In a recent conversation with some local friends, we started talking about the term "neutral ground" and its general meaning as well as its origin. As I understand it, the term came from the actual ground in between the streets that separated the many different ethnic backgrounds of the city, and no one could claim it as their own. I'm not sure of the specific groups that were divided, but it was a neutral site for the sides to convene. What I wanted to find out is if you can not only clarify my explanation but also divulge if there is an actual "rst neutral ground" and where is its exact location.
Isn't it wonderful that locals enjoy talking about our city and some of the unusual aspects of it? However, your explanation is not exactly correct, but close.
The term "neutral ground," referring to the median strip between every two-lane street in town, is used in no other city in America. And the "first neutral ground" is the widest one of all -- on Canal Street.
The neutral ground on Canal Street was created in the first half of the 19th century. Canal Street and its neutral ground was the result of 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 fortification of the same are hereby recognized and confirmed." This 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 to a canal, which shall forever remain open as a public highway."
Three years later there was a plan to dig a canal 50 feet wide with 60-foot roadways on either side. The canal would connect the Mississippi River with the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal at the back of Rampart Street at St. Louis Street, which led to Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain. This ambitious plan was to be carried out by the Orleans Navigation Company chartered by Congress.
The company produced maps showing the proposed canal of 51 feet, and folks started calling the roadways on either side "Canal Street." Also, they began using the term "neutral ground" to refer to the site of the expected canal as it was the neutral territory that separated the French in the Vieux Carré from the Americans in the Faubourg St. Mary.
The canal never materialized because the company went broke. By 1852, the land was turned over to the city, and Canal Street, with its very wide neutral ground, remained 171 feet wide -- a very wide street indeed. And since that time, we have "neutral grounds" while everyone else has medians.
I am buying a house in the 5600 block of Milne. The house is 100 years old. How do I go about gathering information about the history of the house? The owner knows very little.
There are several ways to discover the history of your house. First, you can go to the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library at 219 Loyola Ave. There you will find a useful and well-written work titled How To Research the History of Your House (or Other Building) in New Orleans. It was written by Wayne Everard, archivist for the Louisiana Division. If you go, you might even meet Wayne himself, who will be happy to assist you. However, the same guide can be accessed online through the library's Web site: http://nutrias.org/~nopl/guides/house/title.htm.
Another fine source of information is the Research Center of the New Orleans Notarial Archives located at 1340 Poydras St., Suite 360, just across from the main office of the Notarial Archives. It, too, has a Web site, www.notarialarchives.org, and many knowledgeable people to help you in your search.