Light shines on the wide neutral ground on Elysian Fields Ave. in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. (Photo by Sophia Germer,, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Among the linguistic peculiarities that set apart New Orleans speech ("Where y'at, dawlin'?") one of the most peculiar is the way residents describe the grassy strips that run down the middle of major streets.

What's called a median elsewhere is a "neutral ground" here, a name that comes naturally to N'Awlins but has long piqued curiosity elsewhere.

Among the curious is Michelle Hoggatt, a lifelong resident of Morgan City.

"Why do we refer to those areas along the roadways as 'neutral ground' and not 'median,' like the rest of the U.S.?" Michelle inquired.

"Every New Orleanian knows the term 'neutral ground,'"  said Tulane University geographer and Times-Picayune columnist Richard Campanella. "It is as ubiquitous here as it is completely unknown in the rest of the nation, where they're called street medians."

Campanella has researched this topic extensively and spoke about it in an article for "64 Parishes."

But where did the term come from?

It's often explained as a half-joking, 19th-century description of the middle strip of Canal Street, which divided the Creole French and American residents of New Orleans. However, Campanella says the origins are even older.

He says it goes all the way back to a late-1700s dispute between European colonizers who were wrestling over land and influence in North America. 

“'Neutral Ground' as a proper noun ... entered the Louisiana lexicon in 1806, a year before Canal Street was created, courtesy of a military resolution to a lingering imperial disagreement over present-day southwestern Louisiana," he wrote. "Spanish colonials in Mexico had viewed the land roughly between the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers as the easternmost frontier of New Spain, while French authorities in the Mississippi Valley saw it as the westernmost reaches of their Louisiana."  

 "No one quite knew where that French territory became Spanish territory," Campanella said.

When the entire area came under Spanish rule in the 1760s, the issue became moot, but when it reverted to France and then to the United States after the Louisiana Purchase, it resurfaced, he said.  

In an effort to keep the peace, both sides signed a treaty agreeing not to militarize the zone between the rivers. The treaty described that zone as "the Neutral Ground" (with upper-case letters, yet).

Since New Orleans was the capital of Louisiana at the time, the term started to pop up in news accounts in the city, Campanella said.

Here's where the New Orleans French-American rivalry kicks in. According to the New Orleans history writer and Times-Picayune columnist Mike Scott, while "neutral ground" was first used to describe a somewhat distant political situation, it resonated locally, and somewhat jokingly, to mean the buffer zone between New Orleans' founding French Creoles and the Anglo-Americans who were settling in the city. 

The French lived downriver from Canal Street, and the Americans lived in the Second Municipality, today's Central Business District, Uptown from the thoroughfare.

"The two didn't particularly get along and so each stuck mostly to their respective side of Canal Street, the center median of which was declared in the March 11, 1837, edition of The Daily Picayune to be 'The Neutral Ground,'" Scott wrote in a 2017 article for The Times-Picayune.

By the 1850s-1860s, “neutral ground” was being used for medians beyond Canal Street, and it was at that point that the phrase truly entered the city’s vernacular, Campanella said.

It is still commonly used to describe those sometimes parklike islands in traffic throughout the New Orleans area, whether you're talking about Elysian Fields Avenue, Veterans Memorial Boulevard or Bullard Road.

Interestingly, reader Hoggatt said the expression has spread. In Morgan City, she said, families will soon be getting ready for Mardi Gras by setting up their chairs and coolers on what they call the town's neutral grounds.

But Hoggatt added that she also lived in Houston for a while, where it was unknown.

"If you say 'neutral ground' in Houston," she said, "they say, 'What are you talking about?'" 

Email Annette Sisco at