The French Quarter is the oldest area of the city but is more properly known as the Vieux Carre, because although founded by the French in 1718, it also reflects the art and architecture of the Spanish era. By the 1850s, the French Quarter had fallen into disrepair. It was saved by a woman with great resolve and great courage. The Baroness Michaela Pontalba, daughter of the Spanish official Almonaster, oversaw the construction of two apartment buildings flanking the main square. These apartments still stand and are the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. Baroness Pontalba's efforts worked and the French Quarter was revived.
The French Quarter again fell on hard times in the late nineteenth century. Many of its now elegant buildings had become little better than slums, home to the poorest immigrants. In the mid-twentieth century, historic preservationists successfully began the authentic restoration of this eighteenth-century “time capsule," a project that continues to this day.
The French Quarter is bounded by Rampart Street, Esplanade Avenue, Canal Street, and the Mississippi River. Although certain areas are well known to tourists, there are actually several distinct neighborhoods. The most well-known area is the entertainment section, with its famous restaurants, bars, and hotels. Dining venues range from the Lucky Dog vendor on Bourbon Street to the fine Creole dining of Arnaud’s or Galatoires. Music wafts from the Bourbon Street clubs, jazz institutions such as Preservation Hall, or the newcomer House of Blues, or just on any street corner on any given day. The many antique shops on Royal Street contain treasures. A stroll down Decatur Street culminates at the bustling Old French Market, where the Indians traded long before Bienville arrived. Off the beaten track, residential streets and old Creole cottages in the lower quarter contrast with the ongoing party that is Bourbon Street.
Sites to See Beyond Bourbon Street
The “Ladies in Red,” are the streetcars that traverse the streets along the banks of the Mississippi, on the edge of the Quarter. Beyond the floodwalls, which have recently saved this historic part of the city from catastrophic flooding, is Woldenberg Park. Constructed atop old wharves, Woldenberg Park provides a relaxing green space to watch the busy river. Tankers sail alongside cruise ships and paddle-wheeled steamboats. At this bend in the river, the reason we are called Crescent City becomes obvious. The sound effects of the Quarter are fascinating—the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez pounds out a happy tune, as a musician on the Moonwalk hails the foggy sunrise; and the vibrant singing of street performers all blend in, in surprising concert.
The heart of the Quarter is Jackson Square, flanked on its sides by the Pontalba Buildings and at its top, by the St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo (the seat of government for the French and Spanish), and Presbytere. At the edge of the upper quarter, Canal Street demonstrates the contrast between the Creole sector (Vieux Carre) and the American sector on the other side. Double signs indicate that the old French “Rues” end at Canal Street and the American streets begin on the other side. Rampart Street is the inner boundary of the Vieux Carre. This was the edge of the original city and the place where New Orleans buried the throngs of those lost to the yellow fever epidemics of the early years of the city. Although the city has expanded on all sides, its heart remains the French Quarter.