A Waterfront Stroll: New Orleans and the Mississippi River

10.04.2017 | In Community & Events
By Nathan Lott, Director of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans

Landscape Architect Gaylan Williams describes efforts to transform commercial wharfs into waterfront parks in the heart of New Orleans.

On a sunny morning, a crowd of 20 odd people gathered outside the Old U.S. Mint at the foot of Esplanade Avenue. Designed by William Strickland, the c. 1838 Mint exemplifies the Greek revival style popular among the Americans who flocked to New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase. Today it houses the New Orleans Jazz Museum, host of the annual Downriver Festival celebrating the Mississippi River's contributions to Louisiana's cultural and culinary traditions.

We descended into Crescent Park, where a former wharf has been transformed into a concert and event space and a trail winds along the water past the blossoms of elaborate contemporary gardens. As tugboats churned the water before us and ocean-going freighters rounded the river bend between Algiers and the French Quarter, Williams described the city's evolving relationship with its riverfront.

It was New Orleans' position as a key port that attracted striving Americans to the quaint, Creole city during the nineteenth century. International vessels sailed upriver to dock and offload goods, restocking with the Southern cotton brought downriver on steamboats. Middlemen and merchants grew wealthy, and the commercial waterfront became increasingly privatized.

Credit: New Orleans: A Descriptive View Book in Colors. Denver: H. H. Tammen Company. 1913.

Efforts to reconnect the city with its waterfront began in the 1970s, and accelerated following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. (The wharf structures at Crescent Park were lost to a fire following the storm.) Williams, part of a team helping revitalize the waterfront for the city's 300th anniversary, explained plans to expand and beautify green space. 

The Mississippi is one of several waterfronts in New Orleans, including Bayou St. John, Lake Pontchartrain and the wetlands of Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Improving public access to and understanding of this waterfront is now a goal of the city's Master Plan, thanks in part to advocacy by the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans.

A c. 1865 albumen photo showing fishing boats docked near the French Market. Credit: Washington Artillery.

We chatted as we strolled back upriver, several of us holding to-go coffee cups and a few walking dogs. There were millenials recently arrived in New Orleans, older longtime residents and even a few visitors from Australia, tipped off about the tour by their local hosts. When we reached the French Market, I took a moment to point out the site of the city's first water works, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, who like his son died of yellow fever while in New Orleans to oversee the project.

Recounting a brief history of the French Market, I noted that it's location was no accident. Well into the 20th century, the ingredients that have made Creole cuisine world famous arrived in New Orleans by boat: Not just gulf oysters to be chargrilled and the shrimp for seafood gumbo but also Central American coffee for cafe au lait and the bananas in Banana's Foster. 

Credit: New Orleans: A Descriptive View Book in Colors. Denver: H. H. Tammen Company. 1913.

Returning to the river's edge, we climbed the levee opposite Jackson Square, Renfro explained how levees, which protect the city when the river swells with spring rain, have reversed the natural land-building process in Southeast Louisiana. By preventing floods, levees also prevent the river from depositing new layers of silt and sediment. As a result, subsidence, sea-level rise and erosion have claimed more than 2,000 square miles of Louisiana wetlands since 1932. 

Standing on the levee that divides the French Quarter and the Mississippi River.

But Renfro sees hope in the Mighty Mississippi. She described the depth and speed of the Mississippi River, which transports not just cargo but many tons of sediment from the U.S. interior into the Gulf of Mexico daily. For her, the river can be the source of the city's salvation. If we use sediment diversions to simulate the spring floods of centuries past, we can direct its sediment-rich waters into our vanishing wetlands. Along with marsh creation projects, barrier island and ridge restoration projects, these diversions can restore the wetlands that protect New Orleans from hurricanes and help supply the city with the bounty of resources Louisiana’s coast provides.

About the Author Nathan Lott is director of the Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans, a regional network that conducts education, advocacy and professional development to help make New Orleans a global leader in green infrastructure. Learn more at nolawater.org.