Purple Houses, Buses, and Trash Cans: Why New Orleans Loves the Color Purple

published Jul 27, 2020
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In the mid-90s, in the backseat of her mom’s car, my cousin Alexandra and I decided purple was going to be our favorite color. “Purple is the best color,” I declared. “It’s red and blue!” Alexandra emphasized. 

She had a great point. A shade that combines two of America’s best-loved hues? What color could outrank it? And with that, my eyes were opened to the beauty of the color purple all over my home city of New Orleans.

New Orleans looks at purple in a way most other cities don’t. Many outsiders see purple as a color that’s whimsical, bold, and maybe a little luxurious. But in New Orleans, it’s more like a common comfort—because it’s everywhere.

“Why y’all like purple so much around here?” a college friend asked me once while visiting. “I’M SAYING! There’s purple on the buses, trash cans, the houses,” our other friend chimed in.

It’s true that purple, green, and gold appear as a trio around the city, since they’re the official colors of Mardi Gras. But purple alone holds significance here. You’ll definitely see scores of houses painted purple, plus purple on trash bins and city buses with purple stripes. You might even sip on something purple at a daiquiri shop, or what we affectionately call the D-shop. Purple has been woven into our lives from the start: Our schools, our stores, and our homes are decked out in violet.

Take K&B, a beloved drugstore chain New Orleanians trusted from 1905 until 1997, when Rite Aid bought them out. In a K&B, every store-brand item, sign, bag, uniform smock, name tag, and basket was an electric violet we still call K&B purple. Even though it’s been more than 20 years since K&B was around (which we’re still mad about, by the way) we still describe things as “K&B purple.” Its colorful legacy has lived on.

Then there’s the shade of purple you’ll find at St. Augustine High School, a Catholic high school founded in 1951 for young Black men in New Orleans. St. Aug is the home of the Purple Knights—and it’s an institution. During every major holiday—at Mardi Gras, the Bayou Classic, and Christmas—you’ll spot St. Augustine alumni wearing snug, unbuttoned purple letterman jackets from years gone by. My Uncle Russell “Paco” DeGruy was a St. Aug alumnus, and later became a teacher there. You could often spot him donning head-to-toe purple with gold accents any day of the week—and many other alumni dress the same.

Even politicians who are St. Aug alumni often use purple as a campaign color, because the St. Aug alumni network is like a fraternity. Alumni will find out someone is “purple,” and there’s little else that needs to be said.

Growing up in New Orleans, purple has been a beacon of security. I see purple and think, “I belong here and this is for me.” Since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve seen fewer purple houses but more purple shop fronts. Real estate professionals seem to have abandoned purple so they can reach a wider market; businesses seem to have embraced purple so they can attract the natives and longtime New Orleanians, the city’s tastemakers. 

As new residents move in and decorate with their own favorite colors, I take comfort in knowing New Orleans’ roots will always be purple. And as I sit here in my mauve-painted home office, I think back to my conversation with Alexandra. We were right. Purple is the best.