Were the neutral ground and sidewalks of Canal Street downtown "paved with Marble with deep pink borders" in the mid-20th century? See the enclosed photocopy, front and back, of a postcard of Canal Street postmarked in 1949 which I bought in an antique shop in Pawhuska, Okla., last summer while prowling for New Orleans memorabilia with my sister.
M. JANE JENSEN
Dear M. Jane
Thanks for the beautiful picture of Canal Street by night. What memories it brings back. The tallest structure is the Hibernia Bank Building! The post card declares that "New Orleans is America's most interesting city." This is accurate, of course, but there are a few mistakes in the description.
In the early months of 1930, the Canal Street Association met and began a beautification project. Among the improvements on parts of Canal Street included new sidewalks and neutral ground that were finished with terrazzo paving lined with pink borders. Now, while sometimes terrazzo may resemble marble, it is actually made up of marble or stone chips set in mortar and polished when dry. Many people think "marble" when they are actually seeing terrazzo, and it's certainly more romantic to write on a postcard advertising an interesting city.
Another error in the description involves the name of the street. Your postcard says that Canal Street was named "from the waterway, since filled in, intended to connect the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain." In reality, Canal Street was named after a canal that was never dug, even though it was designated by an Act of Congress.
On March 3, 1807, an act was passed which read in part that "the Commons adjacent to the said city and within 600 yards from the fortifications of the same are hereby recognized and confirmed ... " The act that made the commons a part of New Orleans also provided that "the city shall convey gratuitously for the public benefit ... as much of the said commons as shall be necessary to continue the Canal of Carondelet from the present basin to the Mississippi, and shall not dispose of, for the purpose of building thereon, any lot within 60 feet of the space reserved for a canal, which shall forever remain open as a public highway ... "
When Carondelet was Spanish governor, he had a canal dug in the 1790s that connected the city with Bayou St. John. The new plan was to dig a canal from the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal, back of Rampart at St. Louis Street. In 1805, Congress chartered the Orleans Navigation company to dig a 51-foot canal between the American and French sections. About 40 years later, the plan was abandoned, the company became insolvent, but Canal Street, as it became known, was still legally entitled to remain a street 171 feet wide.
During the wait for the canal to be built, New Orleanians on both sides began calling the median strip between the two 60-foot roadways the "neutral ground," the land that separated the hostile French in the Vieux Carre from the rapidly growing population of Americans in the Faubourg St. Mary. Since that time, the center of every two-lane street in town has been called the "neutral ground," a term used in no other American city. Now that's interesting!
The postcard is accurate when it states that Canal Street is "America's widest business thoroughfare." We know this to be true because in September 1949, Mrs. Beatrice Sturkey was sent to New Orleans by Mayor W. D. Jennings of Augusta, Ga., to measure Canal Street. Representing the Augusta Chamber of Commerce, Mrs. Sturkey appeared at City Hall and was given the keys to the city and a scroll of honorary citizenship by Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison. The next morning, despite heavy traffic, Mrs. Sturkey personally paced off Canal Street and found it just inches wider than Augusta's main street, which is 170 feet and 2 inches. A disappointed Mrs. S. announced that Canal Street was found to be exactly 171 feet wide, thereby remaining the widest main drag in the United States.