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NOLA History: The Warehouse District

As Americans migrated down to New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, the city began to grow beyond the original borders of Adrien De Pauger’s street plan for what is now the French Quarter. As the story goes, the French-Spanish Creoles had little interest in socializing with, much less living next to, the “Caintocks” who came down the river from Tennessee and Kentucky, so those folks went on the upriver side of Canal Street. The Creoles called their neighborhood the Vieux Carre’ (old square). The neighborhood just north was Faubourg Treme, just downriver was Faubourg Marigny, and they called the American Quarter (also known as the American Sector), Faubourge Ste. Marie.

port and city of new orleans 1858 painting Adrien Persac
“Port and City of New Orleans,” 1858 painting by Adrien Persac

Keep in mind, everything starts at the river. In the 19th Century, it’s all about riverfront property. Above and below the city, the planters needed access to the river to move raw goods (cotton, indigo, sugar cane) to the port. The merchants and shippers needed riverfront space, wharves and warehouses, to service ocean-going ships. If you stand at the foot of Canal Street, right by the river (where the Aquarium of the Americas is now), and look uptown, upriver, that’s where merchants like John McDonough of Baltimore, shippers from Liverpool, and others of British, Irish, and German descent, made their fortunes. Moving in from the river, the wharves where the ships docked were located right on the water and across from Front Street were distribution warehouses (then light industrial operations). The industrial businesses were primarily there to support the shipping industry, sheet metal work, rope/cable makers, etc. As railroads emerged, service trackage made it from the main line tracks further inland to the streets near the river. Railroads are still important to the port, though truck transport has taken over much of what comes into the working part today.

anheuser busch brewery stables cbd new orleans 1890s_unknown photographer
Aneheusr Busch brewery stables, Gravier and Front Streets in the Central Business District, 1890s (photographer unknown)

Put all this together, and you get the original Central Business District (CBD). The CBD has many layers: the wharves, the warehouses, the factories and plants, and the office buildings, as you walk from the river towards Lake Pontchartrain. The plan for an actual canal on Canal Street made that boulevard quite wide (140′), so all this activity kept the “uncouth Americans” separate from the Creole families. The Creoles had the downriver part of the riverfront, as well as the Carondelet Canal, which tied their neighborhood to Bayou St. John and the lake. The Americans saw the need for similar access to the lake, so they built the New Canal in the 1830s. The goods that moved through the working part varied over the 1800s, but what was important was that they moved. By the turn of the 19th Century, New Orleans was the home of United Fruit Company. United Fruit’s Chiquita Bananas were a huge part of the tonnage passing through the port throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

international trade mart towers new orleans riverfront_derzsi eiekes andor
The International Trade Mart towers over the New Orleans riverfront, 1977 (photo courtesy Derzsi Elekes Andor)

The expansion of rival ports on the Gulf Coast, along with the explosive growth of the oil and gas industry in New Orleans, shrank the amount of activity along the river. The Great Depression shrank the overall business activity from the wharves to the office buildings. A lot of the blocks off of the river became rundown, low-rent, and unappealing. The portion of Camp Street from Poydras to Calliope became the city’s “skid row,” with parents in the 1950s and 1960s admonishing their children to study hard, lest they “end up on Camp and Julia.”

This decline in the riverfront area of the CBD continued into the 1970s, when the departure of Chiquita Brands for Gulfport, Mississippi dealt a serious blow to the port. City leaders realized that there was more wharf, warehouse, and industrial space in the neighborhood than it would ever again sustain. Numerous plans were floated to improve, upgrade, and gentrify the area, and the plan which gathered the most traction was to hold a World’s Fair along the riverfront. The Louisiana World Exposition of 1984 was everything the city leaders hoped for in terms of a catalyst. Old wharves were demolished, to make way for what is now the Riverwalk Outlet Mall and the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center. Old factories like Federal Fibre Mills were converted into exposition and office space, then re-purposed as condominiums. Restaurants and bars that initially opened in the neighborhood for the six-month fair period stayed and became anchors. Casino gaming followed on the heels of the World’s Fair, further converting the area from industrial to residential and commercial. While the riverboat gaming industry didn’t fare well along the Mississippi, it laid a foundation for more tourist development, such as the Julia Street Cruise Ship Terminal, and Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World (on the upriver side of the Convention Center). What was once “skid row” became the “Warehouse District.”

federal fibre mills building new orleans_jeffry Beall
The Federal Fibre Mills Building. Originally a factory, then part of the World’s Fair in 1984, now condominiums. (photo courtesy Jeffrey Beall)

In the midst of all this development in the Warehouse District, the late Stephen Ambrose, Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans, chased his dream of opening a “D-Day Museum” in New Orleans. He led a group that found a site in the Warehouse District, and what is now the National World War II Museum opened on June 6, 2000. With such a large museum development moving into the blocks bounded by Camp, Calliope, Constance, and St. Joseph Streets, other nonprofits were inspired to come to the Warehouse District. The Contemporary Arts Center, Children’s Museum, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, along with a wide range of smaller studios and galleries, converted the “Warehouse District” into the “Arts District.”

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Vehicles on display outside the National World War II Museum, in the New Orleans Warehouse District. (photo courtesy Infrogmation on Flickr)

The Port of New Orleans, along with the Port of St. Bernard Parish (below the city), are still productive commercial ventures, but the area from the French Quarter to just upriver from the Convention Center thrives as space for locals and visitors alike. Turn from the river and walk towards the lake, like the original citizens of New Orleans did, and the CBD offers all a wide range of diversions to entice and inspire.

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 on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).

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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