Navigating The Antecedent Cadastre
“I begin to understand the town a little…and a curious town it is.” Benjamin Latrobe
Most people are all too eager to share their complaints about their city’s layout and New Orleans is no exception. If you have remained safely within the French Quarter then there is probably no need to air grievances as it is laid out with a military sense of exactness and an almost slavish adherence to right angles despite the curve of the Mississippi river. The original city was planned in 1721 – 1722 by Adrien de Pauger on a 66 block grid that is easy to navigate and hard to get lost in, even for the drunkards among us. Venture outside the French Quarter though, and things go down the rabbit hole. The title of this blog refers to the antecedent cadastre and you probably think that sounds like academic twaddle for the sake of being deliberately esoteric (and hell, you might not be wrong in that assessment). Basically all it refers to is an old map. That is a bit of a simplification but still expresses the gist of things. The French were fond of parceling land out in arpents which measured approximately 192 feet. When you view old maps of the city, these long, narrow lots radiate out from the river and are based on a surprisingly egalitarian cadastral system as far as the distribution of resources was concerned. This system was developed around the first millennium. In the case of New Orleans, it enabled all land owners to have access to the river as well as arable land. In addition, it ensured that everyone also had unusable land in the rear where the undrained swamps were located. Everybody gets the same good stuff and everybody gets the same bad crap. Does the use of “stuff” and “crap” make up for the use of “antecedent cadastre?” Probably not. Oh well, moving along.
What does this mean for street designations outside the French Quarter? These long lots that marked the division of plantations can make for some interesting driving scenarios. Imagine that cousin Etienne wants to get out of the agricultural business and turn his plantation into a subdivision, but his two brothers, who own plantations that border his property on both sides, do not. What is a poor Frenchman to do? He hires a surveyor and begins to plot out land for sale as well as streets but those streets must end at the dividing line of his land and that of his brother’s land. Later his brother may decide to subdivide his own land and he may not want that street to carry over onto his property because he believes he has a better vision and so it goes that New Orleans’ streets often oddly dead end. They usually dead end without any sort of warning, but that is a different problem and does not reflect on ancient cadastres. The lack of an overall urban plan has also given rise to strange slivers of land in the middle of streets and to a whole lot of confusion as to what city planners were thinking. Now you know the answer; City planners were not thinking in terms of the big picture of how this might one day influence strange metal boxes that zip up and down the urban landscape, belching out smelly gases. Benjamin Latrobe had it right when he said New Orleans is a curious town.
If you would like to know more about the evolution of our street grids and neighborhoods, then I highly recommend seeking out the written materials of Richard Campanella. He is a leading authority on all things New Orleans.
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