New Orleans is one of the oldest cities in the United States and is known the world over for its multicultural heritage, cuisine and as the birthplace of jazz. But before the founding of the city, the area was inhabited by Native Americans who took advantage of Bayou St. John (known to the natives as Bayouk Choupique) which flowed into Lake Pontchartrain and the short distance between its headwaters and the Mississippi River to create a portage. This became an important trade route. French explorers, fur trappers, and traders arrived in the area by the 1690s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou. By the end of the decade a French encampment called "Port Bayou St. Jean" was near the head of the Bayou, and a small fort called "St. Jean" was established at the mouth of the bayou in 1701.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French as Nouvelle-Orléans, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The site was selected because it was a rare bit of natural high ground along the flood-prone banks of the lower Mississippi, and was adjacent to the trading route and portage between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John. It was, from this founding, intended to be an important colonial city. The city was named in honor of the then Regent of France, Philip II, Duke of Orléans. The priest-chronicler Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix described it in 1721 as "a place of a hundred wretched hovels in a malarious wet thicket of willows and dwarf palmettos, infested by serpents and alligators;" he seems to have been the first, however, to predict for it an imperial future. In 1722 Nouvelle-Orléans was made the capital of French Louisiana, replacing Biloxi in that role. In September of that year, a hurricane struck the city, blowing most of the structures down.
In the early 20th century, New Orleans was a progressive major city, whose most adventurous development was a drainage plan devised by engineer and inventor A. Baldwin Wood. Urban development until then was largely limited to higher ground along natural river levees and bayous. Wood's pump system allowed the city to expand into low-lying areas. Over the 20th century, rapid subsidence, both natural and human-induced, left these newly-populated areas several feet below sea level. New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding even before the age of negative elevation. In the late 20th century, however, scientists and New Orleans residents gradually became aware of the city's increased vulnerability. Hurricane Betsy in 1965 had killed dozens of residents even though the majority of the city remained dry. Hurricane Katrina proved to be the most devastating and proved the levee and pumping systems to be mortally flawed. Many plans are being studied to correct these problems, and time will tell what will be a long term solution for the area.
Located in Southeastern Louisiana along the Mississippi River, its status as a world-famous tourist destination is due in part to its architecture, music, cuisine, its annual Mardi Gras, and other celebrations and festivals. The city is often referred to as "The most unique city in America." The Greater New Orleans population was approximately 1.4 million people prior to Hurricane Katrina. The Greater New Orleans area is still Louisiana's largest urban center. The population of the city itself was 223,388 according to the 2006 U.S. Census. A population study from July 2006 to March 2007 found that the city gained 32,000 people during that seven month time frame, bringing its population to 56% of its pre-Katrina population. A population analysis released August 2007 on www.wwltv.com confirmed that New Orleans' population is up 50,000 over the Census Bureau's count in July 2006 for a figure of 273,600.
The city's several nicknames are illustrative of its diverse culture, history and arts community. Some of these are: "Crescent City", which alludes to the course of the Mississippi River around and through the city; "The Big Easy", possibly a reference by musicians in the early 1900s to the relative ease of finding work there; "The City that Care Forgot" that most likely refers to the outwardly easy-going, carefree nature of many of the residents; "America's Most Interesting City" that appears on welcome signs at the city limits; "Hollywood South", a reference to the large number of films shot in the city; and "The Northernmost Caribbean City", a reference from the Boston Globe as well as other travel guides due in part to the similarities of culture with the Caribbean islands.
New Orleans is the home to one of the largest and busiest ports in the world, and accounts for a major portion of the nation's refinery and production of petroleum. A large number of institutions of higher education exist within the city, including Tulane University and Loyola University New Orleans, which are the major private research universities. The University of New Orleans is a large public research university in the city. Dillard University, Southern University at New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana are among some of the leading historically black colleges and universities in the U.S., with Xavier being the only predominantly black Catholic university in the U.S. Louisiana State University Medical School is the state's flagship university medical school which also conducts research. Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Notre Dame Seminary, and the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are several smaller religious affiliated universities. Other notable schools include Delgado Community College, Culinary Institute of New Orleans, Herzing College and Commonwealth University.
Located in the French Quarter is the old New Orleans Mint, formerly a branch of the United States Mint, which now operates as a museum. Near the Quarter in the neighboring Warehouse District sits the National World War II Museum, opened on June 6, 2000, as the National D-Day Museum, dedicated to providing information and materials related to the allied invasion of Normandy, France. Also nearby is Confederate Memorial Hall, containing the second largest collection of Confederate memorabilia in the world in the oldest continually operating museum in Louisiana.
Several national travel guides have once again listed New Orleans as one of the top five places to visit in the country. Several major tourist events as well as other forms of revenue for the city of New Orleans have returned. The National Association of Realtors held its annual convention in New Orleans, as planned before Hurricane Katrina. Held in November 2006 with over 25,000 attendees, this was the first city-wide convention in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. The Essence Music Festival returned to the Crescent City for its July 2007 date after being displaced to Houston in July 2006. Other major events such as Mardi Gras and the Jazz and Heritage Festival were never displaced and have continued as planned. The National Football League made a commitment to the city with the return of the New Orleans Saints, following speculation of a move to San Antonio, Texas, or Los Angeles, California after Hurricane Katrina. The National Basketball Association has made a commitment with the return of the New Orleans Hornets, which played part time in the 2006-2007 season and will play full time for the 2007-2008 season. New Orleans has been granted the 2008 NBA All Star Game, which usually generates millions of dollars in revenue for its host city. Tulane University hosted the first and second rounds of the 2007 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship.
