Black in Back

Mardi Gras and the racial geography of New Orleans.

New Orleans Jackson Square
Jackson Square, New Orleans, ca. 1900. [Courtesy of the Library of Congress]

I never could find out exactly where New Orleans is. I have looked for it on the map without much enlightenment.
— Charles Dudley Warner, co-author (with Mark Twain) of The Gilded Age

The two preceding installments in this series on New Orleans looked at building typologies — those of the single-family residence and the corner store — seeking ways that these types might more richly inform the rebuilding of the Crescent City. In honor of Mardi Gras, this third installment switches to the larger scale of the city as a whole, to provide an excuse for talking about parades.

Or perhaps the parades are an excuse for talking about the peculiar fronted- and backed-ness (to be distinguished from backwardness) of New Orleans, a pattern of circumstance that, not surprisingly, bears on the city’s racial demography. In any case, before we get to the parades proper, the reader will have to wade through a bit of geographical history. A lot of people have waded through that history — and that geography — before us.

Approaching Jackson Square

Cities, being by-and-large large, rarely have well-defined fronts. Chicago has one, facing Lake Michigan. To my mind, the clearest front of Manhattan is the wall of buildings surrounding Central Park — an appropriately inward-facing front.

New Orleans, however, has a decided front, the Mississippi River face of Jackson Square, the former Place d’Armes, with St. Louis Cathedral flanked by the Cabildo and the Presbytere and the square itself embraced by the counterpoised arms of the Pontalba Apartments. It is a picture postcard front, not only because it appears ubiquitously on picture postcards, but also because, other than on postcards, one rarely encounters it head-on. The only conveyances that regularly arrive on Decatur Street at the front of the square are the mule-drawn carriages that offer languorous tours of the Vieux Carrè, the present-day French Quarter.

New Orleans Jackson Square
The Mississippi River face of the French Quarter, with St. Louis Cathedral flanked by the Cabildo and the Presbytere. [All drawings by the author, with color by Ceara O’Leary.]

Pretty much everyone else approaches Jackson Square from Canal Street, where the St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street streetcars run, along with many of the city’s bus lines; and along and beyond which are most of the city’s major hotels. From the streetcar stop, you walk downriver along Chartres (char’-turs) Street through the Quarter, arriving at the Square sidewise. Still, you have that postcard view in your mind as you sidle up to the Cathedral along the face of the Cabildo, even if it’s your first time there.

Urban experience is always made up of such combinations of memory, anticipation and immediate experience. The novelist, literary critic and keen observer of cities William H. Gass has written about what he calls “recursive” experience. He offers an example in the opening passage of Garden, Ashes, a novel by Danilo Kis: “Late in the morning on summer days, my mother would come into the room softly, carrying that tray of hers.” Gass suggests the recursive nature of reading in his approximation of this sentence as we might actually experience it as readers — which is to say, as it echoes its way through our consciousness:

Late in the morning, late in the morning on summer days, my mother, late in the morning on summer days, would come into the room softly, late in the morning on summer days, my mother would be carrying that tray of hers, late in the morning on summer days, when my mother would come into the room, softly, with that tray. 1

Equally recursive is any “reading” of the city, with its doubling back of memory and recognition, of increments of expectation, provisional arrival, projection. Such is the case on Chartres Street, where the symmetry of the Cathedral façade, obliquely viewed and opening onto light, suggests the presence of the square before the square itself is seen, and lures the pedestrian with a foretaste of movement onto that axis. (In architecture, movement is implied by fixed forms — indeed, by the most fixed forms: axial, symmetrical forms. The more fixed the referent, the surer our sense of movement, actual or imagined.) The memory and anticipation of the front of the Cathedral accompany the walker in an interplay between the city seen and the city imagined.

New Orleans Jackson Square
How we approach Jackson Square, and how we imagine we approach it.

The Front Door and the Back

Even in the early days of New Orleans, the frontal approach to Jackson Square from the river was hardly the grand entrance to the city that we might imagine. The reason is simple, if surprising: from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River was remarkably hard to find.

The French first reached the mouth of the Mississippi in 1682, when Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, led an expedition downriver from Quebec. I always imagined explorers coming the other way, struggling upriver against the current, the natural levee at what is now Jackson Square rising up before them as they push up the straight reach of river below Algiers Point. (This comes, perhaps, from looking always at maps with north at the top, as the lower edge of any drawing is always the front of the drawing in our mind’s eye.) La Salle, however, was heading downstream, and he saw the site of the future Vieux Carrè over his left shoulder, en passant, if he saw it at all.

In any case, he never saw it again. Returning by way of the Gulf of Mexico a few years later, La Salle failed to find the entrance to the river altogether, instead wandering up a bayou cul de sac near Matagorda, Texas. His crew, exasperated, mutinied and murdered him.

That was the first French attempt to find the front door to New Orleans. They eventually found the river’s mouth, but it remained an inconvenient entrance. The single, 200-foot deep channel that passes through New Orleans broke apart as it emptied into the gulf into many, shallow channels; rapidly shifting sandbars made navigation treacherous and variable. As a front door, it resembled the cartoon mouse hole that Jerry pulls aside just as Tom slams into it.

