Black in Back: Mardi Gras and the Racial Geography of New Orleans (I)

Among the people who came to New Orleans by the Bayou St. John route were slaves who, before the canal was built, were a convenient sort of cargo because they could walk the last two miles. The portage wound through undeveloped swamp to the rear edge of the city at what is now the corner of Rampart and Governor Nicholls Streets. Later, when Carondelet Canal was completed, the slaves’ first footfall in North America was a field adjacent to the turning basin — a field that has been variously called Circus Public Square, Place des Negres, and (immediately after the Civil War) Beauregard Square. It is now known as Congo Square. This was the threshold between the wilderness and the European town, and it was New Orleans’s back door sill. It would not be the last time that these individuals would be admitted “‘round back.”

The two squares — Jackson and Congo — marked the formal front entrance and the utilitarian back entrance to the old city. Orleans Street, perpendicular to the river, connects the two, or almost: it runs four blocks from Congo Square up to the rear garden of St Louis Cathedral. To continue on to Jackson Square, you must slip around the Cathedral on either Pirate Alley or Pere Antoine Alley, now charming passages that nonetheless underscore that you’re making your way around front.

The two squares also marked the centers of gravity — geographic and symbolic — of the city’s white and black populations. These centers then extended into gravitational lines parallel to the river, as the city, constrained by the swamps, grew like a snake upriver and downriver from the Quarter. These lines, even today, retain qualities of front and back.

via Black in Back: Mardi Gras and the Racial Geography of New Orleans: Places: Design Observer.