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There's a lot more to NEW ORLEANS - the "Big Easy," the "city that care forgot" - than its tourist image as a nonstop party town. At once sordid and sublime, it careers along under an infuriating doublethink. While having enormous amounts of fun, you're liable to be repeatedly struck by the divisions between rich and poor (and, more explicitly, between white and black). Even so, the city's vitality and joie de vivre are real, buffeted but not beaten by the vagaries of commercialism and poverty. The melange of cultures and races that built the city still gives it its heart; not "easy," exactly, but quite unlike anywhere else in the States - or the world.

New Orleans began life in 1718 as a French-Canadian outpost, an unlikely set of shacks on a disease-ridden marsh. Its prime location near the mouth of the Mississippi River , however, led to rapid development, and with the first mass importation of African slaves , as early as the 1720s, its unique demography began to take shape. Despite early resistance from its francophone population, the city benefited greatly from its period as a Spanish colony between 1763 and 1800. By the end of the eighteenth century, the port was flourishing, the haunt of smugglers, gamblers, prostitutes and pirates. Newcomers included Anglo-Americans escaping the American Revolution and aristocrats fleeing revolution in France. The city also became a haven for refugees - whites and free blacks, along with their slaves - escaping the slave revolts in Saint-Domingue. As in the West Indies, the Spanish, French and free people of color associated and formed alliances to create a distinctive Creole culture with its own traditions and ways of life, its own patois, and a cuisine that drew influences from Africa, Europe and the colonies. New Orleans was already a many-textured city when it experienced two quick-fire changes of government, passing back into French control in 1801 and then being sold to America under the Louisiana Purchase two years later. Unwelcome in the Creole city - today's French Quarter - the Americans who migrated here were forced to settle in the areas now known as the Central Business District (or CBD ) and, later, in the Garden District . Canal Street, which divided the old city from the expanding suburbs, became known as "the neutral ground" - the name still used when referring to the median strip between main roads in New Orleans.

Though much has been made of the antipathy between Creoles and Anglo-Americans, in truth economic necessity forced them to live and work together. They fought side by side, too, in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans , the final battle of the War of 1812, which secured American supremacy in the States. The victorious general, Andrew Jackson , became a national hero - and eventually US president; his ragbag volunteer army was made up of Anglo-Americans, slaves, Creoles, free men of color and Native Americans, along with pirates supplied by the notorious buccaneer Jean Lafitte .

New Orleans' antebellum " golden age " as a major port and finance center for the cotton-producing South was brought to an abrupt end by the Civil War. The economic blow wielded by the lengthy Union occupation - which effectively isolated the city from its markets - was compounded by the social and cultural ravages of Reconstruction . This was particularly disastrous for a city once famed for its large, educated, free black population. As the North industrialized and other Southern cities grew, the fortunes of New Orleans took a downturn.

Jazz exploded into the bars and the bordellos around 1900, and, along with the evolution of Mardi Gras as a tourist attraction, breathed new life into the city. And although the Depression hit here as hard as it did the rest of the nation it also, spearheaded by a number of local writers and artists, heralded the resurgence of the French Quarter , which had disintegrated into a slum. Even so, it was the less romantic duo of oil and petrochemicals that really saved the economy - until the slump of the 1950s pushed New Orleans well behind other US cities. The oil crash of the early 1980s gave it yet another battering, a gloomy start for near on two decades of high crime rates, crack deaths and widespread corruption, but by the end of the century the tide had begun to turn, and the city now finds itself in relatively stable condition with a strengthening economy based on tourism .

The City
One of New Orleans' many nicknames is "the Crescent City ," because of the way it nestles between the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain and a dramatic horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River. This unique location makes the city's...
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