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Jackson Square: A Lingering Way of Life in New Orleans

by Susan Roesgen
National Geographic Today
May 17, 2001
 
As if suddenly remembering the punch line to a familiar joke, a street
musician playing his horn in the middle of New Orleans' Jackson Square
stops abruptly to address his audience. "And we must tell you about Mr.
Fill-Up-the-Box," he says. "The more you pay, the better we play."



This, and an earful of music, is what out-of-towners expect to see down in the heart of the famous French Quarter of Louisiana's old port city.

While the musty, Southern thoroughfare distracts tourists with its street charlatans and bards, Jackson Square is simply home to people such as Pat and Lee Mason.

"Bring a list," Pat Mason says to her husband as they head out to the grocery store. The Masons have lived in the French Quarter along Jackson Square for seven years, surrounded by throngs of strangers who stroll the 18th-century streets beneath the steeple of St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, the country's oldest cathedral.

Unnoticed by the tourists and fortune-tellers, the Masons never have to go more than a few blocks to find everything they need. And even during New Orleans's legendary Mardi Gras parades and annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, which bring thousands of visitors to their front door every year, the Masons dont seem to mind the guests. "When I'm in St Louis, I visit them!" said Lee.

Born of a Baroness

Jackson Square was named in honor of local hero Andrew Jackson, who saved the city in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. But it was an event that began in 1849 that dramatically changed the Square, which has remained largely untouched to this day. That year, construction began on the Masons home and another apartment on Jackson Square, two of the first apartments built in the country.

The apartments were built by a French woman, the baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, on land she inherited from her father. She designed the brick building in grand European style, with shops on the street level and apartments above. She ordered decorative cast iron, molded in New York and shipped down the Mississippi. The initials of her maiden and married names—an "A" and a "P" intertwined—can still be found in the iron railings on the balconies

The baroness supervised every aspect of the construction, firing an architect and a contractor who disagreed with her. "They say she got up there and climbed around herself to check the work and everything," said Ernestine Legoretta, who lives at Jackson Square with her husband, Rick.

When Rick and Ernestine spend an evening on their Pontabla balcony, they marvel at what the baroness achieved here, and at what price.

Fifteen years before the work began, her father-in-law tried to steal her inheritance. When she tried to divorce her husband to regain her fortune, her father-in-law shot her. In one odd mural, the Baroness Pontalba is pictured with one finger wrapped in a ribbon; when she shielded herself from the bullets, her fingers were permanently disfigured.

Home on the Square

Today, the legacy of the baroness still stands. People still live here, and the Masons and the Legorettas share not only a balcony, but also one of the most historic front yards in the country.

But the intimate halls of the 150-year-old estate are threatened. "I would say no more than 30 percent of the residents are full-time, permanent tenants," said Lee Tucker. The rooms are usually full only during Mardi Gras and other major events.

Tucker, an artist working in the square, says corporate ownership of the dwellings has replaced the communal sense of neighborhood he found when he moved to Jackson Square 20 years ago. At that time, performers and artists from the square filled the building, and there was a feeling of family. "There was just a more neighborhood feeling [with] long-time residents," he says.

Yet each night, when the last tourists stroll back to their hotels, some of the natives remain, cherishing a way of life that began a century and a half ago.

"It would be fascinating," said Lee Mason, "if you could bring her [Baroness Pontalba] back, and let her know that this building has survived for 150 and probably will for 150 more."

This story originally aired on National Geographic Today as part of the "Great Neighborhoods" series.
 

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