New Orleans' history contained in colorful street names
Published: Monday, November 08, 2010, 8:51 AM Updated: Monday, November 08, 2010, 8:53 AM
Pity the residents of Manhattan, with their avenues named A, B or C, or numbered 3rd, 4th or 5th. For if history instructor Ron Chapman is right, they're missing out on the chance to understand their city's history by studying its street names.
"Street names tell a story," the associate professor at Nunez Community College told a crowd during a recent talk. "In New Orleans and right here in St. Bernard, they're bookmarks to our local history."
New Orleans' fanciful street names have captured the interest of history enthusiasts for years, in part because of their natural romance and poetry, and in part because they track the growth of the city from the original Vieux Carre to the expanse that New Orleans is today.
Because the original city was founded by the French, it has streets that bear the names of French royals and patron saints. Upriver from Canal Street, several thoroughfares are named for prominent Spaniards who took over the city from the French in the late 1760s. Then, as plantations both upriver and downriver were subdivided into faubourgs, or suburbs, the process of naming streets became more personal, with developers choosing names according to whatever criteria they chose.
During his lecture, Chapman credited former Times-Picayune cartoonist John Churchill Chase with writing the best-known book on the subject, "Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children and Other Streets of New Orleans."
"Chase didn't just write about it, he drew great cartoons," Chapman said of the book, first published in 1947.
Case in point: His cartoon of the French Quarter street grid showing royals skirmishing and haloed saints trying to break up the fight.
"The cartoon represents the fact that various sectors of French royalty were suspicious of each other and always struggling with one another for power. So when streets were named for royals, they were separated by a street named for a saint," Chapman said. "What do you do with a live wire? You insulate it with rubber. And the 'saint streets' served as a kind of insulator, if you will."
That's why Dumaine Street, which Chapman says was named for an illegitimate son of Louis XIV, was boxed in on one side by St. Philip Street and on the other, by St. Ann. It's also why Toulouse Street, named for another illegitimate son, was flanked by St. Peter and St. Louis.
Not all street names have hidden meanings or sly political references, said Chapman. Some names were simply practical.
Press Street, which separates Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, was named for the Levee Cotton Press, an important amenity for local plantations in early New Orleans. Rampart Street takes its name from the fortifications that once guarded the city's lakeward flank. Barracks Street, where soldiers were stationed, is equally literal.
In the faubourgs that ringed the original city after plantations were subdivided, developers seized the privilege of the naming the new streets. Many, predictably, chose family names.
"That's why you have Robert, Soniat and Dufossat street all in a row Uptown," said Daniel Taylor, an architect and historian at Koch and Wilson Architects.
Situated in what was Faubourg Avart, the streets were named for plantation owner Francois Robert Avart and his son-in-law, Valmont Soniat du Fossat. Likewise, Hurst Street was named for Cornelius Hurst, who subdivided his plantation into "Hurstville" and named its streets Eleonore, Arabella and Joseph for his wife, daughter and son, respectively.
Other developers weren't quite so egocentric. Chapman cites Denis de la Ronde of St. Bernard Parish, who named the streets of his "Versailles" faubourg for luminaries of the French Enlightenment.
"There's Montesquieu, for the political philosopher (Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) known for the concept of separation of powers in government, and there's Delille, named for the poet (Jacques Delille) known as the French Virgil," Chapman said. "Lambert (Anne-Thérèse de Marguenat de Courcelles) is named for a French woman who hosted the most intellectual salon in Paris, and Laplace for the astronomer (Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace)."
Taylor pointed to street names Uptown that are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.
"There's Napoleon Avenue and all the side streets named for his great battles, like Marengo and Austerlitz," Taylor said.
Chapman said street names help a community understand itself, and should be preserved -- although there are exceptions to that rule. Without change, New Orleans wouldn't have its famous "Muses streets" -- Erato, Terpsichore and the rest.
"Before Barthelemy Lafon drew up a plan for the Lower Garden District, there were no streets named for the nine Muses there," Taylor said. "Instead, the streets were named for members of the Saulet family, who had subdivided their family plantation into Faubourg Saulet."
Because the towns of Carrollton and Jefferson City were absorbed by the city of New Orleans, street names sometimes changed to ensure continuity from one part of the city to the other, or to eliminate duplication of names. And sometimes, political trends dictated the name changes.
"Part of Melpomene Street was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to honor King and the civil rights movement," Taylor said. And Chapman noted that Judge Perez Drive in St. Bernard Parish -- originally Good Children -- was renamed twice: Once to honor segregationist Leander Perez, then a second time when Perez's controversial political ideas fell out of favor. The name now refers to Judge Melvyn Perez.
"Each (street name) has a story, simple or convoluted, and they tell us a lot about who we were and how we developed," Chapman said. "Next time you read a street sign, think about it."
Chapman's lecture was part of a free monthly series at Nunez Community College called the Nunez History Lecture Series. Since 2001, the series has covered topics such as the plantations of St. Bernard Parish, writers of Louisiana, Huey P. Long's political legacy and more. For information about the series, call 504.278.6200.
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