In 1699 the Choctaw Indians, to their later regret, showed the brothers Pierre and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne the smart way into the river. Sailing along the coast from the east, a boat could enter Lake Borgne through Chandeleur Sound, south of the present-day town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and then reach Lake Pontchartrain at today’s Old Highway 90 Bridge. From Lake Pontchartrain, a boat could come up the four-mile length of Bayou St. John to within two miles of the banks of the Mississippi. This was the old Choctaw portage: easier and safer to carry goods and boats these two miles than to enter the river’s mouth.

Not only was the Bayou St. John route easier to navigate, it was also considerably faster. Coastwise from Pensacola, it was a 125-mile, two-day trip. The same trip across the open gulf and up the Mississippi was 200 miles and might take up to 30 days, depending on the position and condition of the river’s mouth. If you had a boat with a deep draft (I suppose you’d call that a ship), that’s what you had to do; shallower craft went in by the lake.

Carondelet Canal
Left: Boats entered Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf and traveled up the Bayou St. John to the old Choctaw portage. Right: Later, the Carondelet Canal linked Bayou St. John to the French Quarter at Congo Square.

In 1792 the Spanish (who governed the city from 1763 to 1803) made the Choctaw portage even easier, digging Carondelet Canal from the upper reach of Bayou St. John to what we now think of as the back side of the French Quarter. The canal ended in a turning basin at roughly the intersection of St Peter and Basin Streets, just outside the city’s ramparts and eight blocks from the Mississippi.

We might be inclined to refer to this route as the “back door” to the city, having grown accustomed to the image of Jackson Square as a “front door” facing a fully navigable river. In fact, however, Bayou St. John was the main entrance for colonists and visitors — who came not from inland North America, which was then the wilderness, but from overseas — from the city’s founding in 1718 until the completion of the Eads Jetties at South Pass stabilized the mouth of the Mississippi in 1879. 2

So while Jackson Square’s placement made compositional sense — facing the river’s edge, the only clear, formal element of the site — for its first 150 years, most of us approached New Orleans from the other side.

Centers of Gravity

Among the people who came to New Orleans by the Bayou St. John route were slaves who, before the canal was built, were a convenient sort of cargo because they could walk the last two miles. The portage wound through undeveloped swamp to the rear edge of the city at what is now the corner of Rampart and Governor Nicholls Streets. Later, when Carondelet Canal was completed, the slaves’ first footfall in North America was a field adjacent to the turning basin — a field that has been variously called Circus Public Square, Place des Negres, and (immediately after the Civil War) Beauregard Square. It is now known as Congo Square. This was the threshold between the wilderness and the European town, and it was New Orleans’s back door sill. It would not be the last time that these individuals would be admitted “‘round back.”

The two squares — Jackson and Congo — marked the formal front entrance and the utilitarian back entrance to the old city. Orleans Street, perpendicular to the river, connects the two, or almost: it runs four blocks from Congo Square up to the rear garden of St Louis Cathedral. To continue on to Jackson Square, you must slip around the Cathedral on either Pirate Alley or Pere Antoine Alley, now charming passages that nonetheless underscore that you’re making your way around front.

The two squares also marked the centers of gravity — geographic and symbolic — of the city’s white and black populations. These centers then extended into gravitational lines parallel to the river, as the city, constrained by the swamps, grew like a snake upriver and downriver from the Quarter. These lines, even today, retain qualities of front and back.

New Orleans in 1798 and 1880. [Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, UT-Austin]

To trace the history of this extension of front and back, now seen most vividly in two of the principal Mardi Gras parades, we must learn a little more about the early days of Congo Square. (Be patient, as parade-goers must: the parades are coming!) In French and Spanish New Orleans, slaves had more freedom of movement than they did upcountry. This relative freedom was partly a function of the tasks that city slaves performed — running errands, for example, rather than hoeing cotton fields. And it was partly due to the fact that New Orleans was surrounded by water — river, lake or swamp — and running away was difficult. But it was also the product of a far more complex set of social relationships than those that prevailed on the plantation.

For example, in a well-established practice known as plaçage, aristocratic men regularly maintained mixed-race mistresses. The accepted arrangement required, among other things, that a man give his mistress the deed to a house he bought for her. The neighborhood that grew up around Congo Square thus became the first in North America composed of free African-American homeowners. It is now the Treme of HBO fame, the city’s Creole African-American heart, home to brass bands and, before the storm, the city’s greatest concentration of skilled building tradespeople.

In another sign of the relative freedom of New Orleans’s African population, Congo Square itself was given over to slaves and free people of color on Sundays for dances — most famously the Bamboula, Calinda and Congo (whence the square’s name) — and other revelry. The choice of the square, at the back of town and outside the old city proper, made practical sense to the Europeans in charge. But it also made symbolic sense to the Africans: it was, for many, the North American soil nearest their homeland, the near shore of that fearful passage.

