Jacob Paskins continues his architectural tour of New Orleans.
Canal Street - Algiers Free Ferry
New Orleans is a pedestrian-friendly city, providing you're not in a rush to go anywhere, and has a public transport system comprising of buses, streetcars and ferries. Foot passengers travel for free on the ferry (above) across the Mississippi to Algiers, so I went to have a look at the little town.
A plaque beside the ferry terminal building sets the scene:
Algiers, established in 1719, is the second oldest neighbourhood in New Orleans. Originally called the "King's Plantation," it was first used as the location for the city's powder magazine, a holding area for the newly arrived African slaves, and the first port of call for the displaced Cajuns. Developed as a town by Barthelemy Duverje, Algiers expanded due mainly to the shipbuilding and repair industries of the dry docks and the extensive railroad yards. A large part of the town surrounding the Courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1895 but rose again like a Phoenix from the ashes. Many Jazz and Blues "greats" have called Algiers home including Lester Young, Memphis Minnie, Henry "Red" Allen, George Lewis and "Kid" Thomas Valentine. The charm and architecture of old Algiers is New Orleans' "hidden jewel."
Although damaged by winds, Algiers was not flooded following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thanks in part to the raised levee that separates the urban area from the river.
Evidence of the historic flood risk of the area is nevertheless evident. Most houses are raised around three feet from the ground and stand on brick stilts.
Perhaps I was a little too harsh about the riverfront in New Orleans in my first post. The rather unsatisfactory connection between the urban centre and the riverfront is in part due to the geographical particularities of the city.
The CBD viewed from the banks of the Mississippi
The most important piece of geography that any visitor to New Orleans must learn is that the Mississippi is the highest point in the city. All land moving away from the river begins to descend below sea level. Before a settlement established in New Orleans, the river would flood each spring. As it receded, silt deposited and eventually created raised banks. This natural deposit formed the basis of the first levees, or flood defences, shown here reinforced with imported stone on the water side (above) and covered in grass on the town side (. The old town is set back from the riverfront, and the main Jackson square is already several feet lower than the waterside promenade. An additional flood defence wall separates the car park (below) from Jackson square.
The height of the Mississippi levee a little further downstream is clear in this image taken at street level as a container vessel sails by (above).
With its strategic position at the frontier of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, the history of New Orleans is centred on its port activities. An automated container port has replaced the scores of smaller vessels that once moored in the city. Today, Steamboat Natchez plies for tourist trade with daily jazz cruises. Before the ship paddles off, the engines provide power for a steam calliope, an automated musical instrument similar to a barrel organ, that pipes music across the waterfront. Before final departure, the steam whistle shrills over the Crescent City, and another voyage begins.
Next post, a trip to Algiers.
This is the first is a series of posts about the architecture, city and culture of New Orleans by Autopsies Group member Jacob Paskins, who recently participated in the Society of Architectural Historians' 64th Annual Meeting in Louisiana.
I. Upper Central Business District
Streetcars, Canal Street
Many parts of New Orleans, such as Desire Street in Faubourg Marigny, are no longer served by a streetcar. The city was once well-served by a network of streetcars, but during mid-twentieth century they almost entirely disappeared. While the historic St Charles Avenue streetcar still rumbles slowly along the route laid out during the 1830s, new vehicles and routes are now being reinstated. From the Canal Street terminus, streetcars serve two routes to City Park and the Metairie and Greenwood Cemeteries. A third line is planned to serve Rampart Street and will eventually stretch downriver. Unlike the old green St Charles street car, these red replicas are air-conditioned, have a disabled access lift, and run relatively quickly.
Harrah's is the only licensed casino in New Orleans and appears to be one of the most popular attractions in the area. Legalised gambling is the anodyne pass time of visitors to the city, which was once known as 'Sin City' in the late nineteenth century because of the population of sailors in town and the high levels of crime and prostitution.
The casino, sitting under the two domes, was built in 1999. A hotch-potch of cheaply produced classical motifs, this massive ensemble fills an entire block and is difficult to avoid with its garish illumination and blaring music which is pumped out of speakers along the entire length of the building.
In the background, bank buildings and expensive chain hotels dominate the business quarter. In the foreground, the railway lines serve the Riverside Streetcar and a mile-long freight train, which announces its approach each day with a blasting horn at around 11.30 am.
World Trade Center
The 1960s World Trade Center is a colossal symbol of the failed riverfront development. Dominating the skyline, this office block is almost entirely unoccupied and provides a significant obstacle for pedestrians who wish to cross from the Central Business District to the Mississippi river.
The banner advertises the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and IMAX cinema, located near to the WTC, which provides a slightly more appealing visitor attraction than the Riverside shopping mall a little further up the promenade.
Coming next, a look at the Riverfront reveals why New Orleans turns its back on the Mississippi.