Shopping Center off Chef Menteur Highway in Versailles (photo by: Benjamin White)
Versailles (pronounced Ver-sales) is a Vietnamese community found in the Village de l’Est area of New Orleans East. Located along the Chef Menteur Pass about 13 miles East of downtown, Versailles marks the easternmost edge of the city, and opens northward and eastward to the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Reserve (1). Village de l’Est houses a highly diverse demography, with significant Vietnamese, Honduran and African-American groups populating the neighborhood. Village de l’Est’s total population numbered 10,699 residents in the 2000 census and 9,389 in 2010, indicating the significant numbers that returned after Hurricane Katrina (2), which is available here.
The name “Versailles” is derived from the Versailles Arms apartment complex, which housed the initial wave of Vietnamese immigrants who, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, fled the Vietnam War to New Orleans with the help of Associated Catholic Charities (ACC) (3). Prior to the influx of Vietnamese immigrants, the swampland area was reclaimed and settled to provide an outlet for New Orleans’ growing urban population. Following the 1964 opening of Village de l’Est with single-family homes and duplexes, subsequent development stretched westward along Michoud Boulevard and northeastward along Bayou Sauvage (4).
After the closing of the NASA plant on Michoud following the early-1970s lunar landing program, the departure of white workers who had once occupied the Versailles Arms Apartments left the apartments vacant and unkempt (Tang, “A Gulf Unites Us”). Associated Catholic Charities stepped in to procure blocks of rental units in the 402-unit Versailles Arms Apartments for the 1,000 “first wave” refugees (5). Since these first wave immigrants arrived in New Orleans, a steady stream of Vietnamese have continued to pour into the Versailles community. When the Vietnamese first arrived, the neighborhood was approximately 90% black (Tang, “A Gulf Unites Us”).
According to the 2000 census, the population of Village de l’Est was 9,911, and Versailles comprised about half of that total population. In 1980, whites comprised 30.5% of the area’s population, but by 2000 only 4.4% of the area was white, 51.7% African American, and 41.7% Vietnamese-American. New Orleans’ total Vietnamese population numbers around 15,000, with around 40%, or 6,000 Vietnamese, residing in Versailles (Wei Li, “Surviving Katrina and its Aftermath”).
Numbering some 15,000, New Orleans’ overall Vietnamese population is one of the largest in the United States, and Versailles boasts the densest grouping of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. Vietnamese immigrants first came to New Orleans while fleeing the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, and were drawn to the region largely because of its topographical and meteorological similarities to their country of origin (6).
According to state officials, the Village de l’Est area suffered only one storm fatality, but the majority of homes in the neighborhood took in 0.5 to 1.5 feet of standing water, and flood depths measured as high as 4.5 feet. After the storm, members of the Versailles community returned to their homes quickly and in great numbers relative to surrounding areas: nearly all of Versailles’ residents had returned by 2007, whereas less than 50% of citizens who had left the rest of the city had yet to return by that time (Wei Li, “Surviving Katrina and its Aftermath”).
Following the storm, a great number of Hispanic immigrants who came to New Orleans to work in the reconstruction effort moved into the Versailles area. The Hispanic population along the Chef Menteur Highway increased 123 percent (Richard Campanella, “An Initial Interpretation of 2010 Ethnic and Racial Geographies in Greater New Orleans”).
Following Hurricane Katrina, Versailles found itself at the heart of the City of New Orleans’ illegal dumping practices, as Chef Menteur Highway became a hotspot for the city to unlawfully dispose of waste and debris from the storm cleanup. The Versailles neighborhood, led by their youth who began coordinating at VAYLA (Vietnamese American Youth Leaders Association), organized a successful protest against these dumping practices, indicating the strength and vitality of the Versailles region (Eric Tang, “A Gulf Unites Us”).
A Village Called Versailles
In 2010, director Leo Chiang released his film titled “A Village Called Versailles” on PBS and screened the film across the country. The film discusses the history of the Vietnamese community in Versailles and how their fight against the landfills in the aftermath of Katrina shaped the community’s approach to their own future. Information about the film can be found here: link
As Versailles is a largely Vietnamese community, its businesses are largely owned by and oriented specifically towards the Vietnamese population. Along the main strips tracing Chef Menteur Pass and Michoud Boulevard, one will find Vietnamese restaurants, grocery stores, beauty salons, bars and nightclubs, medical practices, coffee shops, and other businesses of the like.
- Eric Tang, “A Gulf Unites Us: The Vietnamese Americans of New Orleans East,” American Quarterly, 63, no.1 (2011): 117-149.
- Richard Campanella, “An Initial Interpretation of 2010 Ethnic and Racial Geographies in Greater New Orleans” (Jun. 2011).
- J. Mark Souther, “Suburban Swamp: The Rise and Fall of Planned New-Town Communities in New Orleans East,” Planning Perspectives, 23, no.2 (2008): 197-219.
- Wei Li, “Surviving Katrina and its aftermath: evacuation and community mobilization by Vietnamese Americans and African Americans,” Journal of Cultural Geography, 25, no.3 (2008).
- Christopher Airriess, “Creating Vietnamese Landscapes and Place in New Orleans,” in Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space and Place ed. Martha L. Henderson (Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 2002).
- Gennie Thi Nguyen, “Culture, Gender, and Vulnerability in a Vietnamese Refugee Community: Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” in Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? ed. Barbara Rose Johnson (Paris, France: Springer Press, 2012).