entilly is one of New Orleans’ newer neighborhoods. The area between what is now Claiborne Ave and Lake Pontchartrain represents some of the lowest elevation of New Orleans; old 19th-century nicknames for the area that is now Gentilly included “the Swamp.” While people settled in scattered communities here as early as the 1830s, the area wasn’t properly habitable until extensive drainage occurred in the early 20th-century. Development was more concentrated along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, which was connected to the bottom of Elysian Fields Avenue by a railroad line.
That railroad line brought a racially diverse mix of homesteaders to Gentilly in the early part of the 20th century. Home ownership became relatively common; much of Gentilly had a higher home ownership rate than the rest of the country, let alone Orleans Parish.
The low-lying, swampy environment Gentilly was founded on played some part in the devastation wrought upon the area in 1965 (Hurricane Betsy) and 2005 (Hurricane Katrina). While the bulk of media attention following Hurricane Katrina focused on the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly suffered almost as greatly. Where the Lower 9th Ward was mainly a low-income neighborhood, Gentilly was largely middle class; many African American professionals lived here, and the loss of members of this class, many of whom relocated to other cities or moved to the New Orleans suburbs, was a blow to the city. Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio’s Project Home Again, which has built 101 homes for displaced New Orleanians thus far, has concentrated many of its relief efforts in Gentilly.
Traditionally, Gentilly has been one of the more racially mixed sections of New Orleans. The boundaries of Gentilly are difficult to define, but for our purposes include Bayou St. John to the west, the Industrial Canal to the east (some mark France Rd as the Eastern boundary) and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to the south. We mark Lake Pontchartrain as the northern boundary of Gentilly, but it is generally accepted the area between the Lake and Leon C. Simon drive is a bit of an amorphous area – part Gentilly, part suburbs of Lakefront.
Gentilly possesses on the more varied cityscapes in New Orleans. There are stretches where you’ll see strip malls and empty washed away lots, but in other areas these elements are balanced by enormous mansions and gingerbread collections of California bungalows, Spanish revival bungalows and English cottages. Much of the housing stock here was built after World War II, so Gentilly feels a little more “modern” than the rest of New Orleans; Gentilly Terrace was the first 20th-century neighborhood listed in New Orleans.
There are few traditional tourism attractions in Gentilly, but it is a good neighborhood to drive around if only to get a sense of middle class, mixed-income New Orleans. A drive up Elysian Fields, AP Tureaud or St Bernard Ave is a drive through the heart of a residential New Orleans experience unseen by 99 percent of visitors. We have to add that you should make a point of driving – or even better, riding a bicycle – along Wisner Ave. Wisner, which hugs the edge of City Park, is one of the prettiest roads in the city. The University of New Orleans campus is also located in Gentilly.
Gentilly was badly flooded during Katrina; the storm surge breached two parts of the London Canal. Large swathes of the neighborhood are yet to be resettled – some estimate the post-Katrina population is as low as half of what it was prior to 2005 – but new businesses have been opening with increasing regularity, suggesting that Gentilly may experience a commercial comeback before it experiences complete re-population.
A notable native born son is Wendell Pierce, the actor acclaimed for his work on the Wire and later, New Orleans’ own Treme. Louis Armstrong spent time at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, the ruins of which were utterly wiped out by Katrina.