Canal Street, 171 feet wide, extends 3.5 miles from the Mississippi River to the cemeteries on Metairie Ridge. As the city’s premier commercial boulevard, lower Canal—the blocks that separate the Vieux Carré from the Central Business District (originally the Faubourg St. Mary)—flourished even as other main streets in the nation withered. Its commercial and popular success can be attributed in part to its location, adjacent to both business and entertainment destinations. In the early nineteenth century, the street had become a boundary between the French-speaking Creoles in the Vieux Carré and the English-speaking Anglo-Americans in Faubourg St. Mary and is commonly believed to be the origin of the term “neutral ground” to describe all the landscaped medians that run down the center of New Orleans’s broad boulevards. A proposal in 1807 to construct a canal along the street to connect the Mississippi River with the Carondelet Canal (known as the Old Basin Canal) was not implemented but did give the street its name. Although most of lower Canal’s first buildings were residences, by the 1840s they were being replaced by handsome commercial buildings that made the street a showplace of nineteenth- and twentieth-century commercial facades. The introduction of streetcars along Canal in 1861 encouraged the thoroughfare’s outward growth from Basin Street; this stretch, known as upper Canal, developed with a mix of residential, institutional, and commercial structures.
In his book, God’s Own Junkyard (1964), architect and critic Peter Blake decried what he saw as the crass commercialism and shopfront signage of lower Canal. In response, architect Robert Venturi, author of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), reprinted Blake’s photograph of Canal Street and declared that “the seemingly chaotic juxtapositions of the honkytonk elements express an intriguing kind of vitality and validity.” For Venturi, the attributes Blake deplored were precisely what made the street successful. Some of the “honkytonk” is gone (though the casino at the foot of Canal, completed in 1999, possibly qualifies), and department stores have been converted to sedate hotels, but Canal Street remains one of the city’s busiest and most vibrant public spaces. The reinstatement of streetcars (which had been replaced by buses in 1964), together with the addition of new lateral streetcar lines at the riverfront, Rampart Street, Elk Place, and Carrollton guarantees the boulevard’s continued appeal, and the new lines increase the Canal line’s capacity and link neighborhhods together.
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