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Exploring Esplanade Avenue’s hidden history

Three centuries in, Esplanade’s ghosts still have stories to tell

Esplanade Avenue stretches roughly 3 miles from the banks of the Mississippi River to the geographic heart of New Orleans at the edge of City Park. Described as a “storehouse of 19th-century architectural types and styles,” it forms the downriver edge of the French Quarter before passing through some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Oak-lined, bisected by a grassy median locals call a “neutral ground,” studded with multicolored homes of all shapes and sizes, the avenue has been iconic for centuries.

In the 1830s, Esplanade was extended in segments from the river’s edge through a succession of habitations, or plantations, to Bayou St. John, a small waterway along the eastern edge of City Park. Conceived of as both a transportation corridor and a residential “garden suburb” for the city’s Francophone elite, the Esplanade of yesteryear was a bustling thoroughfare, teeming with mule-drawn omnibuses and pedestrians, peppered with restaurants, parks, and pleasure gardens. A Times-Picayune article from 1852 describes it as “the handsomest street in the city… with a broad space in the centre planted with a double row of forest trees, now forming a long arch of bright, thick verdure to shade the grass below.”

Since its early days, Esplanade has been home to a diverse array of New Orleans residents. Ornate mansions shoulder modest shotguns shoulder squat Creole cottages all along its reach. Cultural landmarks—like the Old U.S. Mint, St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, and City Park—anchor the avenue at either end. To locals and visitors alike, its iconic status is obvious on a sensory level. But other elements of Esplanade’s history are no longer immediately discernible. And as New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday this year, the ghosts of Esplanade’s past have fascinating stories to tell, stories that still—and perhaps especially—resonate with the city’s current moment.

Esplanade, New Orleans, 1900.
Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection, Library of Congress

Esplanade Avenue’s oldest section, from Decatur to Rampart Street alongside the French Quarter, where you can hear live music from nearby Frenchmen Street almost any time of day, witnessed some of the city’s darkest moments. Here, ghosting beneath the residences, is the former site of a complex of slave pens—private jails that housed slaves before they were sold off to planters—that made up one of the city’s most active slave-trading sites from 1840 to 1862. Before the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest slave market in America, and the French Quarter riverfront was the center of activity. However, beginning in 1829, slave traders were legally bound to board slaves outside of the Quarter due to public health concerns surrounding the overcrowded and squalid conditions of many of the slave pens. So those enslaved people who were not sold immediately upon docking were sent to pens that popped up along the Quarter’s edges—like the one located at the downriver, lakeside corner of Esplanade and Chartres—where they were given new clothes and increased rations, and forced to exercise (all to increase the traders’ profits) until planters came to the pens to inspect and decide who to purchase.

Within the past few years, the Afro-Louisiana Historical and Genealogical Society erected a plaque on the neutral ground at the intersection of Esplanade and Chartres. The plaque informs visitors that Solomon Northup, a free African-American man from New York and author of the 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave that inspired the 2013 film of the same name, was held in one of the pens along the avenue before he was sold into slavery in 1841 and eventually sent to work in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana.

As Esplanade leaves the Quarter behind and makes its way toward City Park, it intersects Claiborne Avenue. Claiborne’s traffic roars by both at ground level and along the elevated highway, Interstate 10, propped along its spine. The path of this particular stretch of interstate exemplifies the kinds of decisions public officials like Robert Moses made all over America in the 1950s and ’60s: namely, to erect highways in locations of (perceived) least resistance, i.e., parks, creek beds, and African-American neighborhoods whose residents typically lacked the political muscle to resist the intrusion.

Before the highway was erected along the section of Claiborne Avenue between St. Bernard and Orleans Avenues, a process that began in 1961, it was a bustling African-American commercial district lined with hundreds of oak trees. The trees, planted in parallel rows down the avenue’s extra-wide neutral ground, provided some of the city’s only green space available to black residents at the time, and served as a particularly significant communal space on Mardi Gras Day. Claiborne Avenue developed, in part, as a response to the segregated Canal Street commercial district nearby, and quickly became the retail corridor of the Treme and Seventh Ward neighborhoods. Circle Food Store, the first African-American-owned and -operated grocery store in New Orleans, opened in 1938, and though it struggled to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, it is still in operation at the intersection of St. Bernard and Claiborne avenues, a few blocks from Esplanade. Its title harkens back to the traffic circle that once existed at that intersection and that I-10 later demolished.

