While traveling on Metairie Road one follows the trail used by Native Americans long before people on other continents
knew of their existence. The road sits upon the Metairie Ridge, a naturally occurring deposit of alluvial soil created thousand
of years ago. The oak trees are of the same natural stand that graces City Park. Until modern times, a bayou flowed along
the road; the only remaining section of it is in the park. Formed around 2500 B.C. it has been called Bayou Metairie for centuries.
Continuing down the ancient path, the 17th Street Canal marks the entrance into the city of
New Orleans but the street name remains Metairie Road. Metairie Cemetery comes into view -- from 1838 until 1873 the Metairie
Race Course occupied the property. Until 1874 this area of the city was a part of Jefferson Parish and the bayou still flowed.
At the I-10 overpass the street name changes to City Park Avenue -- until 1902 it was Metairie Road.
It is not surprising that many residents of Metairie consider themselves to be New Orleanians because their histories
are intermingled. All of what we now call Carrollton, Uptown, the Garden District, the Irish Channel, as well as parts of
Mid-City and Central City (all west of Felicity Street) was Jefferson Parish property when the jurisdiction was carved out
of the parish of Orleans in 1825. New Orleanians had, for generations, moved westward from the original city (the French Quarter)
to newly opened areas of land.
The origin of the name Metairie is debatable but most historians
attribute it to either the French "moitie" (one-half) or "moitoire" (a 12th century word applying to land
leased to a farmer for 50% of the crops or produce grown). Although farming was a major endeavor for most of Metairie’s
long history, sharecropping wasn’t commonly practiced. It may be of interest to note that in 1682 Jacques de la
Metairie traveled with René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, to the mouth of the Mississippi River where, serving
as the explorer’s notary, he officially recorded the claim of the land for France in the name of King Louis XIV. However,
no historic record indicates that the placename “Metairie” was given for or by him.
After New Orleans was founded in 1718 the French government granted lands to be used for large agricultural endeavors.
The Jesuit Fathers’ property, deeded in 1726, was called “Metairie des Jesuites” and property granted to
the Chauvin family in the same year was called “La Metairie”. By the 1760s when farming was well established in
the area “Metairie” appeared frequently on maps and in official documents. Spelling variations have included "Maiterie",
"Meteria “Maitry”, Matery, Materie, Metry, and Maitery". However, Metairie was originally called Tchoupitoulas
(or a variation of the word), named for the Native Americans who had lived along the road, the bayou, and in the surrounding
Despite its long agricultural history, few plantation homes where built in Metairie
– they were constructed near the river but plantation properties often extended through Metairie to the lake. Dense
forests provided lumber, some of it used to build the first church in New Orleans. Until the early 1900s many small farms
produced lettuce, cabbage, shallots, onion, beans, cucumbers, and artichokes. Some land was used as pasture for milk cows
and for dairies. Small truck farmers plodded along unpaved roads for as long as six hours to transport their goods by horse
and wagon to the French and Treme Markets.
For almost 200 years, from 1723 when the first
agricultural land was deeded until around 1910, Metairie remained primarily farming, pasturing, and timbering land. This began
to change when a streetcar -- an extension of the Napoleon Avenue line from New Orleans -- was placed along Metairie Road
in 1916, allowing easy access to what was a remote area. The first modern property developments (subdivisions of sorts) began
during the 1920’s on land directly adjacent to New Orleans. On its opposite boundary, at the old town of Kenner, some
growth edged over the line into Metairie. Much of the land, however, remained undeveloped until the mid 20th century when
lowland swamps and marshes on either side of the ridge were drained.
After World War II,
as young soldiers returned home to New Orleans and began raising families, they faced a housing shortage. Like many of their
parents or grandparents had done, they moved slightly westward. Using GI Bills they acquired new and affordable homes on larger
lots than were usually available in the city. During the 50’s through the 70’s the area boomed with subdivisions
comprised mostly of ranch-style houses (the new residents, unfortunately, did not take the architectural traditions with them
to Metairie). This trend continued until all the swampland was drained and all but a tiny percentage of ancient cypress and
oak trees were cut and cleared.
The seemingly haphazard growth of Metairie (many businesses
along the major thoroughfares did sprout up in an unplanned configuration) belies the “build it and they will come”
foresight of Jefferson Parish officials who dug canals, drained swamps, and built major roads years before the vast majority
of the area was populated. They vigorously promoted their parish and invited newcomers and new business. Between 1940 and
1950 the population of Jefferson Parish more than doubled as it had done between 1920 and 1930. In 1954, Dun and Bradstreet
ranked Jefferson Parish the “busiest parish” with a 42.3% gain in business listings.
In 1954 the Jefferson Parish Address Co-ordination Section changed some street names that were duplicated and re-assigned
some addresses. Streets starting at Airline Highway were addressed as the 100 block at Airline and increased toward the lake.
Streets starting at the river were addressed as 100, increasing toward the lake Streets crossing Airline Highway were designated
as “North” at that point toward the lake. East to west running streets started as the 100 block at the New Orleans
parish line and increase toward Kenner.
Metairie’s 3240 acres stretch some eight miles
between the city of Kenner and New Orleans. Airline Drive is its southern border and Lake Pontchartrain lies to the north.
It is an unincorporated area; it is not a city—there is no mayor or city tax. It is governed by the Jefferson Parish
Council. Metairie Ridge was incorporated in 1927 for the sole purpose of obtaining gas service (with C.P. Aicklen serving
as the mayor) and was unincorporated several months later.
People as diverse as David Vitter
and Ellen DeGeneres were born in Metairie but arguably the most colorful and beloved local figure was Harry Lee. As this book
was being finalized, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee passed away after a valiant battle with Leukemia. He will long be
remembered as a strong leader and New Orleans character who never failed to speak his truth (his was a non-politically correct
mind). After Sheriff Lee’s death even those who disagreed with him in life praised his honesty, his dedication, and
his commitment to serve his community.
Before the levees and floodwalls broke in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina it is likely that few citizens outside of Louisiana had ever heard of Metairie. During those horrific
days following the most devastating man-made catastrophe in history, broadcasts of the 17th Street Canal failure and images
of thousand of citizens amassed at Causeway and I-10 awaiting transportation out of the area have imprinted Metairie in the
minds of countless observers. It is hoped that this book leaves readers with some better memories of Metairie’s history.