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Edward J. Branley on Gumbo’s Place in New Orleans’ History

Read an excerpt from Edward J. Branley’s forthcoming “Krauss: The New Orleans Value Store,” to be released by The History Press in September.

Gumbo is a wonderful soup that combines many flavors and ingredients, turning them into a unique dish that is revered in New Orleans. It’s the perfect food analogy to the city of New Orleans itself. And a food analogy is the perfect way to describe New Orleans in the first place.

Gumbo has as many variations as there are cooks who make the soup: Chicken-and-sausage gumbo. Seafood gumbo. Okra. Filé. Oysters. Crawfish? “Not in my gumbo,” a chef I know says. Turkey gumbo, made on the day after Thanksgiving. Each one is unique. Each one makes up the big picture.

New Orleans isn’t just one big pot of gumbo. The city is a collection of pots. Downtown gumbos include the French Quarter, the Treme, along Bayou St. John, the Sixth Ward and many other neighborhoods. Uptown gumbo is the Central Business District (CBD), the Warehouse District, the Garden District, Faubourg Bouligny, the University District, Carrollton. Back-of-town gumbos exist on both sides of Canal Street. Then there’s Canal Street itself. The 140-foot-wide main street isn’t merely a dividing line but rather a gumbo in and of itself.

At midnight in the Quarter to noon in Thibodaux, I will play for gumbo

—Jimmy Buffett, “I Will Play For Gumbo”

Like gumbo recipes, New Orleans has changed over time. At the start of the twentieth century, the city was the second-largest port in the United States. It was a city adjusting to twenty years of unprecedented expansion after the Civil War. Immigrants from all over Europe, but particularly from Italy and Germany, made their way to New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century, shifting the flavors of the gumbos that are the city’s neighborhoods.

When the Americans took over New Orleans in 1803, they didn’t really bring a gumbo recipe with them. The Anglo Irish brought their own flavors, though, and those blended into the recipes that were already simmering on the stoves. By the 1850s, residents of the city could taste many variations of gumbo, and their reports of how wonderful this was attracted even more people to the magic.

While New Orleans was very much caught up in the political conflicts of the late 1850s that led to the formation of the Confederate States of America, New Orleans recognized that the port was paramount. When it was clear that the blockade of the port by the Union navy was killing the city, Farragut’s invasion from the mouth of the Mississippi in April 1862 was a force that locals could not withstand. Union occupation spared New Orleans the fate of Atlanta and enabled the port to continue to grow. Reconstruction allowed the merchants operating shops and stores on Canal Street to re-stock and expand. By the 1880s, dry goods stores supplied a number of ingredients needed to keep the gumbos simmering.

The 1890s brought a huge change to the retail landscape of New Orleans. S.J. Shwartz, financed by his father-in-law, Isidore Newman, opened the first department store in the city, Maison Blanche, in 1895. This development inspired other New Orleans merchants to follow suit, and in 1903, the Krauss brothers shifted focus from niche-market sales to the general-merchandise model. The gumbo pots of 1903 were flavorful and diverse.

Take the French Quarter, the city’s first neighborhood. When Adrien de Pauger laid out the plan for the original city in 1725, New Orleans was a French city. The French influence dominated until control of the city was passed to the Spanish in 1766, lest it become one of the spoils of war between the French and the British. The Spanish tweaked the gumbo recipe for twenty years, and then they were forced to totally re-create the recipe after the Great Fire of 1788. French-built homes and buildings were replaced with new ones that followed strict building codes. Spanish Colonial architectural influences left us with the high-walled houses focused on central courtyards, their beauty hidden from passersby on the streets. French priests tending their flock found themselves under the administration of Spanish bishops sent from Havana. The mix of languages, colors and political passions in the port appeared impossible to navigate, but the cooks blended the various ingredients into their gumbos.

The Vieux Carré, the Old Square, dating back to the 1720s, was a vibrant residential neighborhood at the beginning of the twentieth century. The original residents of the French Quarter—the French-Spanish “Creoles”—were the establishment families who didn’t want to associate with newcomers. Germans didn’t speak much English when they came to New Orleans. Sicilians didn’t either, and the Anglo Irish Americans, as well as the Creoles, viewed them as no better than African Americans. The easy solution for the Creoles was to move uptown. As they moved, others filled the gumbo pot. By the time department stores came onto the scene, Italian grocers and bakers, German butchers and African Americans were the people walking up Bourbon and Royal Streets to those big stores on Canal Street.

