The south shore of Lake Pontchartrain has been an important area for New Orleans since the early days of the city. Swampland was converted into waterfront property, and residential development wasn’t far behind that, making Lakeview a vibrant and active neighborhood in New Orleans.
Originally, the lake shore was nothing but swamp land, until French explorers set up a trappers’ outpost at the mouth of Bayou St. John. The Spanish beefed up that outpost, building a brick fort to guard the back entrance to the city. So important was that rear approach that General Andrew Jackson had gunners from Lafitte’s privateers man the cannon in Fort St. John as the British approached the city in December-January, 1815. Other than the fort, however, the land had no real value. The Spanish government sold the bulk of the lakefront to a Scotsman named Alexander Milne. Milne owned the land from the entrance of the New Basin Canal, all the way to the Rigolets Pass. He began to develop the area around Elysian Fields Avenue in what is now Gentilly. That area became known as Milneburg.
The area commonly referred to as Lakeview now is bounded by the Seventeenth Street Canal, Lakeshore Drive, Bayou St. John, and City Park Avenue. The neighborhood developed from both ends towards its middle. The two big anchor points of this part of the lakefront were the New Basin Canal on the western side, and Bayou St. John in the east. Both West End and the Spanish Fort were developed into resort areas. Locals would make day trips out from the city, first on steam trains, later on electric streetcars. Open-air bandstands, restaurants, nightclubs, even hotels popped up in both locations. On the south side of the neighborhood, the Allard Plantation had been sold to the city and broken up. The city began to develop that area into what is now City Park, while a small portion of the plantation was subdivided into residential areas. With developed areas on either end, and streetcars connecting them together, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the space was drained, filled in, and developed. The area closer to the lake shore developed first, as locals wanted fishing camps and private residences closer to the water.
As private developers began to build homes in Lakeview, the Orleans Parish Levee Board supervised massive projects to drain the land along the shore, opening up three new subdivisions, Lakeshore, Lake Vista, and Lake Terrace.
It was after World War II that Lakeview’s expansion really took off. Veterans of the war looked away from the city’s more-established neighborhoods to build homes in Lakeview and Gentilly. As houses started to appear, churches and retail businesses followed in due course. One street, Harrison Avenue, was developed as an east-west boulevard that ran from the canal, through City Park, to the bayou. This made Harrison Avenue prime retail and commercial property. Shops, gas stations, churches, movie theaters, and other businesses opened up on Harrison to service Lakeview.
Lakeview was hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Flooding from the Seventeenth Street Canal floodwall breach did terrible damage to the neighborhood, but neighbors, old and new alike, have fought hard over the last nine years to bring Lakeview back. Harrison Avenue once again is bustling with activity, from businesses, coffee shops, restaurants serving food ranging from po-boys, to Mexican cuisine, Nouvelle Creole, to steak houses and BBQ.
Visitors to the city can check out Lake Pontchartrain and Lakeview by taking the Canal Streetcar to the end of the line at the Cemeteries. Get the $3 “Jazzy Pass” from the streetcar operator. From there, transfer to the #45 bus, the Lakeview Line. Ride #45 up Canal Boulevard. Get off the bus at Harrison Avenue for some shopping, or maybe some dessert or a sno-ball. Use your Jazzy Pass to hop back on the bus, taking it to Robert E. Lee Boulevard. Walk the eight blocks up to the lake, watch sailboats, enjoy the cool breeze, and check out the Mardi Gras Fountain. When you’re ready to return, walk back to Robert E. Lee Boulevard and ride the bus down Pontchartrain Boulevard, back to the cemeteries. Pay close attention to the wide neutral ground space along Pontchartrain Boulevard — that’s where the New Basin Canal was located, until it was filled in, in the 1940s. Once you’re back at the cemeteries, ride the red streetcar back downtown.
For more information on Lakeview and Lake Pontchartrain, be sure to check out Catherine Campanella’s wonderful book, Lake Pontchartrain, from Arcadia Publishing.
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. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.