Through it all, it lets the good times roll

The Arizona Republic - - Usa Today - Rick Jervis

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.

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