New Orleans outgrew the French Quarter by the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Bernard Mandeville de Marigny, son of a wealthy plantation family, decided to get out of the agriculture business. He subdivided his plantation, located on the downriver side of Esplanade Avenue and the French Quarter, into modern-style residential lots. Creoles, African Americans and Germans jumped on those lots and built out the neighborhood. As those first families acquired wealth and influence, many of them left Faubourg Marigny for Uptown. By the time the Krauss brothers opened their store, the flavor of the Marigny gumbo was distinctly Italian.

Like the French Quarter, New Orleans outgrew the Marigny, as immigrants from Europe came to the city in large numbers after the Civil War. The Italian families working in the Quarter and the Germans working along the Riverfront in the Marigny moved farther down the river. The political designation for the neighborhood was the “Ninth Ward,” and that name stuck. These immigrants hopped on the Desire streetcar line to join the residents of the Quarter as they all went to Canal Street to shop. The Ninth Ward gumbo was a true mix of cultures, until white flight of the 1960s removed much of the Italian and German influence, leaving the neighborhood as predominantly an African American gumbo.

While New Orleans’ expansion was primarily up- and downriver, there was movement north, along the navigation canals and Bayou St. John. The Carondelet Canal connected Faubourg Treme from 1795 until the 1920s. That water path to the outside world attracted folks who wanted to live along it. The neighborhood expanded east, from the banks of the bayou. The streets of the French Quarter, which had already been extended north through Treme, now continued, as they met up with Esplanade Avenue.

This northern expansion was typical, following a suburban expansion model. Families who couldn’t afford the courtyards of the French Quarter went north, to Treme. Those looking for bigger lots on which to build bigger houses kept going, following the bayou. When they got there, they built homes with front lawns in the English style. Their homes kept distinct French-Spanish features, though, such as wrought-iron fencing. The size of homes near the bayou ran from comfortable two-stories to the grandeur of the Luling Mansion. As the neighborhood matured, less expensive houses popped up in its interior, shotgun doubles and Creole cottages, for blue-collar families.

Faubourg St. John’s gumbo was an incredibly diverse mix. Waterfront businesses lined the bayou. St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, at the bayou end of Esplanade Avenue, along with the horse racetrack next to it, gave New Orleans City Railroad Company incentive to run streetcars from the river to the bayou, along Esplanade Avenue. That long run connected with cross-town transit lines as well. Good public transit attracts all types of people to a neighborhood, and that was the case with the bayou. When Krauss Department Store opened, residents of the bayou neighborhood could get into downtown by “riding the belt”—taking the Esplanade and Canal Streetcar lines into town and back home again, as they ran a circular route in opposite directions.

The popularity of Faubourg St. John continued, and folks looking for affordable housing moved even farther north, into Gentilly. Gentilly Road and Grande Route St. John brought streetcars and other vehicles east from the bayou, cemetery and racetrack until they connected with the Pontchartrain Railroad. The trains ran from Faubourg Marigny, out to Lake Pontchartrain, on Elysian Fields Avenue. The high ground of the Gentilly Ridge attracted homeowners, and a new neighborhood grew out from the ridge. The gumbo of Gentilly was less a mix of specific ethnic groups but a true New Orleans flavor, as younger generations of families who had lived in the city for some time moved out of mom and dad’s house in the Ninth Ward, looking to establish themselves.

It wouldn’t be until after World War II that retail stores expanded into Gentilly. As Krauss sought customers in the early twentieth century, the people of Gentilly made their way to Canal Street, along with everyone else.

The expansion of New Orleans along the Mississippi River ran in both directions from Canal Street. As the Creole families grew out from the Quarter, east and north, the Anglo Irish and Americans who came to the city in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase established themselves on the upriver/uptown side of Canal. The offices and businesses set up by these folks wanted to be close to the main street of the city and the downriver growth. Unwilling to allow the Creoles to control water-borne commerce, the Americans built a second canal, whose turning basin was located along South Rampart Street. This New Basin Canal extended out to the city’s West End. Stores and offices replaced homes in those first blocks just past Canal Street, as those who worked in what became known as the Central Business District, or CBD, moved farther uptown.

These offices and stores intersected with the activities of the riverfront within a few blocks of Canal Street. Wharves along the river gave way to warehouses a block or two in, along with light industrial sites. The Germans and Irish who came to New Orleans as human ballast on merchant ships out of Liverpool could find work along the river, so they built houses within walking distance of those jobs. The Irish built their first church parish, St. Patrick’s, on Camp Street in 1834. The Irish prayed for the men their families lost to accidents and disease during the construction of the New Basin Canal. Mothers worked hard, praying regularly that their children would fare better in America than their husbands. For the most part, they did, and the Irish community continued to grow, moving farther upriver. By the 1850s, they occupied so much of the riverfront neighborhoods that this section of the city became known as the Irish Channel.