The Central Business District of New Orleans is located immediately north and west of the Mississippi River, and was historically called the "American Quarter or American Sector." Most streets in this area fan out from a central point in the city. Major streets of the area include Canal Street, Poydras Street, Tulane Avenue and Loyola Avenue. Canal Street functions as the street which divides the "downtown" area from the "uptown" area. Every street crossing Canal Street between the Mississippi River and Rampart Street, which is the northern edge of the French Quarter, has a different name for the "Uptown" and "Downtown" portions. Downtown neighborhoods include the The Vieux Carré or French Quarter, Treme, the 7th Ward, Faubourg-Marigny, Bywater (the Upper Ninth Ward), and the Lower Ninth Ward. Uptown neighborhoods include the Warehouse District, Garden District, the Irish Channel, the University District, Carrollton, Gert Town, Fontainebleau, and Broadmoor.
By 2010, New Orleans officials expect the city's population to be anywhere in the mid- to upper-300,000 range or even low- to mid-400,000 range (from both new and returning residents), as more housing becomes available. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has stated that some public housing developments, which were originally going to be torn down, are going to be re-opened temporarily; the public housing developments will be redeveloped in phases. On March 21, 2007, the House of Representatives passed a bill blocking any demolition of housing developments until HUD shows solid plans for redevelopment, informing HUD that they must contact all former developments on August 1, 2007 and that the buildings must be livable by October 2007. The House's measure must be approved by the United States Senate. Developers who take advantage of federal tax credits to build other low income and affordable housing should help residents to return to the region. Also, as residents receive federal grant money, even more people should return to the region.
New Orleans is an industrial and distribution center and the busiest port system in the world by gross tonnage. The Port of New Orleans is the 5th largest port in the United States based on volume of cargo handled, second-largest in the state after the Port of South Louisiana, and 12th largest in the U.S. based on value of cargo. The Port of South Louisiana, also based in the New Orleans area, is the world's busiest in terms of bulk tonnage, and, when combined with the Port of N.O., it forms the 4th largest port system in volume handled.
Art museums in the city include the Contemporary Arts Center, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in City Park, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Audubon Park, the Audubon Zoo, and the Aquarium of the Americas are also located in the city. New Orleans is also noted for its many beautiful cemeteries. Some notable cemeteries in the city include Saint Louis Cemetery and Metairie Cemetery. Significant gardens include Longue Vue House and Gardens and the New Orleans Botanical Garden. Gardens are also found in places like City Park and Audubon Park. City Park still has one of the largest stands of oak trees in the world. Within the surrounding area, there are various points of interest. Many wetlands are in close proximity to the Greater New Orleans area, including Honey Island Swamp. Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, located just south of the city, is the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
The city also created its own spin on the old tradition of military brass band funerals. Traditional New Orleans funerals feature sad music (mostly dirges and hymns) on the way to the cemetery and happy music (hot jazz) on the way back. Such traditional musical funerals still take place when a local musician, a member of a club, krewe, benevolent society, or a noted dignitary has passed. Until the 1990s most locals preferred to call these "funerals with music," but out of town visitors have long dubbed them "jazz funerals." Younger bands, especially those based in the Treme neighborhood, have embraced the term and now have funerals featuring only jazz music.
New Orleans is world-famous for its food. The indigenous cuisine is distinctive and influential. From centuries of amalgamation of local Creole, Haute Creole, and New Orleans French cuisines, New Orleans food has developed. Local ingredients, French, Spanish, Italian, African, Native American, Cajun, and a hint of Cuban traditions combine to produce a truly unique and easily recognizable Louisiana flavor. Unique specialties include beignets, square-shaped fried pastries that could be called "French doughnuts" (served with coffee and chicory "au lait"); Po'boy and Italian Muffaletta sandwiches; Gulf oysters on the half-shell, boiled crawfish, and other seafood; étouffée, jambalaya, gumbo, and other Creole dishes; and the Monday favorite of red beans and rice. (Louis Armstrong often signed his letters, "red beans and ricely yours.") New Orleans residents enjoy some of the best restaurants in the United States that cater specifically to locals, and visitors are encouraged to try the local establishments recommended by their hosts.
Professional sports teams include the New Orleans Saints (NFL), the New Orleans Hornets (NBA), the New Orleans VooDoo (AFL), and the New Orleans Zephyrs (PCL). There is also an all-female flat track roller derby team called the Big Easy Rollergirls, and an all-female football team, New Orleans Blaze. The home stadium of the Saints is the Louisiana Superdome, which hosts the annual Sugar Bowl as well as numerous other prominent events (for a listing of these events, see Louisiana Superdome). The home stadium of the Hornets is the New Orleans Arena. New Orleans is also home to the Fair Grounds Race Course, the nation's third-oldest thoroughbred track and the Zurich Classic, a golf tournament on the PGA Tour.