans. Present day Cajuns derive from a variety of ethnic groups.

The term “creole” used to refer to those who are descended from the colonial settlers in Louisiana, especially those of French and Spanish descent. The term was first used during colonial times by the early French settlers to refer to those who were born in the colony, as opposed to those born in the Old World. The commonly accepted definition of Louisiana Creole today is the community whose members are a mixture of mainly French, Spanish, African, and Native-American heritage. This is complicated by the fact that Louisianans of African descent also identify themselves a Creoles.


Chef Paul Prudhomme With Jambalaya Outside K-Paul's

New Orleans prides itself on food and sustains 1,500 restaurants. At the top end, you have Antoine’s on St Louis Street, which is still going strong after 174 years. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme works his magic at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street. The place is small and they do not accept reservations, so there are long queues. Another celebrity chef, Susan Spicer, operates at Bayona on Dauphine Street, where the speciality is nouvelle cuisine. She has a number of restaurants around the city. On June 26, 2010, Spicer filed suit against BP for damages incurred by her restaurant, Bayona.

susan spicer

The Café du Monde on Decatur Street by Jackson Square is a must, even though they only serve coffee, orange juice and beignets (a kind of doughnut dusted with powdered sugar – it can make one cough and sneeze). Many moderately priced cafés serve tasty mouthfuls like the po ‘boy – a sandwich made with locally baked French bread loaves—crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside. The loaf is sliced open and filled with batter-fried shrimp or oysters. Other popular versions are stuffed with andouille and spicy Italian sausage, soft-shell crab and catfish. A muffuletta sandwich consists of a loaf split horizontally and covered with layers of olives diced with celery, cauliflower, carrot, mortadella, salami and mozzarella.



Cajun and black Creole music developed side by side. There was much intermingling of different cultures. In the 1930s, Dennis McGee recorded with Amédé Ardoin. Ardoin was black. McGee’s name suggests Irish origin but his facial features reflected American Indian origin. The duo sang about the loneliness of the cowboy’s life in French to the tune of a European mazurka influenced by the blues. A distinctive Cajun sound is the diatonic accordion adopted from German Jewish merchants.


The exotic history of New Orleans and its rich ethnic mixture has made it a fertile place for wonderful music. Some great musicians helped build the city’s reputation: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker (Dr. John described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”) Sidney Bechet, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, the Neville Brothers and the Marsalis family to mention only a few.

Although purists might pooh-pooh it, one can get a great musical experience just walking up and down Bourbon Street. Bars and restaurants cater for musical browsing by providing alcohol in go-cups.  The house of Blues on Decatur is the prime venue which has hosted everybody from Fats domino to Eric Clapton.

mother-in-law lounge

If you want to be adventurous a list of some 80 music venues can be found here:

Michaul’s on Magazine Street in the CBD has live Cajun music and dancing as does Mulate’s on Julia Street in the Warehouse District. Tipitina’s (named after Professor Longhair’s most famous song began as a neighborhood juke joint, established in 1977, by a group of young music fans (The Fabulous Fo’teen) to provide a place for Professor Longhair to perform in his final years.) on Napoleon Avenue, Uptown offers classic New Orleans rhythm and blues as well as traditional jazz. The Nevilles perform here when they are in town. Special guest on November 7 was Hugh Laurie!



The Cities of the Dead have elaborate aboveground tombs and vaults because buried corpses had a tendency to float up again. The most ornate tombs are at St Louis Cemetery No.1 and Metairie Cemetery. Most of the cemeteries are in crime-ridden areas.There are many museums, my favourite being the Jazz Museum which is now located at 916 N. Peters Street. Others you might try are Ripley’s Believe It or Not or the Voodoo Museum. There are many art galleries, particularly in the Warehouse District which has developed into the Greenwich Village of New Orleans. Although various disasters destroyed many old buildings, much great architecture remains to be viewed, such as the Cabildo and the Presbytere. The architect of the Pontalba Buildings on Jackson Square was James Gallier, who was actually an Irishman called Gallagher.


