Greater New Orleans, because of its low-lying location, developed as a tight urban area. The original town clung at first to its limited high ridges such as those along the Mississippi River as well as the Esplanade, Metairie and Gentilly ridges. It later spread outward within a confined network of levees and pumps.
Founded in 1718, New Orleans was concentrated in the French Quarter on high riverfront land for nearly a century. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the city grew rapidly, as nearby plantations were subdivided into streets. Rather than sprawling far outward from its original settlement, it tended to remain parallel to the river extending no more than a short distance inland. Most growth was upriver – Uptown – between St. Charles Avenue and the river, because this area provided a much wider riverfront ridge to build on than was available downriver – Downtown – which grew more slowly.
By the 1870s New Orleans was filling its available high land on the east bank, and was starting to grow away from the river into low flood-prone land – today’s Mid-City.
In 1899 a massive system of canals and pumps capable of draining low-lying areas was approved by voters. With this, New Orleans no longer grew alongside the river, but began pushing north toward Lake Pontchartrain. In the 1950s the city reached the lake as houses were going up in Lakeview and Gentilly, once cypress swamps were deemed uninhabitable.
With the main body of the city now occupied and its population still growing, movement accelerated into east Jefferson Parish, which grew dramatically to become an extension of the city. At about the same time subdivisions began sprouting downriver in St. Bernard Parish and in eastern New Orleans. With the opening of the Greater New Orleans Mississippi River Bridge in 1957 the Westbank joined in on the building boom.
By the last decades of the 20th century the core of greater New Orleans had reached its habitable limits, and growth began to expand still farther afield – upriver into the River Parishes and more dramatically to the North shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
These pictures show the New Orleans that was, and that was about to be.