Historians believe residents were less able to mount a successful resistance to the proposed highway along Claiborne Avenue (in contrast to the concentrated effort put forth to prevent the one proposed for the French Quarter around the same time) in part because city officials, through various logistical maneuvers, kept local residents from attending planning meetings, and community leaders were focused on other pressing Civil Rights-era issues. By the time work on the highway was completed in 1968, nearly 500 mature oak trees had been removed from the neutral ground between Canal Street and Elysian Fields Avenue, and the construction of three sets of ramps meant that hundreds of structures had been demolished. Although Claiborne Avenue still hosts Mardi Gras and other cultural celebrations and is still flanked by vibrant neighborhoods, its heyday as a commercial and recreational district was truncated by the highway. Signs of its past remain visible, in part, in the form of historic architecture along the corridor, both inhabited and uninhabited.

As Esplanade continues on toward the park, it meets yet another historic street. This time, the story of the intersection is marked visually by the unique angle that characterizes it. Several blocks past Claiborne Avenue, Esplanade crosses Bayou Road, the oldest street in the city. Bayou Road meanders diagonally through the otherwise orthogonal street grid from the banks of Bayou St. John to the edge of the French Quarter. Once serving as an American Indian trade route, Bayou Road takes advantage of the same crucial (yet largely invisible) topographic feature that led to the possibility of Esplanade Avenue years later: a modest ridge of high ground deposited by the Mississippi River centuries before the city was founded.

For millennia before the arrival of colonial powers, American Indians navigated the semi-aqueous landscape of what would become the New Orleans area by taking advantage of relative high ground and smaller bodies of water that flowed across the landscape like so many interconnecting roads. This pathway, loosely traced by today’s Bayou Road (and continued by Bell Street on the other side of Broad), is one of several American Indian guides showed the French when they were exploring the area at the end of the 17th century. Its connection to Bayou St. John, Lake Pontchartrain, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico (a far more advantageous route than traveling up the Mississippi from the Gulf before the age of steam power) contributed to the decision to found the capital of the French colony in present-day New Orleans.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Bayou Road was known for its concentration of free people of color who owned numerous lots along its diagonal reach. Near its intersection with Esplanade, Le Musée de f.p.c. educates visitors on the history of the population in New Orleans. Now, Bayou Road’s brick-lined, odd-angled presence reminds the Esplanade Avenue traveler of the invisible ridge that inspired both thoroughfares. Strangely shaped lots created by the convergence of Esplanade’s orthogonal grid and Bayou Road’s older, diagonal one—like the triangular Alcée Fortier Park in the Bayou St. John neighborhood—intermittently flank Esplanade Avenue as it crosses Broad Street and heads toward City Park.

One more (relatively) hidden relic before you reach the park, however: Behind a row of newer homes between Verna Court and Leda Court, perhaps in need of upkeep but nonetheless imposing, atop a grassy mound tiered like a layer cake, the Luling Mansion quietly resides. In 1865, cotton merchant Florence Luling commissioned famous New Orleans architect James Gallier Jr. to design the 22-room Italianate mansion set on 80 acres fronting Esplanade. Soon after the Luling family moved in, however, their two young sons drowned in nearby Bayou St. John. In 1871 Luling sold the mansion to the Louisiana Jockey Club, which had recently acquired the nearby racetrack known today as the Fair Grounds, for use as their headquarters. For decades to follow, the mansion housed lavish parties and events before being broken into apartments in the 20th century. Its once-resplendent grounds fronting Esplanade have since been fragmented into residential lots.

Just before the avenue opens up from its tunnel of trees, delivering you into City Park, you’ll pass the mammoth St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, its above-ground mausoleums stretching into the distance. Then Esplanade Avenue crosses Bayou St. John. Over a century ago, the bridge that once spanned this location—a pivoting truss bridge constructed sometime in the mid- to late-19th century, a rarity even among historic bridges in America—was untethered from Esplanade and placed on a barge only to be re-fastened to the banks of the bayou several hundred feet to the south. This historic bridge remains down-bayou to this day, and is currently undergoing highly anticipated renovations. A well-known and well-loved structure in New Orleans, the Magnolia (a.k.a. Cabrini) Bridge hosts numerous weddings, picnics, and public events each year.

Finally, located at the center of a traffic circle, an empty, unsightly pedestal marks Esplanade’s terminus at the edge of City Park. This perch once sported the equestrian statue of Civil War general Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. The statue, made by esteemed American sculptor Alexander Doyle, was erected (like many of the Confederate statues that once peppered the city) in the early years of the 20th century, long after the end of the Civil War. In 2017, the statue was removed as part of the city’s campaign to dislodge its Confederate monuments from public spaces. For now, much like the other hidden stories along Esplanade’s sprawl, the sky-framed pedestal reminds us of the city’s complex history and continuous evolution as it enters its fourth century of existence.