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NOLA History: New Orleans Neighborhood “P-Town”

New Orleans’ intricate history makes for some interesting stories behind the forming of our many neighborhoods, like Pigeon Town near the Riverbend.

Like all big cities, New Orleans is a mixture of people from different neighborhoods. Our basic navigation instructions to newcomers and visitors usually reference “Uptown” and “Downtown” neighborhoods, depending on which side of Canal Street you are. The “Uptown” side of Canal is huge, starting just upriver from the French Quarter and going out all the way to the boundary between Orleans and Jefferson Parishes. There are a lot of neighborhoods along the way: the Warehouse District, Lower Garden District, Irish Channel, Garden District, Faubourg Bouligny, Jefferson City, etc. When you get to Carrollton Avenue and the “riverbend,” you hit Pigeon Town.

camelia grill new orleans restaurant
Camellia Grill, located in the “Riverbend” section of “Pigeon Town” (Photo from JWSherman on Flickr)

Look up “P-Town” online, and you’ll see it listed as Leonidas, the largest street in the area, or West Carrollton, because it’s on the western side of Carrollton Avenue. The generally-accepted boundaries of Pigeon Town are S. Claiborne to the north, Carrollton Avenue to the east, the Mississippi River to the south, and the parish line to the west.

P-town is a fascinating mix of residential and commercial space, reflecting its origins as a portion of the City of Carrollton. While New Orleans was expanding upriver from the French Quarter, Carrollton was a small town on the western side of several plantations, offering city and town services, such as stores and commercial office space, to those plantations. As the plantation owners realized that subdividing their property and selling it off for housing was more profitable than agriculture, those big farms became new neighborhoods. Those new subdivisions would grow out, and the residents would petition the city of New Orleans to annex them, so they could take advantage of municipal services such as police and fire protection.

Pigeon Town Food Mart New Orleans
Pigeon Town Food Mart, located on Cambronne Street in Pigeon Town (photo from Infrogmation on Flickr)

As Uptown grew, the common thread that bound the neighborhoods together was St. Charles Avenue. The street followed (more-or-less) the river, so one could travel from Carrollton Avenue (the main street of the town of the same name), down to Canal Street. St. Charles Avenue was the location of the city’s first street railway, and is still the location of the oldest operating streetcar line in the country. The Mississippi River makes a big turn where St. Charles Avenue meets Carrollton Avenue. Locals call the area where the two streets meet, Riverbend. Just behind the shops and restaurants of Riverbend is P-town.

The official name of the neighborhood is Leonidas, named after the Spartan King. Leonidas Street runs more-or-less through the middle of the neighborhood, and has its own public bus line. Locals have called the area Pigeon Town for generations. It’s not named after the bird, however; the name has its roots in the word, “pidgin.” Carrollton is what we call a “backatown” neighborhood. Specifically, it’s an “Uptown Backatown” ‘hood, and if that doesn’t confuse you, you can truly consider yourself a local. Backatown areas were the main neighborhoods for working-class people of all races and ethnicities. Riverbend was a main commerce center for this side of town. When the St. Charles streetcar line hit the end of that street, it made a right-turn onto Carrollton Avenue, heading away from the river, towards Claiborne Avenue. When it got to Tulane Avenue, it turned down that street to return downtown. That was the days of “belt line” operation for the St. Charles and Tulane lines. The streetcar connected Riverbend with Canal Street. It also made it easy for folks in other Backatown neighborhoods to get up to what used to be the City of Carrollton. Two big parks opened up on Carrollton Avenue, just off St. Charles, that catered to the city’s black population, in the early 1900s. Combine black folks who were former slaves with others coming up from the Caribbean together, mix in white folks from Italy, Germany, French/Spanish Creoles of both races, and Americans from other states, and you got a lot of people speaking a lot of broken English. You’d hear people say, “all that man has is pidgin English,” as in he knew enough English to transact business in the street, or to get around on the streetcar. When you have a whole neighborhood of people speaking pidgin English, you get “Pigeon Town.”

oak street new orleans
There are a number of quaint cafes and shops along Oak Street in New Orleans (Photo from mebrett on Flickr)

Backatown neighborhoods didn’t offer much to the outsider. Their services and entertainment existed primarily for those who lived in the area. That’s why Lincoln Park and Johnson Park, located on the downtown side of Carrollton, were popular with the black community — it was just a short walk from P-town. Musicians like Buddy Bolden and Edward “Kid” Ory played gigs in those parks on weekends, which then got folks from other neighborhoods interested in the Riverbend area. Pigeon Town is just as important to the early growth of Jazz music as Storyville/Treme.

Pigeon Town Steppers Club New Orleans
The Pigeon Town Steppers Club, second-lining through Uptown New Orleans (Photo from Infrogmation on Flickr)

While the Riverbend part of the neighborhood gentrified a good bit over time, P-town still maintains its working-class roots. Gentry and working class come together on Oak Street, the main east-west (upriver-downriver) street in the neighborhood. Oak Street is a wonderful blend of small shops, diners, coffee shops, all the way up to hosting some of the best restaurants in the city. Oak Street is the location for the city’s Po-boy Fest, held every November. While the big outdoor parks where the early greats of jazz no longer exist, there are a number of great live music venues in P-town, giving the city a constant stream of talented musicians.

In many ways, P-town is a mix of everything there is to love about New Orleans.

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.

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