On Tuesday, New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter will descend into booze-fueled debauchery as beads of green, gold and purple soar from the balconies of Bourbon Street on the final day of Mardi Gras. Long divorced from its roots as a Catholic farewell feast to gluttony, the event has become little more than a celebration of its spirited and storied host city. Today one of the biggest bashes in the world, Mardi Gras attracts nearly a million revellers every year, providing a much needed economic boost to a city that has been sinking–literally and figuratively–since its founding in 1718. But despite three centuries of hardship, its NOLA’s unshakably jubilant spirit that has allowed it to weather the crushing blows that have devastated America’s forgotten cities. Deviant, defiant and dead-set on letting the good times roll, the Big Easy has a long history of partying in the face of panic.
Here’s a look at just some of the instances in which NOLA danced with disaster.
The Panic of 1837
New Orleans’ location at the mouth of the Mississippi gave it an obvious economic advantage since the city’s founding in 1718 by French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans became “the most important commercial city in America, if not the world,” according to the 1887 Report on the Internal Commerce of the United States. Ruling the cotton and sugar industries with an iron fist, the Big Easy was aflush with capital in the early 19th century and remained that way until the devastating Panic of 1837. But instead of crumbling under the economic calamity, the Big Easy responded by celebrating its first Mardi Gras that very year.
The Civil War
As documented in the 1887 Report on the Internal Commerce of the United States, NOLA’s stronghold over the wheat and lead trade in the South began to weaken in the years leading up to the Civil War. The war and its resulting abolishment of slavery also had a devastating economic impact on the region. In addition to this, historians note, the post-war years were wrought with “abject poverty, monumental racial tensions, and a political culture that was, at best, chaotic.” How did the Big Easy respond to this? By naming a carnival king, of course. As the International Business Times notes, the city’s annual Mardi Gras tradition of crowning a carnival “Rex” (latin for King) began in 1872 as a way of helping local businesses after the Civil War.
World War II
The post-WWII years were some of the most devastating in New Orleans’ history. In a report entitled “American Cities In Decline,” Business Insider noted that NOLA’s 1960 population of 627,525 shrunk by nearly half in the five decades following the war. Suburbanization and increasing racial tensions in the city resulted in “white flight,” and the social ills of poverty and crime soon took hold in the Big Easy, History notes. How did the city leverage this crisis? By creating the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Founded in 1970, the festival started as a local celebration of creole culture, cuisine, art, history and, of course, music, and now attracts 400,000 visitors annually, second only to Mardi Gras in popularity, Forbes reports. It was also in the decades succeeding WWII, History notes, that New Orleans gained popularity as a destination for hedonists.
No disaster in NOLA’s history has proved more devastating than Katrina. Nearly 80% of the city was submerged in water after the 2005 storm, and 20% of its residents left for good. But despite facing its most crippling predicament, the Big Easy bounced back like never before. According to Forbes, within six years of the disaster, New Orleans’ entrepreneurial activity was 40% above the national average. As the Times-Picayune reports, in 2012 the city welcomed over 9 million tourists–the second-highest visitor count on record. Earlier this month, the New Orleans Film Festival became an Oscar-qualifying festival in the documentary shorts category and the New York Times recently gushed about the city’s thriving gastronomical scene (there are 70% more restaurants today than before Katrina).
Though far from the being the oldest settlement in the country, New Orleans is said to be the most written about of all American cities. Its unmistakable charm and character have seduced countless playwrights, poets and authors and its status as a cultural and historical anomaly make it a fascinating destination for travellers. And as it marks its 178th Mardi Gras tomorrow, NOLA’s status as “the city that care forgot” will ring truer than ever before.