National Geographic : 1953 Feb
New Orleans: Jambalaya on the Levee But sooner or later natives and visitors alike headed for the water front-"The master street of the world," as an enthusiast termed it. For four or five miles the levee bustled with ships and men and goods. The line of craft, curving with the river, lay two and three deep. For most of the distance a man could step from vessel to vessel without once touch ing shore. Here were arrogant white steam packets, ocean-going ships of black and gray, flatboats, western river boats. A caller confessed: "I shall want a microscope when I return to Eng land, so miserably small and petty will seem all its features." After New Orleans, many places looked small, and also drab. War Ends an Era Yet catastrophe edged steadily nearer. By the 1850's railroads and canals were cutting into the river trade; it continued to grow, but not quickly enough. In 1861 the city linked itself with the Confederacy, though many influential elements thought its destiny lay more logically with the Union. War brought blockade, early occupation, and destruction of established routes of trade. Slowly at first, but inexorably, the acid of poverty ate into the big houses. The pil lared doorways went neglected. On water front streets grass sprang up between the cobblestones. Born in 1910, I remember the sight of vast, empty warehouses, a few scattered bananas rotting in the summer afternoon. As a boy I shivered in passing the abandoned St. Louis Hotel, a forgotten ruin of a place; children of the day told stories of ghosts that groaned inside the boarded-up wreck. Men who had been lawyers took jobs as day laborers. Families had to leave 20-room houses on which they could no longer pay even the interest charges. Much of the once-elite French Quarter became a kind of slum, with impoverished families crowded into former drawing rooms, oil stoves smoking beneath ceiling rosettes from which chandeliers had hung. Then New Orleans, which had never stopped struggling, drew itself up again, almost by its bootstraps. Its superb location, its posi tion at the end of the funnel into the Nation's heart, its place in relation to Latin America and the world beyond, began to count. Now the town and its people have come again into their own. The oil industry, boom ing on all sides, has invaded New Orleans, with new skyscrapers for offices and thousands of new employees (page 157). Oil derricks float out into the Gulf in a new frontier of sea-going drilling operations. Within a 100 mile radius of the town oil flows from some 100 fields, where 3,000 or more oil and gas wells are already sunk (page 177). Since World War II, investments in new or expanded industrial facilities in the area have reached nearly $700,000,000, almost half of it in one year. The "oversupply of moisture" about which Orleanians have chuckled has proved a boon in drawing industries that require a great deal of water. International Harvester has erected a $4,000,000 twine mill on the river front, to employ 750. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation has pur chased 280 acres on the Mississippi for a $150,000,000 aluminum plant, eventually to use 2,250 workers (page 182). Chrysler Corporation of Detroit is moving in with a multimillion-dollar contract to pro duce air-cooled Continental V-12 engines for Army Ordnance. The Delta Match Corpora tion, subsidiary of a Swedish match company, has completed a $2,000,000 plant, the deep South's first wooden match factory. And near the city Pan-Am Southern Corporation is embarking upon a $9,600,000 expansion program, including erection of a "cat cracker" for high-octane refining. New apartment facilities, badly needed, are going up; so are new hospitals and expansions of hotels. Industry is undergoing further diversification. The port itself is re-emerging as the country's second in dollar value of foreign commerce; today it boasts more traffic than New Orleans ever knew before.* From the bayous and lakes pour millions of dollars in crabs, shrimp, muskrat pelts. Cotton, rice, and sugar cane provide work and cash for other thousands of people. The Chamber of Commerce talks proudly of the fact that New Orleans gives the country a sizable supply of its men's summer clothes; that the area has one of the world's largest sugar refineries and produces much of the Nation's industrial alcohol. The world's greatest cane-syrup plant operates near by. In a word, sir, New Orleans is doing all right. The Color Does Not Fade Yet, in spite of these glossy statistics and these shifts in industry, the old place main tains its identity and its coloration. Some businessmen, to be sure, with a blind eye to the historic, are still bent on "modernizing" the town. Nevertheless, only a few echo the reckless gentleman who announced he would like to set fire to the whole French section and replace it with "brand-new houses." The heart of this French area, of course. is the Vieux Carre, which stretches below * See "Louisiana Trades with the World," by Fred erick Simpich, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, De cember, 1947.