And Now: The Parades

From the original six- by twelve-block city, which came to be known administratively as the First Municipality, New Orleans grew in similarly sized chunks upriver and down, as large landowners subdivided their riverfront plantations for development. The Second Municipality, immediately upriver of the original settlement, became the Anglo or “American Sector,” in contradistinction to the Creole French Quarter. It is now the city’s Central Business District.

In 1835 the Americans opened their own canal from Lake Pontchartrain, the New Basin Canal, just as they built their own city hall, grand hotel and civic square in vigorous competition with their Creole fellow-citizens down in the Vieux Carrè. (The competition from time to time became so vigorous that shots were fired across the border at Canal Street, and the median came to be referred to as the “neutral ground,” which is what all medians are now called in New Orleans.)

The New Basin Canal now lies buried beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway as it approaches the Superdome, but it still shapes the white- and black-sidedness of New Orleans in the parallel mythologies of the Rex Organization and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, two of the most prominent of the city’s more than 50 Mardi Gras social clubs, or krewes. 3

Top: Zulu Riders, 2009. [Photo courtesy of The Soul of New Orleans] Bottom left: The New Basin Canal and the Carondelet Canal linked Lake Pontchartrain with the American Sector and French Quarter, respectively. Bottom right: The imaginary voyages of the Rex and Zulu kings.

The Rex Organization held its first Mardi Gras parade, representing New Orleans’s white social elite, in 1872, and Rex soon came to be considered the King of Carnival, just as the Rex colors — purple, green and gold — have become the colors of Carnival. By tradition Rex arrived at the foot of Canal Street by a yacht up the Mississippi River on the day before Mardi Gras. He traveled there from his distant kingdom on Mount Olympus, bringing his court to New Orleans for the season.

Mardi Gras’s preeminent African-American krewe, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, began its parade in 1909. The King of Zulu was an explicit parody of Rex, with a lard can for a crown and a scepter made of a banana stalk. (And — get this — blackface.) He arrived by boat, as well, albeit barge, not yacht, and not at the river but on the other side, at the landing of the New Basin Canal. The inference is clear: this is the way you get to New Orleans from Africa, Zulu’s distant kingdom; as the Federal Writers’ Project’s New Orleans City Guide puts it, “presumably from the sweltering black land.” Thus the two kings colored the river approach to New Orleans “white” and the lake approach “black.” White is front and black is back.

The canals no longer exist, and neither Rex nor Zulu arrives by boat. New Orleans has been drained and developed all the way to Lake Pontchartrain itself from the old back edge that the canal landings once marked. But that old back edge, which was also the old black edge of what was not otherwise a geographically segregated city, can still be traced. The route of the Freret Street bus, the “Fre’t Jet,” follows it uptown, or upriver from the French Quarter — as does, roughly the route of the Zulu parade. (The Rex parade hews mainly to St. Charles Avenue, that other inward-turning front of grand houses.) Marais Street — “marsh“ or “swamp“ in French — follows it downriver from Canal Street, running parallel to the Mississippi, marking the former limit of solid ground.

The white- and black-sidedness of New Orleans has shifted in the last fifty years, after school integration sent the white folks flying to the suburbs, and again after Hurricane Katrina, but the front- and back-sidedness remains. Marais Street marks, as well, the back of the Third Municipality (the Faubourg Marigny), and, further downriver, the Bywater neighborhood, which is the section of the Lower Ninth Ward nearest the river. It should not have surprised anyone that the part of the Lower Ninth Ward that was leveled by the Katrina floods extends swamp-ward from “Swamp” Street.

Editors' Note

This is the third installment in a series of articles by Tim Culvahouse about the built environment of New Orleans. See also “Stoop, Balcony, Pilot House” and “The New Orleans Corner Store.”

  1. William Gass, Habitations of the Word, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, p. 81.
  2. Significant commerce on the Mississippi began only in the 1830s. In 1814, following Robert Fulton’s commercialization of the steamboat, only 20 such vessels arrived in New Orleans; in 1834 more than 1,200 did. Before that the usual way for upcountry traders to transport goods to the city was to build a log raft, load it up with their stuff, float it to New Orleans, sell the stuff, disassemble the raft, sell the logs and walk back. The current was too hard to fight.
  3. Interestingly, at least for readers of Places Journal, the official name of the Rex Organization is “The School of Design.”
Tim Culvahouse, “Black in Back,” Places Journal, March 2011. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Jane Gilman

    03.23.2011 at 14:12

    Wish I had read this essay before my visit to New Oleans last week.helped to fill in some of the blanks Thanks

  • David Lester

    03.29.2011 at 00:47

    This article frames a great deal of the history and geography of my native city in a remarkably fresh way. One not-so-minor detail (at least in a city where quirky traditons matter): There is no "King of Rex." He is simply Rex, King of Carnival.

  • Tim Culvahouse

    03.29.2011 at 15:05

    Thank you, Mr. Lester, for the correction. I knew better, but was careless. And the quirky traditions are essential.