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Summary Article: New Orleans
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(ôr'lēӘnz –lӘnz, ôrlēnz'), city (2006 pop. 187,525), coextensive with Orleans parish, SE La., between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, 107 mi (172 km) by water from the river mouth; founded 1718 by the sieur de Bienville, inc. 1805. It was built within a great bend of the Mississippi (and is therefore called the Crescent City) on subtropical lowlands, now protected from flooding by levees. The river is crossed there by the Algiers Bridge (completed 1991), the Huey P. Long Bridge (completed 1935), and the Greater New Orleans Bridge (completed 1958), which is one of the largest cantilever bridges in the country. Lake Pontchartrain is spanned by a 24-mi (39-km) double causeway (opened 1957).


The largest city in Louisiana and one of the largest in the South, New Orleans is a major U.S. port of entry. It has long been one of the busiest and most efficient international ports in the country. Coffee, sugar, and bananas are among its imports; exports include oil, petrochemicals, rice, cotton, and corn. Coastal traffic is heavy (the city is at the junction of the Intracoastal Waterway with the Mississippi River), and New Orleans is a major rail, highway, air, and river hub. It has an international airport. Its fine port helped make the New Orleans area one of the leading industrial centers in the South, although most of the larger industries were developed relatively recently. Food processing is a major enterprise. The region has shipbuilding and repair yards as well as factories manufacturing a wide variety of goods, including wood, paper, and metal products; foods and beverages; building stone; medical and building equipment; comunication systems; apparel; and aircraft parts. There is also printing and publishing. Many oil and chemical plants are located along the Mississippi River west of New Orleans.

Points of Interest

The picturesque French quarter (Vieux Carré) of the old city, north of broad Canal St., is a major tourist attraction. In the heart of the quarter is Jackson Square (the former Place d'Armes); fronting upon the square are the Cabildo (1795; formerly the government building, it now houses part of the Louisiana state museum); St. Louis Cathedral (1794); and other 18th- and 19th-century structures. Several world-famous restaurants, specializing in shrimp, oysters, and fish from nearby waters, uphold the New Orleans tradition of good living, and the annual Mardi Gras is perhaps the best-known festival in the United States.

Also adding to the color of the city are the many parks (including an aquarium), museums (including a voodoo museum, the National D-day Museum, and the New Orleans Museum of Art), and gardens; the Jazzland Theme Park is a few miles to the east. Chalmette, site of the 1815 battle of New Orleans, is to the east, and is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (see National Parks and Monuments, table). The Louisiana Superdome, home of the National Football League's New Orleans Saints, is also the site of the annual Sugar Bowl football game. The National Basketball Association's Pelicans also play in the city. New Orleans is also an educational center, the seat of Dillard Univ., Loyola Univ., Tulane Univ., the Univ. of New Orleans, the Louisiana State Univ. Health Sciences Center, Southern Univ. at New Orleans, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, and several theological seminaries.

Early Years to the Twentieth Century

Soon after the sieur de Bienville had the city platted in 1718 it became an important port, and in 1722 it became the capital of the French colony. The transfer of Louisiana to Spain by the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762) was confirmed by the Treaty of Paris (1763). New Orleans—deeply involved in the struggle for control of the Mississippi—was returned to French hands only briefly before passing to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase (1803). From 1809 to 1810 some 10,000 refugees from the slave revolt in St. Dominigue (later Haiti) who had previously fled to Cuba emigrated to New Orleans, doubling the population. The tone of the city's life was dominated by Creole culture until late in the 19th cent., and the French influence is still seen today.

After Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at New Orleans (Jan. 8, 1815) had written a postscript to the War of 1812, the westward movement in the United States carried the queen city of the Mississippi to almost fabulous heights as a port and market for cotton and slaves. New Orleans then was stamped with its lasting reputation for glamour, extravagant living, elegance, and wickedness. Then as now African Americans were a large element in the population, and they contributed to the cosmopolitan flavor of the city. The quadroon balls—sumptuous affairs attended by rich white men and their quadroon mistresses—disappeared with the Civil War, but African folkways and stories of voodoo magic persisted into the 20th cent.

The golden era ended when in the Civil War the city fell (1862) to Admiral David G. Farragut and suffered under the occupation by Union troops led by General Benjamin F. Butler. New Orleans recovered from Reconstruction and passed through the end of the river-steamboat era to emerge as a modern city. Its past, however, is perhaps a greater factor than the warm damp climate in attracting visitors and artists and writers. The unusual life and history of the city have produced its own literature, including the works of George W. Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, Grace Elizabeth King, Charles Gayarré, and Alcée Fortier. Jazz had its origin in the late 19th cent. among the black musicians of New Orleans.

Modern New Orleans

The first attempts to integrate New Orleans public schools aroused controversy in 1960. Since then blacks have come to comprise the large majority of students and teachers in the school system, as many whites have moved to the suburbs. In 1969 Hurricane Camille swept through the region, resulting in many deaths and much property damage. Since the 1960s the population of the metropolitan area has risen at a rate slightly higher than that at which the population of the city has declined, reflecting the trend toward suburbanization that has left the inner city troubled by poverty.

Attempts have been made at urban revitalization; in the 1970s many new buildings were erected as the city benefited from high oil prices. In the 1980s, however, the economy suffered as oil prices fell and the state's energy industry floundered. In 1983 New Orleans hosted a world's fair, but the attention it attracted and its economic contribution fell far below expectations. Gambling was legalized in 1992, but the introduction of riverboat and casino gambling proved unsuccessful and failed to provide the anticipated impetus to the city's economy.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought extensive flooding to the city when several levees failed. Much of the city was evacuated before the storm but thousands remained, many of whom were stranded by the water for days; hundreds died. In the aftermath, many residents could not return because their homes had been destroyed and established new lives elsewhere, greatly reducing the city's population. A 2006 survey showed that the population was approximately 40% of what it was estimated to have been before the storm. In the aftermath of the flooding, an improved system of levees and flood walls, flood gates, and pumps was constructed at a cost of $14.5 billion.

  • See Tinker, E. L. , Creole City (1953);.
  • Griffin, T. K. , New Orleans (rev. ed. 1964);.
  • Christovich, M. L. et al., comp., New Orleans Architecture (1971-72);.
  • Huber, L. V. , New Orleans: A Pictorial History (1971);.
  • Lewis, P. F. , New Orleans (1976);.
  • Nichols, J. K. , New Orleans (1989);.
  • Brinkley, D. , The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2006);.
  • Campanella, R. , Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (2008);.
  • Sublette, N. , The World That Made New Orleans (2008);.
  • Powell, L. N. , The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans (2012).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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