The Irish were not the only ethnic group working along the river. By the 1850s, the Germans, along with Creole families, also made their homes uptown. The Irish Channel was actually three gumbo pots. The Germans and Irish were so separated, they even built their own cathedral-sized churches, across from each other, on Constance Street. These communities were quite insular, but they still made their way from the Channel back down to Canal Street. When Krauss opened in 1903, the Irish Channel still reflected the divisions on which it was built.

Like Bernard Mandeville de Marigny, plantation owners subdivided the land just upriver from the city, as it was more profitable to build houses than grow cotton and sugar cane. While the Irish Channel grew directly along the river, Americans built luxurious homes in the English style, north of Magazine Street, between Jackson, Louisiana and St. Charles Avenues. By the Civil War, this Garden District was the wealthiest neighborhood in the city outside of the French Quarter. The plantations that remained after the Civil War were subdivided, as uptown now extended from the Garden District, upriver to the former city of Carrollton. As the expansion continued, the streets running up- and downriver were extended: Tchoupitoulas and Annunciation Streets, near the river; Magazine Street, the de facto boundary between rich and poor; and St. Charles Avenue, Freret Street and Claiborne St. Charles Avenue, Uptown. The St. Charles streetcar line is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line (since 1834) in the United States. Library of Congress.

The uptown pots of gumbo were as unique as the subdivisions created there. The Irish Channel had its deep ethnic divisions. The Garden District’s wealth made it difficult for people other than the Anglo Irish, along with a few Creoles, to move in. Faubourg Bouligny, the subdivision that grew out of the breakup of the Bouligny plantation, extended uptown past the Garden District. Once a hotbed of horse breeding and racing, the area continued the trend of offering land where families could build both small shotguns and larger single-family homes.

Jefferson City and the University District all were more “American” than specific ethnic enclaves, always with the African American flavors blending in to make them interesting.

Even though the city grew upriver, the flow of retail goods did not follow the people. That meant all those families living uptown still had to make their way to Canal Street. Transit operators recognized this, as streetcars snaked their way through the uptown gumbo pots. Buses made connections to the streetcars, so even the folks of Carrollton could shop in the CBD.

As the river wound its way north from the French Quarter, small towns popped up in between the plantations. New Orleans annexed the city of Lafayette early on, absorbing the wealth of the Garden District. Jefferson City, just upriver from Faubourg Bouligny, was next, followed by the city of Carrollton.

By the 1890s, higher education had come to uptown. The Society of Jesus purchased a parcel of land that had been part of the Foucher Plantation. The Jesuits established Loyola University of New Orleans on that site. The Tulane Education Foundation acquired the land next to Loyola, constructing the first buildings of Tulane University in 1904. Both universities designed their campuses so their fronts were along St. Charles Avenue, making both schools easily accessible by streetcar. With the annexation of the city of Carrollton, the city of New Orleans had pushed expansion as far upriver as the adjoining parish of Jefferson would allow. Carrollton became the northernmost riverfront neighborhood.

It was a rich and diverse pot of gumbo, attracting Sicilian farmers from farther upriver into an area already populated by all the different types of folks found in other parts of the city. New Orleans’s boundaries along the river were firmly set by the time the Krauss brothers opened shop in the 1200 block of Canal Street.

Throughout this brief survey of the neighborhoods of New Orleans, note that there isn’t a separate black neighborhood. Since the founding of the city, black folks have been ubiquitous, both as slaves and as free people of color. The plantations along the river had significant slave populations, and the planters who maintained homes in the city proper staffed their households with slaves.

Africans did not come to New Orleans exclusively as enslaved humans. The port attracted free men of all colors who were looking to make a living and improve their position in society. Affairs between white masters and their slaves were commonplace. Some masters granted the children of their concubines their freedom. Those folks, along with blacks from the islands, made their homes in New Orleans, initially in Faubourgs Treme and Marigny. By the Civil War, Treme had become the cultural center of the black Creole community. St. Augustine Parish, founded in 1842, was the first truly integrated Christian congregation in the city.

Treme was the nexus, and black folks expanded their influence from there. Bernard Mandeville de Marigny did not segregate sales of lots when he subdivided his land, so the black population of the two neighborhoods adjacent to the French Quarter enjoyed solid growth. That growth continued as the city pushed north, into Faubourg St. John and the Sixth and Seventh Wards. Over time, black Creole evolved into just Creole, as the African American community began to dominate the “downtown back of town” neighborhoods.

