Neutrally New Orleans: The story behind the term ‘neutral ground’
As New Orleans embarked upon its second century, it was a city divided. On one side, in the city’s First Municipality — the present-day French Quarter, for the most part — lived the French Creoles, with traditions dating to the city’s founding. On the other side, in the Second Municipality — today’s Central Business District — was the Anglo-American section. The two didn’t particularly get along and so each stuck mostly to their respective side of Canal Street, the center median of which was declared in the March 11, 1837, edition of The Daily Picayune to be “The Neutral Ground.” While it is unclear how prevalent its use was (or wasn’t) at the time, it marked the first known printed usage of that now-distinctly New Orleans term.
The rivalry between the two neighborhoods has long since ended — especially since the CBD isn’t as densely populated today as it once was. The term “neutral ground,” however, is still widely used to describe any grassy median separating lanes of traffic throughout the New Orleans area, whether you’re talking about Elysian Fields Avenue, Veterans Memorial Boulevard or Bullard Road — or to indicate where you parked your car during the latest rain event, or which side of the street you intend to catch the next parade.
- The word “neutral ground” was originally used to describe disputed lands between warring parties. Its adoption for use as a description of the land separating the French and Americans in New Orleans was something of a joke, according to Tulane geographer and Times-Picayune columnist Richard Campanella.
- The full 1837 reference in the Picayune 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.” Overlooking the ugly ethnic reference to the city’s French population, the key part of the entry is the asterisked footnote. It read: “*Canal Street – it is to be called by the above name in future.”
- At the time the “neutral ground” reference was published, The Picayune was the new kid on the block, as far as local newspapers go. The edition containing it was only the paper’s 38th .
- Local medians aren’t the only neutral grounds in Louisiana. A wide swath of land in present-day western Louisiana that was a source of dispute between Spanish Texas and America following the Louisiana Purchase was also referred to as the Neutral Ground. It has also been referred to as the “Neutral Strip” and “No-Man’s Land.” The dispute was resolved as part of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.
New Orleans’ lexicon is full of linguistic peculiarities, which is part of the charm of the place. On the one hand, it can separate local from visitor — just ask someone how to pronounce “calliope” or “burgundy,” and their cover will be blown one way or the other — but it also adds another quirky layer to a city that revels in the numerous oddities, linguistic and otherwise, that make it a place unto itself. Yeah, we talk funny, dawlin’, and we don’t got no shame in dat. Now, I bet I can tell you where you got dem shoes at …