While driving on St. Bernard Avenue, I noticed a sign that said, "Welcome to Pilotland." Was that a boat-oriented community or is there another reason for the name?
New Orleanians have referred to a small area of Gentilly as Pilotland for years. Like so many things in this city, there's a story behind it that has something to do with our New Orleans patois, or manner of speaking.
The area we're talking about is roughly bordered by Harrison Avenue, Interstate 610, Paris Avenue and Bayou St. John. The Pilotland Neighborhood Association says the area originally was called Pailet Land, named after the family that owned most of the property there. The 1945 book Gumbo Ya-Ya includes a chapter capturing some of Pilotland's early history and folklore. Though the spelling of Pilotland often varies, the book refers to Pailet Lane and describes the same general boundaries. The area's names have included Pellet Land and Pailetaville, with stories recorded in the dialects of both black and white residents of the time. One woman recounts her aunt moving there in 1914, "and there wasn't no houses, but four shacks. Then Mr. Pailet built some places and people started movin' in."
Research done by the neighborhood association and provided by the Rev. Lionel Davis Sr. includes oral histories of former residents. One dates the area's name change from Pailet Land to Pilotland as early as 1929 — a mispronunciation of the name that seemed to stick. Research also shows that Pailet Lane ran through the neighborhood. In 1942, a large tract of land including Pailet Lane was developed by the federal government into the St. Bernard public housing development, now Columbia Parc.
After Hurricane Katrina, when civic groups led rebuilding efforts, a neighborhood association was formed and the city erected the sign at the entrance to Pilotland, welcoming drivers and passersby to a neighborhood with a unique name.