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The French Quarter or Vieux Carre (which means “old square” in French) was the first neighborhood in what was the entire city of New Orleans in its early years. It’s bounded by Iberville Street, the Mississippi River, Esplanade and North Rampart avenues. In 1718, the French Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville (you can see a huge statue of him where South Peters Street diverges from Decatur Street) and his men cleared the thick cane breaks along the riverfront to lay out the streets of this almost-300-years-old city. In fact, the Vieux Carre was actually referred to as Frenchtown at first, in a nod to its French founders.
The streets of the original city were laid out as a gridiron with Jackson Square, sometimes used as a parade ground, in their center. The streets were called Royal, Chartres, St. Louis and Bourbon to flatter the French court. It’s said that the streets named for saints – St. Peter and St. Ann – separate two streets named for fighting houses of France: Dumaine and Toulouse.
A parish church, St. Louis Cathedral, flanked by the Cabildo on its left and the Presbytere, the priest’s house used as soldier’s billets as well as a prison at various times, on its right, were all established in this new city. All three face the square and St. Louis Cathedral was named for King Louis IX of France, the only French king who was also a saint. The city of New Orleans was named to honor and flatter the duc d’Orleans, who often encouraged the financing of the new colony at the French court.
As the new city developed, Baroness Pontalba built the first apartment buildings in America on either side of the Square and they’re still lived in today. Restaurants, saloons, shops, corner groceries and the open-air market along the riverfront all sprang up, creating a neighborhood where all lifestyle services are within walking distance and many residents live without cars. The river and Moonwalk offer wide expanses of space with the Natchez Steamboat docked at Toulouse Street and cruise ships leaving weekly from its port.
Housing in the Quarter can range from a 300-square-foot condo to a grand mansion along Esplanade Avenue. Many of the dwellings offer 10- or 12-foot ceilings, wide heart pine floors and charming courtyards hidden behind slim wrought iron gates.
Life in this historic district somewhat resembles living in a small town. The Quarter has its own neighborhood association, Patio Planters, which sponsors the annual Christmas caroling in Jackson Square as well as tours of historic homes. Plus, attendance at its monthly meetings makes it easy to meet your neighbors.
Although the French Quarter is world famous and the first historic district in the country boasting well known restaurants, such as Brennan’s, Arnaud’s and Antoines, it’s not another sanitized Disneyland or musty museum, but rather a viable residential and commercial community. Residents enjoy poking in the shops and stopping for café au lait (coffee with milk) and beignets (donuts) as they stroll around listening to street musicians and enjoying the original architecture. There’s always plenty of activity here also, with almost-weekly festivals and parades, offering a unique lifestyle found nowhere else in the city.