NEW ORLEANS CELEBRATES 300
Through it all, it lets the good times roll
NEW ORLEANS – Ever since Canadian-born French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville chose the swampy, flood-prone bend in the lower Mississippi River as the spot for a new French colony in 1718, New Orleans has been a roller coaster of historical events.
Nouvelle-Orléans, as it was originally known, was ruled by three countries in less than a century — France, Spain and America — and swelled with Caribbean, European and African immigrants. It endured outbreaks of yellow fever, slave uprisings, river floods and one debilitating hurricane after another. The most recent big one, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, submerged 80% of the city, led to about 1,400 deaths and threatened the city’s very existence.
This year, New Orleans, birthplace of jazz and jambalaya, celebrates its survival from three centuries of tumult with a 300th birthday
party filled with exhibitions, panel discussions, street parades and parties. Throughout the city, large “300” signs have been set up in plazas and parks, each big enough for visitors to snap pictures beside.
Sean Cummings, a hotelier and entrepreneur, said the tricentennial is as much a tribute to the city’s resilience as it is to its existence.
“For me, it’s a (sign) that something here works,” he said. “It’s lasted for 300 years, and New Orleans has managed to be not only part of the physical landscape as an American city but in many ways part of the poetic landscape.”
The city that today is New Orleans almost wasn’t. British explorers nearly claimed the area for themselves, and even the 18th-century aristocrats in Paris originally wanted their French outpost in Biloxi or farther upriver near modern-day Baton Rouge.
Only Bienville’s machinations brought New Orleans to its present spot. After surviving disease, starvation and storms, New Orleans in the 19th century became a thriving center of commerce, reaping profits from cotton, banking, slaves, and anything that floated up or down the Mississippi, said Lawrence Powell, a Tulane University historian and author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.
By 1840, New Orleans was the thirdlargest banking center in the U.S., behind only New York and Baltimore, he said. “There was a time when this town was practically the center of the universe,” Powell said.
New Orleans, like the rest of the nation, was gripped by World War I during the city’s 200th anniversary in 1918 and didn’t roll out much of a celebration. This year, expect the city to throw a true party, he said. “Three hundred years is a pretty good run,” Powell said.
There will be street performances at Congo Square, where slaves would meet and dance to beating drums; displays of 18th-century artifacts and documents explaining the city’s founding; and a tricentennial fireworks show.
More than anything, the city will be celebrating the various groups and cultures that have descended onto New Orleans over the years and forged its uniqueness, said Steven Bingler, a New Orleans architect and urban planner.
Each new wave of immigrants to the city brought with them their food, music and architecture. Spanish settlers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries used local ingredients to morph their beloved
paella into jambalaya.
They filled the French Quarter, the city’s oldest neighborhood, with homes decorated with ornate wrought-iron balconies and courtyards, more akin to homes in Havana and Sevilla than anything found in the U.S., Bingler said. “Almost every art form in New Orleans is connected to an earlier era,” he said.
Into the 20th and 21st centuries, New Orleans struggled through waves of economic depression, blistering storms and a steady brain drain of its educated class. Hurricane Katrina infused billions of dollars into the economy and led to significant flood protection and public school improvements.
Still, the economy appears stalled, job growth is slowing, and the poverty rate still lingers around 24% — nearly double the U.S. average, according to the Brookings Institution. Murders and violent crime also remain challenges.
None of that seemed to matter to Benny Jones Sr., leader of the Treme Brass Band, on a recent Tuesday night as he readied his musicians for a gig at d.b.a.’s on Frenchmen Street. Jones, 74, has been playing traditional New Orleans music in his Sixth Ward neighborhood since before he was a teenager.
Jones said he never thought he’d live to see the city’s 300th birthday. But now that it’s here, he plans to praise it right.
“It’s going to be a party,” he said. “And it’s going to be big.”
Mardi Gras 2018, with its blaze of color and custom, kicks off a tricentennial jambalaya of exhibitions, parades and parties.
Musicians entertain on Frenchmen Street, above; residents escape rising waters after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.
Visitors gather in Washington Artillery Park to take pictures of New Orleans’ 300th birthday logo.