Uptown, Neutral Ground Side, and the East Bank: Crescent City Dysfunction


Good morning from the Mardi Gras Icepocalypse! I can’t believe this. I’m watching the road closings and Mardi Gras celebration cancelations unfold as the bridges in Louisiana ice … yet again. It’s March. Saturday and Sunday, I sweated so much my Mardi Gras beads were sticking to my neck with colorful kisses that had to be washed off with a good scrubbing. My friend Michael sunscreened his bald spot, and I considered – but refused – putting sunscreen on my bare shoulders to avoid an inevitable sunburn. It is a late-in-the-year March Mardi Gras, and by God’s law, it should be at least warm in Southern Louisiana. But, no ….not this year.

My friend Jo Ann just finished making her tutu. She made us t-shirts for the country Mardi Gras event in Mamou. Her intention was to wear them WITHOUT a parka. We just heard the event has been canceled, so it doesn’t matter what we wanted to wear. We’ve got no place to go unless we change destinations and don’t have to cross a bridge to get there. I’m glad I ventured into New Orleans this weekend for a taste of the holiday that I had not experienced in over 30 years.

Our intended Mardi Gras wear.

There are some things about my New Orleans adventure that I’m just beginning to understand. I’m not from New Orleans, but I’ve been around enough friends from the Crescent City that some of the terms used in the city are familiar. However, it does not mean that I understand them. Sunday, I was trying to meet Michael’s group over on St. Charles for some daytime parades. I got stuck Saturday night on Canal trying to cross, and I didn’t want that to happen again. So, I asked what side of St. Charles I needed to be on to find him. He replied that they were on the sidewalk side. Hmmmm… Why do they only have a sidewalk on one side of a large street like St. Charles? So, I ventured off and asked a couple of people which side of St. Charles didn’t have sidewalk? They all looked confused, and, like me, they thought it had a sidewalk on both sides. Luckily, the parade wasn’t rolling yet, so I finally found them. When I told him those directions sucked, he laughed and said, they were on the sidewalk side NOT the neutral ground side. I argued that he was right, but there were actually TWO sidewalk sides on St. Charles. He said,” Yeah, but the parade doesn’t roll on the other side.” Duh, dude… the GPS doesn’t know which side the parade rolls on. He totally didn’t get my confusion, and I totally didn’t get the fact that he didn’t get my confusion.

My friend Robbie last night informed me about the history of the neutral ground in New Orleans. Legend has it that when the French and the Americans both occupied the city, they wouldn’t do business together. A market was set up in the grassy area on Canal Street so that both sides could shop there. Thus medians – for the rest of the world – became known as neutral grounds in New Orleans. My guess is everybody local knows what side of the street the parade rolls on, so there is one “sidewalk side” and one “neutral ground side” on the parade route. If I want to know where you are, those directions should get me there. Unless, of course, I’m a tourist, and I have no freaking idea which side of the street the parade rolls.

When I arrived at my sidewalk side destination on Sunday, I saw people with t-shirts emblazoned with Sidewalk Side and Neutral Ground Side. That was my first clue that this wasn’t just a direction, it was a destination. The other thing that is confusing about New Orleans is the Uptown/Downtown thing. In other cities, Downtown is the hub of the city. But, in New Orleans, the designator is about the direction in which the river flows. So, Uptown means upriver as in “going against the current”. Then there are Wards which are actually no longer voting wards but people still use them to designate their local community. Communities add to the confusion – Algiers, Gretna, Chantilly and Chalmette among others. In the midst of this already confused directional terminology, you have the Eastbank and the Westbank which could encompass any of the other locations previously mentioned. I asked Michael what he considers Uptown, and he gave me his parameters but said some people say they live in Uptown but they don’t. I don’t know how anybody knows where they are. I’d just like to know who’s in charge of all of these boundaries which are more confusing than trying to unravel a pile of Mardi Gras beads. Robbie told a story about a parole officer who was asked to give permission for one of his parolees to go out of state for a funeral. As he got into the process, they just wanted to go across the river, but, since they had never traveled there, they thought it was another state. I understand. The whole New Orleans directional thing is enough to drive anybody into a life of crime… or at least to drinking.

This map is a combination of Wards and Communities and descriptions like Arts District. Plus everything is either on the East Bank or West Bank of the River.

Luckily, there are a few things in recent years that help New Orleans-challenged folks like me. For instance, the t-shirts that inform your parade party location … or maybe where to bring you if you get lost…. are made by a company called Fleurty Girls. I did not get to visit the shop but apparently they were right down the street on the Sidewalk Side in the Uptown neighborhood on St. Charles where we were parading on Sunday. I’m definitely going shopping soon. The other ingenious invention that saved my butt this weekend was the Parade App. I didn’t download it, but with this app Michael was able to determine when the parades rolled and where they were at any time. I don’t know if it uses normal directional terminology or New Orleans directional terminology. In the case of the latter, it may be of little use to someone like me. But, next time I’m going to give it a try anyway.

And… another thing … whatever happened to paper maps where I can look on a map and tell where I am and where I’m going? Whatever happened to North and South? A GPS just doesn’t do it when you’ve got parades splitting the roads and the city and people feeding you directional terms that make no sense. In hindsight, I’m glad I spent most of the weekend in the care of other people. Just take me there. There’s nothing easy about the Big Easy… sorry.

2 Comments on “Uptown, Neutral Ground Side, and the East Bank: Crescent City Dysfunction

  1. gotta love thoe local idiosynchrosies(sp?) I love the accent in that city. Not a fan of the general southern accent, but their’s is pretty cool.
    I looked for a King Cake in Whole Foods this weekend, but didn’t find one. Could have looked longer but I was on a mission.

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