Nathan had lived in New Orleans for 5 years and had worked for the National Park Service for 3 ½. A degreed historian, Nathan was leading a tour of the French Quarter at 10 am. Ruth and I had been wandering aimlessly around the French Quarter for 2 hours and saw tourists going in and out of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park at 916 North Peters Street. We entered, looked around, and learned that rangers gave 2 kinds of walking tours. One was jazz oriented. The other focused on New Orleans’ history. Luckily, Nathan’s history tour was leaving in 10 minutes. We signed on.
During 10 minutes I learned that this facility hosted performances most days either here or at the Old U.S. Mint. It was Saturday, February 21. A ranger gave me the week’s performance schedule. Jazz yoga was starting at the same time as our tour. At noon Peter Nu was playing the piano for an hour. At 1:30 a celebration of Cajun culture at The Mint would include singing, readings, dancers in period costumes, etc. The Mint was in the most southeasterly block of The French Quarter. The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park also provided a self-guided walking tour map that included Louis Armstrong Park, Preservation Hall, and the J&M Recording Studio. Its official and fascinating brochure contained a jazz chronology. In the brochure I learned that in 1900 New Orleans was The South’s largest city.
Nathan began his walking tour by focusing on New Orleans as a population center that shouldn’t be where it is. This is true of many. Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco come to mind. But New Orleans, a flood-prone city built on sand and sinking 3+ inches every 100 years, is a special case. Obviously loving New Orleans, Nathan mentioned the constant effort required “to live in a place like this” where controlling the Mississippi River solves one problem but creates another. There was a catastrophic flood in 1927 and, of course, Katrina. I was having a hard time picturing Nathan in Mardi Gras attire.
We headed for the Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street, and Nathan switched to history. He wanted us to see the convent because it’s the only French building in the French Quarter. When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, it was part of Virginia. After a hurricane in the 1720s, streets were laid out and involuntary petty criminals arrived from France as did voluntary Germans. Floods happened. Fires occurred. Yellow fever raged. Cajuns arrived from Canada. Pirates like Jean Lafitte visited. The Irish arrived. A well-earned reputation for sin and diversity did too. In 1763 a lot of local Brits moved to La Pensacola and the Spanish took control of New Orleans for 40 years. Soon only the Ursuline convent building remained from the French years. So today the architecture of the French Quarter is actually Spanish. The increasingly colorful city thrived under the Spanish. Cotton and sugar brought prosperity. A unique type of slavery evolved, and 1 of 3 residents had African roots. In 1801, just before the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was the largest slave market in the United States.
Nathan ended his excellent presentation in crowded Jackson Square where we had a fine view of St Louis Cathedral. After the crowd dispersed, he told Ruth and me that, given his choice, he would stay in New Orleans indefinitely, but that realistically he had to move on to have a career. He was now 30-years-old. Good luck, Nathan.