Courtesy of Maria Möller

An artist commemorates the city's now-extinct Chinese business district.

In the 19th century, New Orleans was home to one of the "very few genuine Chinatowns" in the South, according to geographer Richard Campanella. By the 1870s, Chinese laborers recruited by Louisiana planters moved to the city in search of opportunities. They opened laundry businesses and groceries, carving out a space for themselves in the stretch that is now the city's central business district.

But by the 1930s, the neighborhood had completely dissolved. Only a few photographs of the buildings there (like the one below) survive. The enclave now only exists in the stories its inhabitants passed on to their children and grandchildren, most of whom live elsewhere.

A photo the Chinese Presbyterian Church taken in the 1920s. The church, located at the edge of Chinatown was an institution that brought together the Chinese community in New Orleans back then, and to some extent, continues to do so. (Courtesy of the Chinese Presbyterian Church/Winston Ho)

Artist Maria Möller wanted to revive the memory of New Orleans' forgotten Chinatown. Using Campanella's map of the area circa 1917 (below), she visited key sites from the old neighborhood and put up colorful decorations, similar to what she imagines would have been there when the locale was bustling during Chinese New Year celebrations. She then took pictures of the sites and labeled them with names of the original Chinatown businesses.

The decorations themselves are gone—not unlike the city's now-extinct Chinese enclave—but Möller's photos are now a part of a storefront installation in the neighborhood. The pictures will be displayed in a building window facing Tulane Avenue through most of March. The project is a tribute to role of New Orleans' short-lived Chinatown in the city's history. But it's also about how all cities change.

"It's about the Chinatown, but it's also not about the Chinatown," she says.

When Möller stands on a street corner in the neighborhood now, she sees a mix of hospitals, condos, and office buildings that make the streets seem generic or anonymous. For her, the project is also a way to draw attention to the changes cities undergo.

"I'm really interested, as an artist, in those unmarked places that have something underneath," she says. On her site, she writes:

The installations and the photographs ... reference the layers of lived experience that form the bedrock of a city: a unique cultural enclave, urban development, urban decay, and then urban development once again ...

Take a look at some of Möller's photos, labeled with the names of the original Chinatown businesses:

(Courtesy of Maria Möller)

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The Future of the City Is Childless

    America’s urban rebirth is missing something key—actual births.

  2. A photo of anti-gentrification graffiti in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification

    A new study claims the effects of neighborhood change on original lower-income residents are largely positive, despite fears of spiking rents and displacement.

  3. a photo of the First Pasadena State Bank building, designed by Texas modernist architects MacKie and Kamrath. It will be demolished on July 21.
    Design

    The Lonely Death of a South Texas Skyscraper

    The First Pasadena State Bank, a 12-story modernist tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, has dominated this small town near Houston since 1962.

  4. A NASA rendering of a moon base with lunar rover from 1986.
    Life

    We Were Promised Moon Cities

    It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 put humans on the surface of the moon. Why didn’t we stay and build a more permanent lunar base? Lots of reasons.

  5. A crowded street outside in Boston
    Life

    Surveillance Cameras Debunk the Bystander Effect

    A new study uses camera footage to track the frequency of bystander intervention in heated incidents in Amsterdam; Cape Town; and Lancaster, England.                            

×