The epic biography of retail legend John G. Schwegmann
Blog #2: Focus on the Bywater
March 20, 2017
The People’s Grocer opens with a historical tour of the Bywater—the Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood that gave birth to the Schwegmann legacy.
This roughly 100-block rectangular enclave running east-southeast along the Mississippi—located downriver from the French Quarter just past Marigny—began life under French rule as a reclaimed swampscape dominated by sugarcane plantations. After the American takeover in 1803, the plantations were subdivided and set aside as residential areas to house the city’s rapidly expanding labor pool.
As home to the working class, what is now called the Bywater never possessed the glamour to compete with the Crescent City’s more exotic districts and elegant neighborhoods. Indeed, to this day, despite its growing cultural cachet, the Bywater is still sorely neglected in New Orleans history.
This book takes a step toward taking the Bywater seriously. First, it tackles the “nomenclature problem”—or how to name an area geographically and culturally distinct from the vast municipal morass that since 1852 has been broadly grouped under the Third District and Ninth Ward. It then presents an overview of the Bywater’s rich immigrant history, with its original population of mostly French and Africans joined by successive waves from Haiti, Ireland, and Germany before the Civil War, and other ethnic groups from South and East Europe afterward.
When by the late nineteenth century the great migration was finally over, this diverse mix of peoples settled down to create an extremely unique and vibrant community few know ever existed. (I only learned about it from Schwegmann’s own historical series called “Just Like Meeting an Old Friend,” published in his ads during 1978.)
Indeed, at the climax of its historical tour of the Bywater, The People’s Grocer reveals a neighborhood absolutely bursting with a now almost unimaginable commercial vitality. I call it the Golden Age of the Bywater—lasting for a generation between the Gay Nineties and the Roaring Twenties. Everywhere were shops and entertainment options, the streets alive with the hustle of hard-working immigrant families and the bustle of independent businesses.
Unfortunately, the Bywater suffered terribly under the consecutive blows of the Great Depression, World War II, and postwar white flight, leaving the neighborhood a shell of its former glorious self. Even now, the Bywater struggles to recover.
While the creative class that currently inhabits a lot of it has made significant strides in rejuvenating Bywater liveliness, much of its success has come at the expense of the old working class, which gave the neighborhood its original character and charm. Nevertheless, despite its slow-motion gentrification, the Bywater remains an oddly enchanted place. Certainly it has shown signs of being on the cusp of a renaissance for going on a generation.