One of the most historic cities in the U.S., New Orleans dazzles with its ornate cathedrals, lush gardens, and neighborhoods that seem to melt into one another—so much so that it can be hard to know where exactly you are. But whether you find yourself in the Gentilly or the French Quarter, one thing’s for sure: The area’s bound to have a rich, compelling story to tell.
Known for its colorful Spanish and French architecture, Bywater encompasses—but is not limited to—much of the Bywater Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This area has gone through a few different nicknames—it was first Faubourg Washington (faubourg being an old French term meaning something like suburb) and later Little Saxony, for its sizable population of German immigrants. But in the 1940s, when the telephone company gave each area a unique code name for the rotary phone dial (to help make phone numbers easier to remember), they went with BYwater for this neighborhood, due to its close proximity to the Mississippi River. Later, the code was changed to WHitehall, but it was too late by then: Bywater had caught on for good. Today, it’s also part of what’s affectionately known as “the Sliver by the River,” referring to the area along the water that saw no flooding during Hurricane Katrina, thanks to its slightly higher elevation compared to the rest of New Orleans.
2. PIGEON TOWN
Located in the 17th Ward, Pigeon Town is a working-class nabe known for its concentration of musicians and artists. It’s also sometimes called Pension Town, usually by newcomers to the area, and there’s been great debate over which name came first and is therefore correct. In 2015, The Times-Picayune tried to get to the root of the matter, finding local histories explaining the origins of both names. They found that Pension Town may date to late 19th-century wars and returning soldiers buying land with their army pensions, while Pigeon Town could be a reference to immigrants who once populated the area and spoke in “pidgin” English. Meanwhile, the city officially calls the region Leonidas, for the street running through its center, and it’s also called West Carrollton—as it once comprised about half of the town of Carrollton before it was incorporated into New Orleans. Pigeon Town or Pension Town are still the most common names you’ll heard these days, though, and locals often sidestep the whole issue by just calling it “P-Town.”
3. VIEUX CARRÉ
The oldest part of the city, Vieux Carré is perhaps better known as the French Quarter, and it literally translates to “old square” in French. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this was the site of the original central plaza built by the French settlers in the early 1700s. Most of the neighborhood’s current buildings, however, were constructed by the Spanish during their rule of New Orleans in the later 1700s—and this is partially because the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 wiped out most of the French buildings. Buildings in the Vieux Carré are particularly known for the lacy, elaborate ironwork found on their signature “galleries” (a wider version of a balcony, supported by columns). The Vieux Carré is also the name of a classic cocktail from the 1930s—rye whiskey, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine, and two kinds of bitters—which was coined in the area’s own Hotel Monteleone.
4. LITTLE WOODS
This one isn’t too strange if you look at its original name, Petit Bois: It’s a direct translation of Little Woods. What’s perhaps more of a mystery is the fact that there were no forests growing in this area when it was first developed by the French. The "Little Woods" they were referring to was, in fact, the swamp vegetation on Lake Pontchartrain, which the neighborhood faces. Close enough.
5. ST. ROCH
A subdivision of Bywater, St. Roch was known as Faubourg Franklin for its first century or so. But in the mid-19th century, a yellow fever epidemic hit the city of New Orleans, whereupon German priest Peter Leonard Thevis vowed to St. Roch, the patron saint of good health, to build a chapel in the area dedicated to him if no one in the parish died of the disease. The saint apparently provided, because Thevis built the chapel, along with a shrine and cemetery, both of which shortly became New Orleans landmarks. The neighborhood has been called St. Roch ever since.
Although Claude Tremé only owned land in the area for a short time—and his wife was actually the one who inherited most of it—he’s somehow managed to be the lasting namesake of a neighborhood that has really gone through some nicknames. It was first called Place de Nègres, after the main plaza where slaves would gather to dance and play music. This name—both the plaza and the neighborhood—was later updated to Congo Square. In the late 19th century, the city of New Orleans renamed it Beauregard Square, after Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, but people ignored that and kept calling it Congo Square. Then the area was called Back of Town for many years, for its location away from both Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi and at the “back” of the French Quarter. In the ’70s, the city created Louis Armstrong Park and christened an open space within it “Congo Square,” in a callback to the area’s history. Today, its official name is actually Tremé-Lafitte, since it’s incorporated the Lafitte Projects. According to “The King of Tremé,” drummer Shannon Powell, the name “Tremé” has only been in use to refer to this area as of the 21st century. “We always called this neighborhood part of the 6th Ward. Local people called it that. No one local called the Tremé Tremé.”
There are two main theories behind the name of this neighborhood that’s also known as the 15th Ward. One is that its location was so far-flung that the French settlers compared the distance between it and the rest of the city to the distance between France and Algeria. The other is that a soldier who had fought in Algeria said that the neighborhood looked similar to the north African landscape he’d recently returned from when viewed from a ship. Neither of these tales have been proven, however.
Gentilly is a corruption of the word chantilly, but it’s not the lace that this neighborhood is named for. Instead, it’s the town of Chantilly, located just outside of Paris, for which the lace is also named—and more specifically, it was the town's grand Château de Chantilly that the French settlers had in mind when they developed this area just outside of New Orleans. It’s said that the G was swapped in because “French tongues have a hard time with something starting with ‘Ch.’”
Although it abuts the city limits to the west and is technically not a part of New Orleans, Metairie isn’t a separate city either, only an unincorporated “census-designated place,” so we’re counting it. The community got its name from four French brothers, the Chauvins, who owned thousands of acres in Jefferson Parish in the 1720s, which they split up to employ sharecroppers who paid their rent in produce. The French word for such a tenant farm is—voilà—métairie.