The Week Magazine
The evolution of the Big Easy
Its French Quarter is actually Spanish, many of its streets are below sea level, and many of its former public officials and judges are in jail. How did New Orleans become the nation’s most eccentric city?
Why was the city built below sea level?
Founded in a marsh in 1718, Nouvelle-Orlï¿½ans has always been a victim of its location. The French chose the site, on a crescent of soggy land extending into the Mississippi River, because it was the last landing place before the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico; they envisioned it as a booming port serving fur trappers and other traders, and a fitting capital for France’s burgeoning North American empire. But in its first four years of existence, the settlement was leveled four times by hurricanes. Engineers begged the French commander, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, to relocate above the swamp, calling it a place “where God never intended a city to be built” and where “only the madness of commercial lust could ever have tempted men to occupy.” But de Bienville refused, unwilling to forsake its strategic location.