It is no secret that I take great delight in the street culture of New Orleans. I’m a regular at Second Lines throughout the city, and last weekend experienced my first Mardi Gras Indian practice. The combination of brass bands and vibrant colors are like a Siren’s song for me — I can’t help but be drawn in. If I hear a good brass band, I’ll almost inevitably stop what I’m doing to follow it. There is something deep within the sounds and rhythms that have a mystical and ineffable power over me. There is, however, another kind of “street culture” that I find just as compelling, if a little more recondite: the history behind New Orleans street names.
I have been reading a lot of New Orleans history lately. Part of this is my general love of history, and part of this is the desire for a deeper understanding of my new home. I’m also considering taking the tour guide licensing test at some point (I practiced assiduously on my parents on their recent Thanksgiving visit — my son couldn’t be bothered with anything but beignets) if for no other reason than to have another card to play should I need it. To that end, I bought a book called Beautiful Crescent, which offers a concise but relatively complete overview of the city’s history, and is the book that the test is based on. Now, everywhere I look, I am surrounded by Native Americans, explorers, merchants, plantation owners, nobles, pirates, saints, generals, governors, and kings — the street names of New Orleans — rising above the ground like the specters whose names they bear.
If you’ve already stopped reading I don’t blame you. You probably thought you were going to get a story about a Tremé Second Line and Indian practice. Instead, you’re stuck reading about streets. Streets that often leave you bewildered at their lack of signage. Streets that are more efficient assassins of tires than a band of street punks with box-cutters. Streets that have potholes so big that they’ve been decorated for Mardi Gras. Streets that are presently either all closed or torn asunder simultaneously under an ambitious if dubious construction project to benefit the NFL while antagonizing the rest of us. But there is another story here, as visible as the mausoleums that dot our collective consciousness, yet are also often overlooked. Our street names aren’t mere descriptors of location — a point on a map or a set of coordinates — but an intricate tapestry that tell the story of this place. I can’t think of any other American city whose streets are more telling.
Desoto, LaSalle, Tonti, Iberville and Bienville. The names of those who came in conquest, first Spanish, then French. Desoto, the Conquistador who is believed to be the first European set eyes on the Mississippi. The ill-fated Lasalle, who canoed down the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, only to be unable to find the river’s mouth from the Gulf on his next voyage; he was subsequently killed in a mutiny. Tonti, LaSalle’s friend, who dutifully traveled downriver to meet LaSalle until he could wait no longer, instead leaving a letter with a local tribe that wouldn’t be discovered until Iberville and Bienville’s time. Bayou Road, the old Native American trail that led served as a portage between Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John and the Mississippi River. Tchoupitoulas, the name of one of the tribes that once occupied the crescent now called New Orleans. And there are a hundred other streets that are still mysteries to me. Who was Rocheblave? Villere?
And then there are the Muses. Is it any wonder that music, writing, and the arts thrive in a city whose very streets are named after inspiration itself. Terpsichore, Erato, Clio, Felicity… names that ring like church bells. You name things not only for what they are but for what you hope they will become. And indeed, New Orleans has become a muse… has become my muse. Because there is something in these streets, something ancient and haunted that grabs you and holds onto you. There are spirits that walk these streets, that breathe life into them… music… chants and cries, call and response, that predate second lines and Mardi Gras Indians, floating along the vestiges of bayous, the current beneath the still glass of stunted rivers….