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Throwback Travel: New Orleans

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Canal Street in its neon glory, circa 1952 (Photograph by Justin Locke, National Geographic Creative)

Canal Street, 1952. Golden-age New Orleans. With roughly 600,000 residents, the city counted itself an urban heavyweight, and its grand boulevard reflected its muscle.

Plotted as a shipping channel following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Canal Street held water in name only, becoming the demarcation line between the French Vieux Carré and New Orleans’s growing Anglophone neighborhoods.

Part Times Square, part Fifth Avenue, Canal Street quickly became the site of civic celebration (Mardi Gras parades) and confrontation—from 19th-century street fights to sit-ins during the struggle for Civil Rights.

But by the 1980s, Canal was on the ropes. Crime rose. The theaters shut down. Proliferating fast food restaurants and tacky souvenir shops turned the air greasy with cupidity.

Now, more than a decade after Katrina, the street is spiffing up. Announcements of new hotels and apartment projects are giving local Times-Picayune reporters good copy and the Saenger and Joy’s marquees are a-twinkle once more.

Here are a few interesting intersections related to the famed thoroughfare:

In the rest of the world, the strip of land in the middle of a roadway is called a median. Not in New Orleans. There it’s a “neutral ground,” a reference to Canal Street’s role as a dividing line separating the French Quarter and its Latin air from the American side of the city.

Some of the first shop owners on Canal Street were Jewish. In the late 1840s, Judah Touro convinced a local church to relocate and went on to build a retail empire known as the “Touro Buildings” on the burgeoning boulevard between Bourbon and Royal. All but one of the dozen stores he owned were destroyed by fire in the late 19th century.

Touro used his business profits to found a New Orleans synagogue, an almshouse, and an infirmary for sailors ailing from yellow fever. He also donated funds that led to the opening of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where Joan Rivers died. Rivers was close pals with voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman. The comic attended Glassman’s Big Easy wedding in 2012, playing two sold-out shows at Café Istanbul as a present to the bride (her last performance in the city).

Mr. Bingle—a gigantic papier-mâché snowman that served as the de facto mascot for the Maison Blanche department store—became a cherished Canal Street staple each Christmas beginning in 1949. The cultural icon, with his round white face and dotted eyes, is rumored to be the inspiration for Mr. Bill, the iconic Saturday Night Live puppet created by New Orleanian Walter Williams.

“Oh, nooooo!” Mr. Bill’s tormentor “Mr. Hands” was Vance DeGeneres, brother of talk show star Ellen. The family grew up in New Orleans.

In the 800 block of Canal stands a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly, the beloved protagonist of author John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Many of the novel’s scenes are set on or near Canal Street.

Cinematic ambitions for Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel appear cursed. Its obese and slovenly hero was to have been portrayed by John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley. All died before production could begin. Zach Galifianakis is the subject of current speculation.

Canal Street is reputed to have been home to the world’s first movie theater—a business devoted exclusively to showing films for profit. Vitascope Hall opened its doors in 1896. The New Orleans Regency Hyatt paid tribute to the historic institution by naming its bar in its honor.

Canal Street is the dramatic ending for many big Mardi Gras parades. The annual number of shiny Chinese-made beads thrown in them is estimated to weigh more than 12,000 tons.

Though some beads end up in the garbage, most are now recycled. Artist Stephan Wanger does more than his part by using the colorful baubles to create massive murals. In December 2013, Wanger achieved Guinness World Record status with “Une Rue Principale en Louisiana” (“A Main Street in Louisiana”), a 48-foot-wide mosaic.

Not all Canal Street throngs were happy ones. In 1874, a gang of white supremacists calling themselves the White League fought the city’s integrated local police force, who were backed by federal troops occupying former Confederate states. In 1891, Southern whites, by then back in power, erected an obelisk on Canal celebrating the League. City politicians, embarrassed by its message, later removed it. The tribute now sits between a parking garage and rail tracks.

Andrew Nelson is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow his adventures in wanderlust on Twitter @andrewnelson.

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