2008 Common Reading Initiative Guide
New Orleans is well known for its multicultural heritage, cuisine, architecture, music (particularly as the birthplace of jazz), and its annual Mardi Gras and other celebrations and festivals. The city is often referred to as the "most unique" city in America.
One of the oldest cities in the United States, it was founded in 1718 as a French colony, and was named after Philippe II, Duc d'Orleans, the Regent of France at the time. In 1803 Napolean sold the territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, and the city grew rapidly over the years with the influxes of Americans, French, Creole French, and Haitians.
As a principal port, New Orleans had the major role of any city during the pre-Civil War era in the slave trade. At the same time it had the most prosperous community of free persons of color in the South. By 1840 New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation. In the 20th century, New Orleans was a progressive major city and with the development of a drainage plan in the low-lying areas, it allowed the city to expand into areas that had once been unsuitable for urban development. Over time, rapid sinking of the land, both natural and human-induced, left these new areas several feet below sea level.
New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding even before the age of negative elevation, but after several weather events in the second half of the 20th century the city's increased vulnerability and the weakness of the pumping system was becoming clear. This realization would lead to the construction of the massive floodwalls and man-made levees built by the US Army Corps to improve New Orleans' hurricane defenses and restore pumping capacity. These floodwalls and levees would later fail during their encounter with Hurricane Katrina.