Here in New Orleans, watch out when someone says “The story goes…” That’s usually prelude to a myth. I tend to be a myth buster. I don’t mean to be, but that’s how it is. The information that people have access to has changed thanks to television, movies, the internet and, yes, even guidebooks. Much information has become terribly distorted and too many people glean from these inaccurate sources. Many times, it’s just a question of using the ol’ noodle and thinking.
For example, the idea that we cannot bury below ground because of water – one of our most enduring myths – is easily disproven when one considers there are many, many areas around the world that have high water tables, but that does not stop them from in ground burial. New Orleans has eleven below-ground cemeteries. Every cemetery (including St. Louis Cemetery #1) has below ground graves. Why, then, do we bury this way? Come see me on a tour; I won’t just tell you - I’ll show you.
In the Garden District there is a house, built in the early 20th Century, that has a double staircase in front. People are told that one side was for men and the other was for women because they were not permitted to use the same staircase. Nonsense! First of all, it is the only double staircase in the Garden District - at least, I have yet to find another. Secondly, the house is a 20th Century home, built at a time when customs involving propriety were not so constricting as in the Victorian era. The reason for the twin staircase was – well, you’ll find out when you come to town and go for a stroll in the Garden District with me.
Houses all over town have long narrow windows, often leading out to balconies, galleries and porches. People are told that the reason one went outside via a window rather than a door was that there were taxes on the number of doors – but not on windows. It is told that there were taxes on the width of a house (which is why our houses are so narrow), taxes on the number of poles holding up a gallery (a.k.a., balcony) and heaven knows what else. One of the most ridiculous things I ever heard was that the reason the French Quarter is bright and colorful and the American side of the city is not is that there was a tax on paint; brightly colored paint was taxed higher than earth tones and the Creoles liked to show off their wealth while Americans did not. Insane! My response to those who say such things is “Show me. Show me the taxation. Show me a tax on a city, state or federal level involving windows, width, poles or paint.” They cannot because there are none. The long double-hung windows serve a purpose, there is a practical reason for narrow houses and taxes on properties were determined by…Oh, just come to New Orleans and we’ll go over it then.
People ask me all the time why my information often disputes what everyone else is saying. As a proud volunteer for the New Orleans City Archives since the 1990’s, I research differently. My experience takes me through documents over three centuries. In these documents one finds a very different story than something written to sell a book. And, like the books that were written to sell, all too often tours in New Orleans are about entertainment. I tend to enlighten people; I not only tell you, I can show you!
Come and see.