Aside from the gargantuan Ignatius J. Reilly, the other constant presence in A Confederacy of Dunces is the city of New Orleans. The hero's discomfort on the one occasion he ever had to go out of the city ("speeding along in that bus was like hurtling into the abyss") is an exaggeration of a basic truth. New Orleans, with its mix of influences, often seems to have more in common with Mediterranean Europe and North Africa than with the rest of the USA.
The city was founded on 7 May 1718 and was named after Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, who was Regent of France at the time. Although it spent some time under Spanish control, the French returned in 1801 and, in 1803, it was sold by Napoleon Bonaparte to the United States as the key element in the Louisiana Purchase.
Throughout the 19th century it received several waves of immigrants including Americans from the inland areas along the Mississippi basin, French, Creoles, Irish, Germans and Africans. By 1840, it had the third-largest population of any United States city
In more recent times, New Orleans has seen economic decline caused by increased competition from other ports around the world and from some of the other southern American cities such as Houston and Miami. But its history and its population mix have left it with a distinct culture that infuses its cuisine, its festivals and, above all, its music.
Canal Street was named for a canal that was to have been constructed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
Though the canal was never dug, the street became the main shopping thoroughfare and transport hub of the city. The world's first commercial cinema, the Vitascope Hall, was established on Canal Street in 1896.
The French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, the 78 blocks that lie within the boundaries of Canal Street, the Mississippi River and North Rampart Street is undoubtedly the most famous district of New Orleans. Despite its name, most of the oldest buildings there are Spanish in origin. Although it was originally settled by the French, the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 occurred during a period of Spanish rule and the old French colonial architecture was rebuilt by the new masters. But in the decades after the Louisiana Purchase, the area became home to French-speaking descendants of the original colonists and French was routinely spoken there up until the 1920s.
Because the area was built on higher ground, before the levee system was installed, it emerged relatively unscathed from Hurricane Katrina.