Many visitors will feel under pressure to buy food-related items. My own feeling is that too many people labour under the delusion that Cajun or Creole masterpieces can be achieved with readymade concoctions in jars and packets. I was happy buying jazz and other genres on the French Market. I was lucky enough to find a young knowledgeably vendor who made some enthusiastic recommendations of artists (Davell Crawford and Danny Barker)  I had  not previously been familiar with. Not far from there is the Farmer’s Market, which, in addition to fresh food products, has a flea market on Saturdays. There are many posh shopping malls in the CBD. Go to Royal Street if you want antiques.


There is a contradiction. The French Quarter is compactly walkable but the city as a whole is not walker-friendly. Hitchhiking is illegal in Louisiana. There are interesting things to experience in the Greater New Orleans area, which includes Algiers, the Warehouse District, the Garden District, the Irish Channel, the Central Business District (CBD) and Uptown. London cabbies sometimes get a bad press. I have always found them professional, if sometimes unfriendly. They spend years learning their way around the city – “The Knowledge”. Some New Orleans taxi drivers are knowledgeable and tell you many things about the city and themselves. This can be charming or tiresome. Some drivers do not speak English and get lost. It is best to establish a relationship with a particular cab firm or driver. The RTA (Regional Transport Authority) operates the streetcars and buses and provides an excellent colour-coded map of routes. You need to have the correct fare ready but you can buy VisiTour Passes for unlimited travel. A ferry operates between Canal Street Wharf and Algiers.


Your hotel should be able to arrange a trip to the Bayous. Honey Island Swamp consists of nearly 70,000 acres of permanently protected wildlife. Top of the range here would be those trips arranged by ecologist Dr Paul Wagner. Do not watch the movie Southern Comfort before going. An hour and a half west of New Orleans is Lafayette, the centre of Cajun country, where you will be likely to hear good music and eat good food.


The plantation system may have been an abuse of human rights and a contributory factor to civil war but it left some wonderful mansions behind, among them Destrehan (the oldest, built in 1787) and Houmas House which was the location for the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Many of the mansions offer accommodation.

My appreciation of the work of John James Audubon is tempered by the knowledge that he killed the birds before he painted them. You might wish to visit the 100-acre Audubon State Commemorative Area, which includes a mansion I visited on Oakley Plantation. Audubon lived at Oakley while tutoring the daughter of the owner.

There are many companies offering Mississippi river cruises by steamboat. Some carry on the old tradition of riverboat gambling.

I was offered a visit to Angola prison farm but I demurred. Bizarrely, there is a museum and shop at the prison and a rodeo.


Mention of Angola brings me to the vexed issue of crime. Even the most enthusiastic New Orleans guidebooks warn against venturing into some areas. Walking alone in Louis Armstrong Park even in daylight is risky. New Orleans was America’s most murderous city for much of the last two decades. According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 2012, the murder rate for New Orleans was 53.2 per 100,000 people. This put it in third place behind Flint with 62.0, and Detroit with 54.5. Joy should not be unconfined because in 2012 Jackson, Miss., had the No. 4 murder rate in the country, but its rate of 35.8 was about a third lower than the New Orleans rate.

Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. Many of the recommended music venues are on a long street called Frenchman’s. At one end is a park which hosts abusers of many kinds of substances. I don’t know what is at the other end because I got in a cab after being stared at malevolently by sinister groups of people. This was in the bright light of morning. In 2004, a mugger shot and wounded the singer-songwriter Ray Davies CBE of the Kinks at 8.30 in the evening in the French Quarter.

New Orleans gave me the impression of being a segregated city. Although the music is a melange of black and white styles and black and white musicians often collaborate in the studio, there was taboo against them playing onstage together. Although Amédé Ardoin crossed racial boundaries by performing with Dennis McGee, he died in 1941 after being savagely beaten for using a white girl’s handkerchief to mop his brow.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina were disproportionately black.  More than 80% of African-American births in inner city New Orleans are to unmarried women. A cohort of rootless adolescent males translates into potential social disorder. Blacks form a disproportionate share of the US prison population. Louisiana State Prison at Angola Prison Farm, like US prisons generally, incarcerates a disproportionate number of blacks. Two of Louisiana’s great musicians – Huddie Ledbetter and James Booker – did time there. The prison is on land bought in the 1830s with slave-trading profits. In the 1930s, hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. Even in the 1970s, weak inmates served as slaves who were gang-raped, and traded like cattle. In 2009, James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.”

The average life span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low as North Korea. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008  to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana.


