Melting Pot In The Bayous

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From the middle of the nineteenth century onward, great immigration waves from Ireland, Italy, and Germany began to inundate both the city and the state. The Irish worked as unskilled laborers, thereby competing with the Negroes, whom they despised; in New Orleans they settled at some distance from Canal Street in an area that is still known as the Irish Channel. The Italians, like those in other American cities, came mostly from Calabria and Sicily, and the language which they developed among themselves, a mixture of the dialects of those regions with English, is almost unrecognizable to a native of northern or central Italy. Vegetable farming was their specialty, and they scattered all over the southern part of the state, concentrating in the suburbs around New Orleans. In time the French Market came to look more Italian than French, and most of the produce dealers there today are of Sicilian descent. As for the Germans, their number in New Orleans was large enough in the 1850’s to justify the publication of a daily newspaper, the Täglische Deutsche Zeitung .

Between 1835 and 1840, in the heyday of the steamboat, New Orleans was the fourth largest city in the United States; her exports exceeded New York’s, and Lloyd’s of London predicted that she would become the greatest port in the world. She was the most colorful city in America: at the busy wharves you could hear the chant of Negro slaves mingled with the hum of a dozen different languages, while the streets resounded with the cries of hawkers; stolid Indian squaws squatted in the French Market selling sassafras root; saloons, gambling halls, and bordellos enticed the prodigal and the profligate: steamboats raced each other on the Mississippi; cock fights were going on all over town; the St. Charles Theatre and the Théâtre d’Orléans played every evening to packed houses; the Quadroon Balls in the magnificent Salle d’Orléans were scandalizing the Creole ladies; Negro slaves, some of them straight from the African interior, danced the bamboula and the colinda on Sunday nights in Congo Square; mulatresses with brilliant turbans sold gris-gris and love potions; professional gamblers with Howered waistcoats and enormous diamond rings strolled with women of easy virtue as gaudily dressed as themselves and chatted with steamboat captains.

All that is gone now. Lloyd’s reckoned without the Civil War, and also without the Erie Canal, whose opening in 1825 enabled farmers from the states beyond the Appalachians to ship their produce east to New York. By 1850, New Orleans had lost her lead in exports, even cotton exports, to New York. When Louisiana seceded in 1861, New Orleans was still the fourth city of the nation, but after the War, in spite of continuing immigration from Europe, her population could not keep step with that of other large American cities. The present century, however, has seen much commercial expansion and the development of important new industries, such as oil: offshore drilling, by the most advanced techniques, is now one of the most familiar sights along the Louisiana coast line. In the last few years, which have witnessed the levelling effects of mass production and of vastly increased communication and transportation facilities, Louisiana has begun to lose many of the characteristics that distinguish it from other places in the Deep South.

Many, but not all. In spite of the bewildering number of influences to which it has been subjected, southern Louisiana still has an essentially Latin heritage, and in many respects New Orleans resembles Havana or Quebec more than it does Dallas or Omaha. The architecture of the French Quarter, thanks to the efforts of the Vieux Carré Commission which protects it, is unique in the United States, and the interest in good food properly seasoned (in no other American city will you find so sophisticated a popular palate) is undoubtedly Gallic. The characteristic dishes, too, are of Mediterranean origin modified by Indian, Spanish, and African influences and by regional factors. Thus, Creole gumbo is a type of bouillabaisse which substitutes oysters, crabs, and shrimp for mussels, clams, and langoustes —and, of course, adds okra.

But it is in the people themselves that we see the greatest difference, for Louisianians, by virtue of their complicated background, are not like other Americans. Their language, especially in the southern part of the state, retains many French patterns, like the use of the objective pronoun at the beginning of a speech in the first person (“Me, I don’t like that”) and the use of an affirmative or a negative at the end of a sentence for emphasis (“That wind is cold, yes”; “He didn’t do that right, no”). And people still, though with far less frequency, make birthdays rather than have them (“He made fifteen yesterday”).

Character differences are equally obvious. Southern Louisianians are a hedonistic lot: they believe a man is a fool if he does not take the most pleasure from life of which he is capable, and their ideas of pleasure are simple and earthy. More value is placed upon charm than upon intellectual ability. New Orleans particularly is a good-time town, whose perennial spirit is perfectly symbolized in the Mardi Gras, the pre-Lenten period of balls, parades, and riotous street masking culminating on Shrove Tuesday.