The arrest of Homer Plessy as he attempted to ride in a whites-only train car from New Orleans to Covington in 1892 led to the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. That ruling established the constitutionality of separate but equal doctrine and ushered in the Jim Crow era. With the rights of African Americans severely limited in southern states, the Great Migration of African Americans from South to North began. This changed the gumbo of Treme radically. The pot lost a lot of its African American flavor and gained a distinct Sicilian makeup. Still, as Krauss opened, Treme, along with the back of the Central Business District, had a significant black population. That was important in the marketing strategy of the Krauss brothers.

Not all African Americans desired or could afford to just pull up roots and move away from New Orleans. Those who remained lived all across the city, some owning their own homes, others renting housing from whites. Public housing projects constructed during the Great Depression in the 1930s became available to black families after World War II, as the white families got back on their feet, moving into the newer neighborhoods of Mid-City and Lakeview and into the suburbs.

As Sicilians came in numbers to New Orleans in the 1880s and 1890s, they quickly filled up the French Quarter and downriver neighborhoods. When black families sold their homes in Treme, leaving town for good, the Sicilians gladly snapped them up. By the start of the twentieth century, the Italian community in New Orleans was well rooted in the Quarter and Treme (in the section of the neighborhood east of the Carondelet Canal). By 1915, the Italians had moved toward the lake to the point where they petitioned the archbishop to establish a new Catholic parish at the northern end of Canal Street. St. Anthony of Padua became the third Italian church in New Orleans, and the Mid-City neighborhood’s gumbo had a clear Italian flavor. Mid-City grew out on either side of Canal Street, from Greenwood Cemetery down to Broad Street, the northern boundary of Faubourg Treme. Light industry along the New Basin Canal and the west bank of Bayou St. John bracketed Mid-City, creating opportunities for the residents. Getting back to town to shop was easy, since Canal Street was just a short walk away.

The Lakeview neighborhood grew from both ends to the middle. The West End and Spanish Fort streetcar lines brought New Orleans out to the lakefront for day trips, as families did what they could to escape the summer heat. Homes and businesses popped up along the New Basin Canal throughout the early 1900s. In the 1920s, the Orleans Levee Board began extensive land reclamation projects that pushed the south bank of Lake Pontchartrain out and created new subdivisions. Numerous federal projects during the Great Depression brought road and infrastructure improvements to the area.

By World War II, Lakeview’s open land gave wartime industry and support a place. Higgins Industries landing craft and patrol boats were cranked out of factories in Lakeview, and the workers in those factories began to move closer to work instead of taking the long streetcar trip on the West End line. After the war, many men took advantage of the benefits of the G.I. Bill to start families in Lakeview.

Streetcars were on the decline after World War II, but the residents of Lakeview were able to get back to downtown via bus, riding down West End and Canal Boulevards to the cemeteries at the foot of Canal Street. From there, they connected to the Canal streetcar line to get to Krauss and the other stores.

Small communities existed outside the city limits for generations, but post–World War II expansion drew folks from the city to Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes in numbers. School desegregation in the 1950s, coupled with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, created the white flight trend of the time. The early 1960s was the beginning of the suburban shopping mall, but it would be another decade before the trend was so rooted that older folks living in Metairie (Jefferson Parish) and Chalmette (St. Bernard Parish) felt like they didn’t have to go to Canal Street to do their shopping.

The Krauss brothers and their employees at 1201 Canal started cooking their own pot of gumbo in 1903. Their recipe changed only slightly in the ninety-four-year life of the store. It was all about taking care of New Orleans.

Steamboats moored along the Mississippi River at New Orleans. Credit: Library of Congress.

Milk wagon in the French Quarter. Credit: Library of Congress.

Old Absinthe House, Bourbon Street, 1905. Credit: Library of Congress.

The Peristyle in New Orleans City Park in the Mid-City neighborhood, built in 1915. Credit: Library of Congress.

West End was a popular day trip destination for New Orleanians to beat the summer heat. Credit: Library of Congress.

The Hotel Denechaud, on Poydras Street, was considered at the “back” of the Central Business District in 1910. Credit: Library of Congress.

St. Charles Avenue, Uptown. The St. Charles streetcar line is the oldest continuously
operating streetcar line (since 1834) in the United States. Credit: Library of Congress.

About the Author

New Orleans native Edward J. Branley is a former high school history teacher. He has written five books for Arcadia Publishing, including Legendary Locals of New Orleans and  Images of America books New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Maison Blanche Department Store, and New Orleans Jazz. He is graduate of Brother Martin High School in New Orleans and the University of New Orleans. Branley is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.

 

 

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