The 1940s film noir Dark Waters shows dirty dealings at the Big House but portrays Cajuns as warm and well-adjusted. Southern Comfort shows them as inbred and psychotic. Some thrillers convey the atmosphere of New Orleans; Clint Eastwood wallows in the city’s moral ambiguities in Tightrope; Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin are charming in The Big Easy (great music on the soundtrack). In Werner Herzog’s version of The Bad Lieutenant Nicholas Cage shoots it out in one of the cemeteries. Alec Baldwin, Eric Roberts and Terri Hatcher put on a good show in Heaven’s Prisoners based on one of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux thrillers. In the movie version of In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Tommy Lee Jones plays Robichaux and Levon Helm of The Band plays a ghost.

Tremé is television drama series created in which David Simon attempts to do for New Orleans what he did for Baltimore in The wire. It takes its name from, a neighborhood of New Orleans. The series begins three months after Hurricane Katrina as the residents of New Orleans, including musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians, and other New Orleanians try to rebuild their lives, their homes and their unique culture in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men has been filmed at least twice. The book fictionalises the story of Huey Long. Many people rave about Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I have read it more than once but still find it childish and irritating. The plays of Tennessee Williams convey the atmosphere of the city and many have been filmed. See Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. The streetcar line from Desire Street line was converted to buses in 1948. a 1906 Brill-built semi-convertible streetcar was displayed in the French Market with a Desire route sign, although there is no evidence that cars of this type ever served the Desire Line. It is currently housed at Carrollton Station in the car shops.

There are many guides to New Orleans. The most convenient to carry around is Richard Saul Wurman’s which is like a map that folds up to fit your pocket.  Wurman is an American architect and graphic designer who coined the phrase ‘Information Architecture’ and is considered a pioneer in the practice of making information easily understandable. Wurman has written and designed over 83 books, and created the TED conference, as well as the EG conference, TEDMED and the WWW suite of gatherings, now in development. His ACCESS city guides, using graphics and logical editorial organization to make places such as New York, Tokyo and Rome understandable to visitors.

A bulkier guide is the Insight Guide. Both Insight and Berlitz travel and language guides are produced in Apa Publications’ editorial offices in London, not far from the Old Vic. Every Insight Guide I have read has been excellent. The New Orleans Insight Guide is no exception. Essays on various aspects of the city, its history and culture, are written by experts. The photographs are excellent.

Much information can be gleaned online:

Sample some N’Awlins music on YouTube: Tipitina – Professor Longhair and the Meters. – Hey Pocky Way -The Wild Tchoupitoulas Meet the Boys on the Battleground – The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Right Place, Wrong Time – Dr John & Eric Clapton ZuZu Mamou – Dr John, the Night Tripper Four Hands Boogie Woogie – Dr John & Jools Holland Louisiana Saturday Night – Doug Kershaw Evangeline Special Jo-El Sonnier Cajun Stripper – Doug Kershaw Blues at Montreux – Clarence Gatemouth Brown Born in Louisiana – Clarence Gatemouth Brown Yellow Moon – Neville Brothers (with gusts Herbie Hancock and John Hiatt) Tell It Like It Is – Aaron Neville (with Bonnie Raitt and Gregg Allmann Walkin’ to New Orleans – Fats Domino Mahogany Hall Stomp – George Lewis The City of New Orleans – Allen Toussaint Southern Nights – Allen Toussaint Holy Cow – Allen Toussaint What do You Want the Girl to Do? – Allen Toussaint Get Out my Life Woman – Allen Toussaint Ride Your Pony – Lee Dorsey Down south in New Orleans – Bobby Charles (writer of See you Later Alligator). The Back door – DL Menard Paper in my Shoe – Boozoo Chavis Mathilde – Cookie and the Cupcakes The Valley of Tears – Davell Crawford Jock a Mo – Davell Crawford Busted – Davell Crawford I Know It’s Real – James Booker Goodnight Irene – James Booker Beatles Medley – James Booker Live at the Maple Leaf – James Booker Eh La Bas – Danny Barker Hindustan – Preservation Hall Jazz Band Mother-in-Law – Ernie K-Doe Ernie K-Doe at the Louisiana Hall of Fame. – Ain’t Got No Home – Clarence “Frogman” Henry – Ain’t Got No Home – Clarence “Frogman” Henry (live in England in 2004)