I was born and raised in New Orleans. It’s a unique place with all of its idiosyncratic norms, cultural icons, food, and sayings. One of them is what we in New Orleans call the “neutral ground”. What the rest of the world might call median–the grassy area between two streets/roads–we call neutral ground. It was various neutral grounds in which I recollect many delightful childhood events, picnic gatherings, kite-flying, touch football games, and walking alongside streetcar tracks on St. Charles Avenue. The neutral ground of my growing up years was a place of life and friendship.
Yet, according to columnist Richard Campanella of The Times-Picayune (October 2013), the phrase “neutral ground” originated not for life and friendship, but for “Cultural differences between the Creole and Anglo populations, each of which developed alliances with various immigrant groups, led to economic and political tensions, which in turn led to a draconian solution: instead of learning to get along, why not get a divorce? New Orleans in 1836 thus divided itself into three semi-autonomous municipalities, each with its own council, police, schools, port, services and amenities, ostensibly united under a single mayor and a general council. Each even had its own seal.
In 19th Century New Orleans, Canal Street served as a dividing line between Anglo- and Creole-dominated municipalities. Locals semi-jokingly called the spacious Canal Street median a “neutral ground” between the rival ethnicities, borrowing an old colonial-era term for disputed regions between imperial claims. The term caught on and is now used to describe medians citywide.”
Here in 2018 America, it seems to me that we have regressed and are living back in time when neutral grounds metaphorically serve as borders, walls, barriers, dividing lines within politics, race relations, religious discourse, gender conversations, and in many other segments of society.
In the midst of this current climate, I long for the kind of neutral ground of my childhood–a place for welcome, conversation, compromise, fun, and friendship. Where there are picnics and gatherings. Where kites are flown and football played. Where people of all colors, socio-economic backgrounds, neighborhoods, and faiths come together in shared community.
It might feel like today’s neutral ground is just like New Orleans of 175 years ago–a harsh and lifeless place littered with bigotry, darkness, fear, racism, resentment, discontent, and intransigence. But . . . I choose to move towards a familiar and better kind of neutral ground that offers life and friendship for whoever wants to join me.