My dad, who has forgotten more people than I'll ever know, told me once about meeting a lady in New York and asking where she was from. 'The French Quarter,' she replied.
We in New Orleans really identify with our neighborhoods. To many of us, even though the city is really a big mishmash of people and circumstances and backgrounds and belief systems, our neighborhood is 'our' section of the city, our extended tribe in a landscape of many. We share similarities with our fellow tribesmen and provide for each other's needs. This is why you get those luxe maternity shops Uptown, or a Bob Marley-inspired mural presiding over a Bywater barbecue joint, or the veterinary clinic in Faubourg Marigny with the rainbow logo.
Maps of New Orleans split the city into 'neighborhoods' in a pretty straightforward way -- there's 'Carrollton' all pointy and sailboat-ish and 'Lower Garden District' like a squashed fortune cookie, and it seems like any other map. But it's not, because it's a New Orleans map, and like many other attempts to define New Orleans, it's not quite right about everything. Because look on another map, and the Carrollton neighborhood is more smokestack than sailboat, and this other Lower Garden District looks like a suffering origami crane.
Now if you really want to rile up the academics, ask two city historians which map is correct. Then, step back and watch the cartographic smackdown that ensues. Some neighborhood boundaries never come into question; it's the more subtle dividing lines that trip people up. At what exact point does Uptown fade into Gert Town? Which pockmarked streets separate Central City from the CBD? Is a house in the 'Holy Cross neighborhood' going to cost more than one in the 'Ninth Ward'?
That's the trouble with trying to organize a city like New Orleans: it won't let you. One guy will tell you his home is in the Sevent' Ward while the lady next door to him says she lives in Esplanade Ridge. They're both right, and they're both fully at home.
Richard Campanella is a geographer and mapping scientist at Tulane's Center for Bioenvironmental Research; at night, he researches the historical geography of New Orleans, an interest that's led to two published books and a third due out next year. He says New Orleans has always been a lot less organized, in terms of neighborhoods, than guidebooks would make it seem. 'The neighborhoods we know today emerged in the 1970s,' he says. 'Before that, neighborhoods were generally perceived with softer, fuzzier boundaries and (were) referred to in a number of ways.'
Campanella says the hideously painstaking research he's doing indicates that, contrary to popular legend, Canal Street didn't completely separate the lower French part of the city from the upper American section, creating the city's 'neutral ground' where the two populations would mix.
'You hear Canal Street described as a hard dividing line between the Creole and the Anglo populations, but actually the two ethnic groups formed a blurry pattern,' Campanella says. 'There was quite a lot of intermingling. In the lower city, those of probable Creole ethnicity outnumbered the Anglos about 3 to 1, and in the upper city the reverse was true.'
After the American influx came the Irish and Germans, who moved to the cheaper housing on the outskirts of town where slaughterhouses and wharves and warehouses were hiring unskilled laborers in droves. In Campanella's most recent book, Geographies of New Orleans, he describes their settlement patterns as a 'Milky Way galaxy of greater and lesser concentrations, with no intense clusters and no complete absences.' New immigrant groups -- Sicilian, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Slavic, Greek -- tended to settle in clusters immediately surrounding the CBD and upper French Quarter.
Some neighborhoods were primarily devoted to one nationality or another: 'Little Palermo in the lower French Quarter, and Chinatown in the 1100 block of Tulane, and the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Dryades Street,' Campanella says. But, more often than not, wherever you lived there'd be some weird foreign smells emanating from a neighbor's kitchen. (And they'd be saying the same about yours.) That's why today we have a lovely Vietnamese church just a few blocks over from the Norwegian Seaman's church, and they're both in the Irish Channel.
So New Orleans stayed comfortably loose like that until the mid-1970s, when preservationists became alarmed at how hideous 'progress' was turning the face of the city. (Two words that sum up this era: Canal streetcar.) 'By the 1970s, there was a new appreciation of what was rapidly being lost,' Campanella says. 'Neighborhood activists and preservationists were gaining support.'
At that time, the architectural firm of Curtis and Davis -- perhaps trying to atone for inflicting the eyesore that is City Hall upon us all -- conducted the landmark 'New Orleans Housing and Neighborhood Preservation Study,' which officially divided up the city into neighborhoods. 'This was the first effort to draw clear lines around neighborhoods for the whole city,' Campanella says, 'giving them official names and tabulating their demographic statistics.'
That was also around the time the word 'faubourg' came back into vogue in New Orleans, much to the relief of real-estate agents everywhere who knew you can sell a house in the 'Faubourg Bouligny' more quickly than you can in the 'Thirteenth Ward.' Naturally came the desire (or the need?) to characterize each neighborhood. On the Preservation Resource Center's neighborhood map, they 'are delineated in clear, absolute ways, and their characteristics are described on the reverse side. That gets everyone looking at the city in the same way,' Campanella says. 'But really, New Orleanians all perceive place and delineate regions differently, depending on their age, nativity to the city, economic class, race and other factors.'
It's also why New Orleanians who tend to be fanatical about their neighborhood can sometimes find, to their surprise, that they can also fit quite well into another. I remember a friend telling me she couldn't imagine living anywhere but Uptown. That was before she lived in Bayou St. John, and now she can't imagine moving back. (Her house was actually listed in Esplanade Ridge, but she says it's Bayou St. John, and I thought it was Mid-City. More than one of us, even all three, might be correct.)
New Orleans now is experiencing a resurgence of 'what's old is new again,' which is why we paid a bunch of money to see the Canal streetcar again chugging toward City Park and why people are choosing to rebuild old houses from the foundation up rather than bulldoze. 'Fortunately, now, we're in a more preservationist mode,' says local historian and TV producer Peggy Scott Laborde. 'There's just something about living in an old neighborhood. Every house is a little different, and yet fits into the block.'
It's actually a sign of pride in one's neighborhood, then, that continues this trend of defining and renaming. Don't make the mistake of saying someone lives in Algiers when he lives in Algiers Point, unless you want to be treated to a soliloquy on the difference between the two. And it wasn't too long ago that Bayou St. John peeled away from Mid-City (which itself peeled away from 'Back 'o' Town') to form its own identity.
As a reporter, I've had the (cough) pleasure of seeing several City Council meetings where zoning issues were debated with almost cultlike zeal. This is a place where two people who live on the same block can step up to the podium and passionately describe what their neighborhood 'is' and 'is not' -- and their perceptions can differ as profoundly as night and day.
We get emotional about our neighborhoods simply because what we consider 'home' doesn't end at the sidewalk in front of our house. Our homes extend beyond that, to boundaries that remain vague and undistinguished except to us -- to the antique shop around the corner that gives discounts to familiar faces, to the playground a few blocks over where your kid stops every day after school, to the lady whose run-down house is sandwiched between two swank Victorians, and who feeds every cat in the neighborhood, including yours. Maybe the cat lady is technically in another 'neighborhood,' according to whatever map you may be holding, but the truth is, wherever she may be, she's in your neighborhood.
Which, when it comes down to it, is all that really matters.
Staff writer Eileen Loh Harrist lives either in the Irish Channel or the Garden District, depending on whom you ask.