A melting pot, besides being a fondue restaurant on Saint Charles Avenue which is sadly now closed, is a term used to describe a society of many different cultures coming together to form one unique culture. This definition fits New Orleans to a tee. Formerly the South’s largest port city, New Orleans had a constant flow of people from different countries coming in and out of the city. In honor of the city’s tricentennial, let’s spotlight some of the people and cultures that make New Orleans what it is today.
While the land area was originally inhabited by Choctaws and Houma Indians for over a thousand years, the city of New Orleans was formally founded and settled by the French (specifically Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville) in 1718. The city’s French history, probably more than anything else, has helped New Orleans to stand out from other American cities and has intermingled with many other cultures to form New Orleans’s identity. Though most of the colonies adopted Protestantism, the French brought over Catholicism, which is still ingrained into the city’s identity even today (see St. Louis Cathedral). A major element that France contributed to New Orleans was its cuisine, for which the city is now internationally known. If it wasn’t for the French (who are also responsible for Louisiana’s Cajun culture), New Orleans would probably not look like it does today.
Though the French are credited with establishing New Orleans, it could be said that the Germans helped to keep the settlement alive. Early German immigrants, specifically from the Rhineland, mostly resided in an area north of New Orleans called the German Coast, which was owned by the economist John Law. These immigrants were forced to establish farms and plantations to help feed the inhabitants of New Orleans in its early days. The two World Wars took a lot of exposure away from German Americans in New Orleans (due to laws that forbade German flags and German being taught in schools), but the people have left a mark on the city. On top of there being a number of German-owned businesses (like Haydel’s and the former Hubig’s Pies), German breweries established throughout the city’s history helped give New Orleans its social and carefree identity. There was also the Grunewald Hotel (now the Roosevelt), where the New Orleans creation, the Sazerac, became famous.
Another country that was a big player in shaping how New Orleans looks was Spain. Following their defeat in the Seven Years’ War, France gave Spain control of the Louisiana Purchase to compensate for losing Florida to the British. Spain controlled New Orleans for only about 40 years, but left a huge impact on the city, most importantly in its architecture. The Spanish style of architecture, which makes the city look more European, helps set New Orleans apart from the more typical American colonial-style towns throughout the country. Notable structures that were built during Spanish rule include the Cabildo and the Presbytere. One way the city recognizes its Spanish heritage is through the annual Running of the Bulls event.
As the majority population in the city, African Americans played a vital role in shaping New Orleans’s identity. Brought in as slaves during French and Spanish rule, African slaves commonly gathered together to trade, socialize, and play music in what is now Congo Square. One of the biggest contributions African Americans made to New Orleans was music. Through them, New Orleans birthed jazz, rhythm and blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and other genres that dominated American popular music. The strong presence of an African community in the city also contributed greatly to the evolution of Creole cuisine. For example, gumbo is the Angolan term for okra and one of the main ingredients in the New Orleans signature dish. African Creole culture can still be felt in the cuisine that New Orleans is famous for, at restaurants such as Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Commander’s Palace.
Though they don’t get a ton of focus in relation to New Orleans, the Jewish community has been in New Orleans since its early days, starting with Isaac Monsanto. Small numbers of Jewish immigrants came to the city seeking opportunity, but faced opposition and expulsion from both the French and Spanish. While still small, the Jewish population became prominent later in New Orleans’s history. Accomplishments from both Judah Touro (Touro Synagogue and Touro Hospital) and Isaac Delgado (Delgado Community College and NOMA) became staples in the city, as well as establishments like Hurwitz-Mintz, Rubensteins, and Adler’s.
Being a port city, New Orleans has had a history of immigrants who integrated themselves into its culture. Escaping from British persecution in the late 1700s and famine in the early 1800s, Irish immigrants made their way to New Orleans because of the city’s Catholic roots. Usually abused as cheap labor and pushed into disease-ridden slums, the Irish were, fortunately, able to endure and maintain a presence in New Orleans neighborhoods like the Irish Channel. Some of the Irish contributions to the city include St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street and the many works by Margaret Haughery, who built a number of orphanages throughout New Orleans.
While there were some Italians here during the French Colonial reign of the city, New Orleans didn’t see a mass influx of Italians until the late 1800s when many migrated from Sicily. So many Italians flocked to the French Quarter that the area where they all lived came to be known as “Little Palermo.” Although the Italians were very much discriminated against (a number of them were blamed for the murder of Police Chief David Hennessey in 1890), they eventually became integrated into New Orleans culture and established a few traditions. Central Grocery, an Italian market and deli formed in 1906, created the muffuletta, which is now a standard of New Orleans cuisine. New Orleans also adopted St. Joseph’s Day altars from its Italian population, which honors St. Joseph and the relief he gave to Sicily during a famine.
A fairly recent addition to the New Orleans community occurred when a large number of Vietnamese started fleeing to New Orleans after the fall of Saigon in the mid-70s. These immigrants came here because in New Orleans, they could find a common climate and religion (Catholicism) to that of Vietnam. Most of the Vietnamese population in Louisiana is located in New Orleans East and Westbank cities like Gretna and Avondale, but there are some living in New Orleans proper as well. The Vietnamese were among the first groups to start rebuilding the city after Katrina, and the city has since embraced them with open arms. Vietnamese foods like bánh mì and phở have been accepted and appreciated by the New Orleans public, and the city recognizes its newest additions, celebrating the Vietnamese New Year with the Tet Festival.