By Mike Scott
In New Orleans, we talk funny. Simple as that, dawlin’. We’ve got words for things that nobody else in America uses with any regularity, and we make no apologies for them. In fact, we generally tend to embrace them. And so a sidewalk is a “banquette.” A neighborhood is a “faubourg.” The City Park carousel is referred to as “the flying horses.”
The origins of many of those words are pretty easy to divine. “Banquette” and “faubourg” are French in origin, for example, and “the flying horses” — while not exclusively a local term — is a fine example of locals’ hard-wired sense of poetry. Others, however, aren’t quite as easy to puzzle out.
Take “neutral ground,” which — not to be confused with the large swath of land in present-day western Louisiana that was the subject of dispute between Spain (which then held Texas) and America following the Louisiana Purchase — is the local term for the grassy and often landscaped divide that runs down the middle of our larger streets. Unlike the lyrical but somewhat outmoded “banquette,” it is a term that is still very much in common usage locally.
But why exactly do we call it a neutral ground when everyone else in the civilized world calls it a “median”? It’s not just newcomers to the city who are thrown by the term. Even many people who have been using it all their lives aren’t quite sure of its origin. That includes Mary Jane Phelan, a self-described “old New Orleanian” who called recently looking for answers once and for all.
“I wanted to ask you to explain to me again about the neutral ground and how it got named,” Phelan said. “Somebody said the big neutral ground on Canal Street got named because the Spanish people (were) on the Quarter side and the American people or French people or something had it on the other side, and the neutral ground was where they would meet to talk peacefully or something. But I’m not sure about that.”
As it turns out, whoever told Phelan that was mostly right, at least in a general sense.
The use of the term “neutral ground” as a reference to a median in New Orleans dates back to the mid-1800s and harks back to the deep ethnic rivalries roiling throughout the city at the time.
As Tulane geographer (and endless font of New Orleans knowledge) Richard Campanella wrote in a 2013 column for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, on the one hand were the French-speaking Creoles who generally lived on the French Quarter side of Canal Street street. On the other were the English-speaking Anglo-Americans, who for the most part lived on the other side of Canal, in the present-day Central Business District, then known as Faubourg St. Mary.
“Cultural differences between the Creole and Anglo populations, each of which developed alliances with various immigrant groups, led to economic and political tensions,” Campanella wrote, “which in turn led to a draconian solution: instead of learning to get along, why not get a divorce?
“New Orleans in 1836 thus divided itself into three semi-autonomous municipalities, each with its own council, police, schools, port, services and amenities, ostensibly united under a single mayor and a general council. Each even had its own seal.”
The First Municipality contained much of the Creole area, including the present-day French Quarter. The Second Municipality contained the Anglo-American area. The dividing line between the two? You guessed it: Canal Street, New Orleans’ great, wide way — with that great, wide median running down the middle of it. (The Third Municipality, incidentally, was also a Creole-dominated district, starting at Esplanade Avenue — which was the eastern border of the First Municipality — and continuing east. But that’s another story for another day.)
It wasn’t long before locals started calling that Canal Street dividing line (“semi-jokingly,” per Campanella) a “neutral ground,” a term generally used for disputed territories between warring parties — like that western Louisiana swath of land mentioned earlier.
The earliest mention of it to be found in The Picayune’s electronic archives is in the paper’s 38th edition, published on March 11, 1837 — about a month and a half after the paper’s founding — in a satirical article that also lays bare the anti-French sentiment held by some in the city at the time.
It reads: “The Neutral Ground* — This fair portion of our beautiful city is becoming daily, more and more, an object of deep interest. A large number of emigrants from the neighboring marshes have settled on this territory. We suppose they intend laying it off into lots, and giving it the name of Frog Town.”
While the unflattering ethnic reference is probably the most eye-catching part of the story, the use of an asterisk after “neutral ground” is the more historically relevant element, at least for this discussion. It referred readers to a footnote at the end of the article that read, “*Canal Street – it is to be called by the above name in future.”
As for the municipality system? It “was a spectacularly terrible idea,” Campanella wrote. “It wasted resources, pitted neighborhoods against each other, confused visitors and wreaked havoc on the city’s bond rating.”
By 1852, it was abandoned. The term “neutral ground,” however, stuck. Soon, it was applied to medians on other streets.
It’s a good thing, too. How else would we describe to people how to find us along parade routes?
This story was originally published in May 2016 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.