During Louisiana’s colonial era and into the 19th century, the sugar plantations stretched from the river to Lake Ponchartrain over what is today the Lower Ninth Ward.
The final eastward expansion of the old City of New Orleans came in the early 1800s as the Holy Cross Neighborhood grew along the Mississippi River to the St. Bernard Parish line. By 1834, the U.S. government had established Jackson Barracks as an army post to house troops. The rapid growth of the area’s Catholic population prompted construction of St. Maurice Church in 1857. And two years later in 1859, the Brothers of the Holy Cross purchased the Reynes Plantation to establish a boys’ boarding school – the Holy Cross School – from which the neighborhood took its name, remaining a fixture there for more than 140 years.
Eventually, Holy Cross began to develop as a New Orleans suburb, spanning 60 blocks from St. Claude Avenue south to the river. With a few exceptions, the present historic building stock represents the period c.1880 to 1936. Today the neighborhood is listed on the National Register (since 1986) and designated a Local Historic District (since 1990).
The remaining Lower 9 was among the last of New Orleans’ neighborhoods to be developed: isolation from the rest of the city and lack of adequate drainage systems contributed to its slow growth. Even as late as the 1870s the area north of St. Claude was still mostly small farms with scattered residences and beyond Claiborne Avenue, mostly undeveloped cypress swamp. By then, poor African Americans and immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany and Italy – desperate for homes but unable to afford housing in other areas of the city – risked flooding and disease to move here.
Truck gardens on vacant lots and other types of farming were common here up until the 1940s, supported by easy access to transportation on the river. Restaurants and open markets in New Orleans obtained fresh produce from the many small truck farms in the area. This isolation from the rest of the city was increased further with completion of the Industrial Canal in the early 1920s, cutting the 9th Ward in half, creating the Upper and Lower 9th Wards, even though residents of both continued to refer to both areas as the 9thWard.
It was Hurricane Betsy that many remember as the most damaging to the Lower 9, though tropical storms, hurricanes and occasional flooding had always been a fact of life along the Gulf Coast. That is, before Katrina. Betsy struck the city with a vengeance In September 1965, claiming 81 lives. While Holy Cross stayed dry, 80 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward was under water. Following the storm, residents had to walk through waist-high water, holding their children, while some were rescued from rooftops.