The Gist: Canal Street was named after a navigational canal that never actually came to fruition. It was also the original “neutral ground,” which is what New Orleanians call street medians.
Contrary to common belief, Canal Street was never a major navigation canal that was later filled in. There was once a stagnant ditch near there, which gave city developers the idea. Congress designated the wide area for a canal in 1807, but the Orleans Navigation Company basically screwed the pooch. As a street, it separated the “Creoles” from the vile Americans but yet provided a neutral area for commerce between the two clashing cultures. Many store employees were commonly bilingual. It would become home to America’s first movie theater in 1896 as well as department stores such as D.H. Holmes. Canal Street has been a common setting in literary works by authors such as George Washington Cable, John Kennedy Toole, Kate Chopin, and Walker Percy.
Canal Street now runs from the Mississippi River to the Mid-city cemeteries. Towards the river, the street continues to be a retail hub for New Orleans and still separates two distinct worlds: the French Quarter and the Central Business District. On one side, historic brick buildings display ironwork balconies and Spanish architecture, whereas the CBD contains modern office buildings and skyscrapers. The traffic is typically congested due to construction work, buses, tourists, streetcars, and poorly-timed streetlights. Near the I-10 overpass, the street still suffers from blight due to Hurricane Katrina and the bad economy. The Joy Theatre and the Saegner Theatre have reopened since the storm. Streetcar tracks run inside the “neutral ground” of Canal Street. Ironically, the tracks were dismantled in the mid-20th century in an attempt to modernize the city with bus lanes. In 2004, the line was restored once the City of New Orleans realized they screwed the pooch on that one. Towards the lake, Canal Street is mainly residential with several local businesses, schools, bars, and restaurants. This part of Canal Street severely flooded during Katrina, yet many parts have rebuilt since then.
The upcoming massive medical district, which includes the new VA hospital and University hospital, has the potential not only to provide residents with medical options and employment opportunities but also to boost the city’s economy and create a viable industry for the future.
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