Learning about New Orleans by Elizabeth Grim

Hello! This is AEA365 curator, Elizabeth Grim, writing to you during the week of Evaluation 2022: (Re)shaping Evaluation Together (#Eval22).  

As I think about reshaping and reimagining evaluation, I believe it is important to understand the history of the spaces and places we are working. Eval22 is being held in New Orleans, which has Indigenous, African, Caribbean, French, and Spanish influences, among others. In this post, I share a brief history and some resources to learn about the area. The Gulf Coast AEA affiliate also created a guide for Eval22 conference attendees, with local and BIPOC-owned spots.

Indigenous Influences

Eval22 is being held on the ancestral and unceded lands of the Chitimacha Tribe, with the Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica Tribes also from Louisiana. “The Chitimacha Tribe is the only tribe in Louisiana to still occupy a portion of their aboriginal homeland.” Today, Chitimacha enrollment is around 1,300 with many members still residing in Louisiana. The Chitimacha are known worldwide for their tradition of basketry, and recently launched a Rosetta Stone Software project to teach members the Sitimaxa language.

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African Influences

New Orleans was an early hub for the southern slave trade. European colonists relied on the labor and technology of enslaved West African farmers to cultivate crops and build the city’s infrastructure. Today, you can find African influences around the city through food, music, and religion, including Congo Square. Congo Square is so special because it was the one place slaves and laborers could feel free to express and enjoy themselves. It is also regarded as the birthplace of jazz, which still resounds in the city today. Louis Armstrong, one of jazz’s icons, was born in New Orleans.

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Caribbean Influences

“Thousands of Haitians landed in Louisiana in the early 19th century after fleeing their home country’s revolution. By 1809, more than 10,000 Haitians had arrived in New Orleans, doubling the population of the city.” Because of this, folks sometimes refer to New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city. Today you’ll find Caribbean influences through jazz music, drumming, voodoo ceremonies, and food.

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French Influences

New Orleans was colonized by the French in 1718 and named after the Duke of Orleans. Unlike New England’s Protestant settlers, the French colonists were Catholic, which also appealed to other immigrants such as the Italians and Irish. Today, you see French influences like Mardi Gras, which celebrates the start of Lent and the beginning of the Easter season. You can also find French influences in the French Market (also see this article about Indigenous influences), the French Quarter, and French restaurants, including the famous Café du Monde known for their beignets.

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Spanish Influences

Spanish rule of New Orleans begin in 1763 when it was transferred from France to pay a war debt. Two fires soon destroyed many of the buildings created during French control, which is why much of the historical architecture in New Orleans today is Spanish. “After Pinckney’s Treaty (1795) Spain allowed the United States – whose inland regions depended on Mississippi trade – to use the port of New Orleans. Following this, the city experienced unprecedented growth and became a major hub for trade.” Today, you can also see Spanish influences at the Cabildo and Presbytere.

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Natural History and Cultural Geography

As William Faulkner from the Gulf Coast Eval Network shared, New Orleans also has rich natural history and cultural geography. “Both the site of the native trading hub and the modern city of New Orleans are situated on a sharp turn near where North America’s largest river, the Mississippi, flows into the Gulf of Mexico. At this turn, the natural levee rises eight feet (2.5 meters) above sea level, keeping it above all but the most severe floods, and the position of the site allows good views both ways along the river. Elevated land in New Orleans has always guided city geography – note that the most historical, mansion-strewn avenues like St. Charles, Esplanade, and Old Metaire Rd. all run along natural levees. The names ‘Crescent City’ and ‘Sliver by the River’ became popular prior to the drainage of the low-lying ‘backswamp’ areas around the turn of the 20th century. The future of New Orleans will be defined by water management and the ability to learn from the long-term costs of the engineering projects that in the past gained New Orleans new land and prosperity, such as the man-made levees, the pumps (some of them still the originals!) that drain the city during storms, and the massive-but-somewhat-rickety Morganza Spillway.”

What are you learning about New Orleans during your time in the city for #Eval22?

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