A Diverse Neighborhood that Feels like a Suburb within the City--Gentilly is one of the city's largest and most diverse neighborhoods. It is a historic neighborhood with a rich history dating back to the early days of the city's settlement with its own distinct vibe within New Orleans' city limits.
Its vast area roughly comprises the land between Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John, St. Roch, and the Industrial Canal. But many may argue that this land extends through the Fair Grounds area to Esplanade Avenue. Gentilly also breaks into sub-neighborhoods, including Gentilly Terrace, Gentilly Woods, Filmore, Milneburg, Lake Terrace-Oaks, St. Anthony, Dillard, and one of the first African American suburbs in the U.S., Pontchartrain Park. The primarily middle-class area is unique from the other neighborhoods in New Orleans. From its architecture to the modest amount of bars and restaurants, Gentilly is seemingly one of the most residential areas in the city, essentially operating as a suburb. Its spaciousness makes it an ideal location for locals who want more land, off-street parking, and sizable backyards. Being an ideal location is familiar to Gentilly. This neighborhood has a vast history of being prime real estate that dates back centuries.
Getting Chilly in Gentilly
The Earliest Settlers
While the land now known as Gentilly was initially inhabited by indigenous Native tribes, the area did not receive its name until the 18th century, shortly after the establishment of New Orleans in 1718.
Land grants were given to settlers, and several plantations were established in the area. The land was fertile and suitable for agriculture, leading to the growth of large farms and plantations that primarily produced indigo, sugar, and cotton.
Spearheading this venture were French colonists Mathurin and Pierre Dreux, who decided to build their plantation near the natural levee along Bayou Sauvage in 1727. They named the area Gentilly after the "Chantilly" commune in France.
Throughout the 19th century, Gentilly experienced growth and development by establishing residential neighborhoods and institutions. The opening of the Pontchartrain RailRoad in the mid-19th century contributed to the neighborhood's accessibility and facilitated further development.
Over time, Gentilly became home to a diverse community of people, including African Americans, European immigrants, and Creoles. The mix of cultures and backgrounds enriched the neighborhood's character and traditions.
The 20th century brought in new developers, leading to the unique architecture in Gentilly that we know and love today. In an attempt to gather popularity, these investors advertised Gentilly as a place "where homes are built on hills," and it was also deemed "Little California." While there are no natural hills in the flat lands of New Orleans, parts of Gentilly sit on some of the highest ground in the city, and many of those homes were built on manufactured hills.
Mimicking the bungalow-style homes of California, Gentilly homes became an optimal choice for middle-class residents eager to leave the more cramped areas in other parts of the city.
While shotgun homes still exist in parts of Gentilly, many houses in this neighborhood are larger and offer features traditional New Orleans homes did not provide. At the time, Gentilly homes were built with modern lower ceilings and often included above-ground basement-like areas. During the mid-century, many homes had enough space to add garages and off-street parking, but the biggest highlight of owning a home in Gentilly was its curb appeal.
Today In "Chilly" Gentilly
After Hurricane Katrina, efforts were made to rebuild and revitalize Gentilly. Residents, organizations and government agencies worked to restore homes, infrastructure, and public services. The rebuilding process continues today, with ongoing efforts to strengthen the neighborhood's resilience to future natural disasters.
Today, Gentilly is known for its distinct architecture, oak-lined streets, and community-oriented spirit. It is home to several schools, universities, parks, and cultural institutions. The neighborhood's history and heritage remain essential to its identity, and efforts have been made to preserve its historical significance while embracing modern developments.
Its proximity to Lake Pontchartrain makes it one of the cooler parts of the city, hence the nickname "Chilly Gentilly."