Why do we call the medians of divided streets neutral grounds?
This is one of my favorite terms, one that many of us use every day, often without even realizing why. It is a term used only in New Orleans, one whose origins date back to the city's earliest days. Initially it meant a common or "neutral" piece of ground, most notably on New Orleans' main thoroughfare, Canal Street, where it was an unofficial dividing line between the French-speaking Creole natives of the French Quarter and the newly arrived "Americans" who lived and worked on the other side of Canal Street.
A paragraph from author George Washington Cable's 1885 book The Creoles of Louisiana is most often cited as an early explanation for the term. "The people of New Orleans take pride in Canal Street. ... Its two distinct granite paved roadways are each forty feet wide, and the tree-bordered 'neutral ground' measures fifty-four feet across," Cable wrote. "It was 'neutral' when it divided between the French Quarter and the Americans at the time when their municipality governments were distinct from each other."
While Cable is commonly quoted, the term "neutral ground" existed well before 1884. Historian and geographer Richard Campanella surmises it first appeared in 1806 as part of a resolution to a dispute between Spanish and French authorities over territory in southwest Louisiana. They settled the dispute by calling the area neutral ground.
You could find the term in the pages of The Picayune as early as 1837, the first year of its publication. On March 11, the newspaper griped about the muddy condition of Canal Street and the neutral ground, which had been besieged by rain. "This fair portion of our beautiful city is becoming daily, more and more, an object of deep interest," the paper wrote, joking that the neutral ground should be called Frog Town because of the large number of "emigrants from the neighboring marshes" that had settled there. The paper continued to use the term throughout the 1830s, and it soon came to represent the term for medians all over town.