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A look at Bayou St. John, New Orleans’s crown jewel

‘It’s a very close-knit neighborhood, for better or for worse’

In the middle of New Orleans is a neighborhood with a tight-knit community that sits along the banks of Bayou St. John, a jewel that remains one of the city’s few natural waterways.

Today, Bayou St. John—also referred to as Faubourg St. John, especially when differentiating the neighborhood from the actual bayou—holds some of the oldest residences in New Orleans.

Faubourg St. John is named after the body of water that defines the western edge of the neighborhood. The bayou starts at Lake Pontchartrain, which is north of New Orleans, and flows to Mid-City, near the Lafitte Greenway.

The bayou’s relationship with New Orleans began in 1708. As traders searched for an easier way to ship goods to New Orleans, American Indians shared their knowledge of Bayou St. John as a shortcut to the Mississippi River. While the bayou no longer connects to the river, geography of 18th century shows how it made traversing the river easier. By 1718, a handful of settlers began building along the high ground near the waterway.

By the early part of the 19th century, land in Faubourg St. John was in a major legal dispute. According to the U.S. Supreme Court case Gaines v. New Orleans, land that businessman Daniel Clark subdivided in Bayou St. John was stalled for decades, when his daughter Myra Clark Gaines challenged her father’s will. Clark Gaines set out to prove she was the legitimate heir of the land owned by business man Daniel Clark, despite her father not listing her in his will. The case resulted in a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans.

As noted in the book Notorious Woman: The Celebrated Case of Myra Clark Gaines, Clark listed his mother has the only heir to his estate, and left two of his business associates as executors of that property. The executors sold much of the land to third parties, including the city of New Orleans. After nearly six decades of lawsuits, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Clark Gaines, officially adding Clark Gaines to her father’s will four years after her death.

Faubourg St. John holds a mix of architecture found across New Orleans, including Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Creole styles. The neighborhood has French colonial country homes, as well.

For starters, the Old Spanish Custom House on Moss Street, a massive home built in 1784 that overlooks the bayou, ranks as the oldest residence in the neighborhood. The home was auctioned in 2009 with no reserve and sold for $1.045 million. The Sanctuary, a French colonial home built circa 1790, also sits on Moss Street.

A few blocks down is the Pitot House, which has a history of affluent owners, including New Orlean’s first mayor, James Pitot. Today the Louisiana Landmarks Society is headquartered inside of the home, and gives tours of the property five days a week. It’s the only Creole colonial country home open to the public.

Beyond its historic residences, Faubourg St. John is known for its non vehicular Magnolia Bridge—also referred to as the Cabrini Bridge. The late 19th-century swing bridge formerly connected Esplanade Avenue over the bayou, but was later moved farther down the bayou on Moss Street. The bridge will be close to the public until late 2018, because it’s undergoing a $1.3 million renovation spearheaded by the city of New Orleans that started in January of 2018. The bridge has remained an integral part of the neighborhood, and has been the site of community gatherings and weddings.

Today the neighborhood has the advantage of being in the middle of the city. It’s moments from the Lafitte Greenway and City Park. It also has its own share of green space, including three small parks.

According to the American Community Survey, roughly 4,000 New Orleanians live in this neighborhood. These residents are frequent supporters of a charming commercial area between the 3000 and 3200 block of Esplanade Avenue, which has a corner markets and local restaurants.

While quiet most of the year, the neighborhood hosts events that attract both locals and tourists. In the spring, Downtown Mardi Gras Indians host a celebration of their tribes along Bayou St. John. On Easter Weekend, Crescent City Classic includes Esplanade Avenue in its 10 kilometer running course. On the third weekend of May, Friends of Bayou St. John (formerly the Mothership Foundation) hosts Bayou Boogaloo, which is a three-day party on the bayou.

Faubourg St. John is adjacent to the fair grounds, which hosts the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—also known as Jazz Fest—during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.

On a regular day, it’s not uncommon to find a neighborhood resident basking in Faubourg St. John’s history while walking along the bayou.

Pictured above: Emile & Hazel before church; Assanta, writing by the water near Magnolia Bridge; Anthony after his run.