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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: Backatown and the Evolution of New Orleans Neighborhoods

New Orleanians have interesting ways of giving directions, but that’s partly because the ins and outs of our neighborhoods, city layout, and slang are intricate. We refer to Uptown versus Downtown, East Bank or West Bank, and we talk about particular neighborhoods like the Lower Garden District or Faubourg Marigny. Getting to know it all can be a bit confusing, but one of the most unique terms in this geography gumbo is “back of town.”

new orleans history, new orleans map
Map from “The Creole Guide,” published in 1910, showing the growth of the back-of-town neighborhoods. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

New Orleans expanded up the river (Uptown), down the river (Faubourg Marigny, Bywater, all the way down to St. Bernard Parish), and then “back” from the river to Lake Pontchartrain. “Back of town,” said by many locals as “Backatown,” is a term that asks one to visualize New Orleans as front and back. The “front” would be the streets and neighborhoods directly along the Mississippi River, starting with the Vieux Carre (the Old Square) aka the French Quarter. The Quarter begins at the river, and extends back to Rampart Street. In the “back” of the French Quarter is Faubourg Treme, one of our most significant historic neighborhoods.

mr okra produce vendor
Produce vendor “Mr. Okra,” making his way through Faubourg Treme (courtesy Derek Bridges)

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews named his second album, “Backatown,” because that’s where he grew up. Another of Shorty’s albums, “Orleans and Claiborne,” is named for the backatown intersection of Orleans and Claiborne Avenues. Claiborne Avenue is a large (4-6 lane) street with a wide neutral ground. Since the construction of Interstate 10 in the 1960s, North Claiborne’s neutral ground has been replaced by an elevated expressway.

Backatown didn’t stop at Treme, though. When the city grew past Broad Street (the official northern boundary of Treme), the back of town became Mid-City. Going up Esplanade Avenue to the river, Treme transformed into Faubourg St. John, the neighborhood around the bayou of the same name. From the area around the bayou, backatown extended into the Gentilly neighborhood. Streetcar lines, and later buses, offered service to Mid City and Faubourg St. John. Lines such as City Park, Esplanade, St. Bernard, Paris Avenue, and Gentilly Boulevard, became known as Backatown lines, to distinguish them from transit service that ran along the Uptown-Downtown axis.

Bayou St. John, near Esplanade Avenue (Courtesy Infrogmation)

That Uptown-Downtown axis offers additional confusion to Backatown, though. All the references mentioned have been to the back-of-town neighborhoods on the Downtown side of Canal Street. The original front-to-back boundary on the Uptown side was S. Rampart Street, as the New Basin Canal ended in a turning basin at S. Rampart and Howard Avenues. As the canal made its way from there through Mid-City and out to Lake Pontchartrain, those neighborhoods became Backatown, as well. When the canal was filled in during the late 1940s, the boundary on the Uptown side became S. Claiborne Avenue. Transit lines such as Jackson, Louisiana, Napoleon, and Leonidas all connected the river neighborhoods with backatown. Up until 1951, the St. Charles streetcar line ran past its current terminus at S. Claiborne Avenue, going all the way to S. Carrollton and Tulane Avenues. The streetcars would then turn down Tulane and return to the Central Business District. This “belt” service encircled the “Uptown Backatown” neighborhoods.

new orleans streetcars, new orleans history
Streetcars crossing the New Basin Canal at S. Carrollton Avenue, 1901. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Backtown neighborhoods on the Uptown side are no less important to the cultural mix of New Orleans than those on the Downtown side. Housing projects such as the Calliope and Magnolia complexes produced several Mardi Gras Indian tribes and numerous musicians. Xavier University of Louisiana, located at Washington and S. Carrollton Avenues, links Central City with Mid-City. The railroads came into the city from the west through the Backatown neighborhoods on the Uptown side.

xavier university of louisiana
Xavier University of Louisiana (Courtesy Infrogmation)

The best way for visitors to New Orleans to understand and appreciate the Backatown neighborhoods is to ride the St. Charles and Canal Street streetcar lines, operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. The St. Charles line takes the rider through Uptown, paralleling the river, until it turns at S. Carrollton Avenue, ending at S. Claiborne. The Canal line goes right through the heart of Backatown, as it makes its way to the Cemeteries and Bayou St. John. Additionally, the Esplanade bus line takes riders along the edge of the French Quarter, then through Faubourgs Treme and St. John.

A great Backatown exploration route would be to ride the Esplanade bus to the bayou, then catch the Canal streetcar as it returns Downtown via N. Carrollton Avenue. When you get back into the Central Business District, take the St. Charles line for a ride uptown. All for a $3 day pass!

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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