domenica 31 maggio 2009

This postcard shows the legendary Basin Street (1908)

This postcard shows the legendary Basin Street (c. 1908) in the vice district of Storyville. The rail lines in the foreground transported visitors “down the line” to the heart of the district. Courtesy Alecia Long.

Local officials were usually laissez-faire on the subject, but influential inhabitants were occasionally troubled by the city’s reputation as a hotbed of prostitution and licentiousness. When pressed, city leaders attempted to deal with the issue by making prostitution less visible, creating a series of shrinking spatial demimondes over several decades. The city’s first comprehensive antiprostitution measure, the 1857 Lorette Ordinance, essentially made prostitution legal in any part of the city so long as sex-sellers avoided “street-level solicitation, indecent dress, and the creation of scandal or disturbance.” From then until the end of the century, reform-minded city leaders passed at least nine ordinances to deal with prostitution and its attendant social ills in a variety of ways. In 1898, the New Orleans Daily Picayune described the final attempt to quarantine the “plague of prostitutes” and move vice out of the city’s mainstream: “The city government is trying to drive vice and immorality out of the most prominent localities and into obscure neighborhoods where decent people will not be constantly offended by their open and shameless flauntings.” Though the locution was strange, the message was crystal clear: the city wanted to confine vice to less desirable districts where they could control, contain, and, unofficially, profit from its practitioners.[6]

After months of legal wrangling in 1897 and 1898, the city included two neighborhoods in the final version of its most infamous vice district ordinance. The most well-known portion of the city’s 1897 vice district was “Storyville.” While some simply called it “the district,” the other name was an inside joke that mocked Councilman Sidney Story, the man largely responsible for authoring the ordinances that shaped the boundaries of the last, smallest, but most notorious vice district in the city’s history. The reputed purpose of Story’s ordinance was to control prostitution and make it a less visible aspect of local culture and the city’s national reputation. It had precisely the opposite effect. Once Storyville opened for business in 1898, local folks, especially men, flocked to the district, which was characterized by gaudy high-end brothels, dance halls, saloons, shooting galleries, and modest sex-trade establishments called cribs. Women from all parts of the city, as well as from across the nation, also traveled in and out of the vice district to work as prostitutes to support themselves and, quite often, extended families. For twenty years tourists from around the region and the nation descended on Storyville to see the bright lights and scantily clad women and to indulge in the local joie de vivre. By 1908 new rail lines and a sprawling terminal station that fronted Canal Street guided visitors into the city along a path that abutted the district’s main thoroughfare, the legendary Basin Street.[7]

Map showing the two prostitution districts created in New Orleans in 1897. The larger Storyville district was created by Ordinance 13032 on January 29, 1897, and a smaller district was created by Ordinance 13485 on July 6, 1897. Note: Custom House Street, which formed Storyville’s southwestern boundary, was renamed Iberville Street in 1901.
Developers also flooded into the area, subdividing properties to increase rental revenues or demolishing housing stock to make way for expansive new brothels and barrooms. Before 1897, the core of the neighborhood had been considered undesirable, and most residents lived in modest housing stock. Once Storyville became a legal entity, skyrocketing rents forced pre–vice district residents to move. One landlord admitted that rents in the neighborhood rose “from one hundred to three hundred percent” in the year leading up to the passage of the ordinance.[8]

Obviously, the situation was unfair to the tenants who were priced out of the hot new real estate market of Storyville. Then as now, racial identity exacerbated problems finding housing. Eerily echoing post-Katrina concerns, a writer for the Southwestern Christian Advocate in 1897 reminded readers that “it is extremely difficult and may we say next to impossible, for a Negro to secure a decent house in a desirable portion of the city.” As with the post-Katrina diaspora of this neighborhood, it is impossible to know where all of those who were displaced from Storyville wound up. At least some of them moved a few blocks above Canal Street, into or near the four additional blocks also designated part of the 1897 vice district boundaries. This shadow district—literally a demimonde of a demimonde—has been largely invisible in local lore and historical studies. Yet it was in this neighborhood that a little boy named Louis Armstrong grew up and where his mother occasionally engaged in prostitution to make ends meet. Armstrong recalled that the area “was just about the same as it was in Storyville except that the chippies were cheaper,” leading the recent Armstrong biographer Thomas Brothers to label the area “the cheap Storyville.” Others have dubbed it “the black Storyville,” because black men could move freely in the streets and frequent the saloons, dance halls, and prostitutes—something they could not do in and around the high-end Basin Street brothels.[9]

In this smaller, secondary vice district, Jewish and Italian immigrants lived side by side with the children and grandchildren of emancipated slaves. Sometimes the inhabitants fought, but inevitably they influenced one another. Together they created a unique American art form. Originally called “jass”—itself a slang term for sex—the music was first played and enjoyed exclusively by New Orleans’s poor and marginal people. Only later would respectable white folks embrace this music, dub it “jazz,” and attempt to claim it as their own.

Over the last century, Storyville has become a legendary, though largely misunderstood, aspect of the city’s history. Musicians have popularized the district through jazz standards such as “Basin Street Blues,” while numerous works of fiction and a handful of films, including Louis Malle’s controversial Pretty Baby, have expanded the district’s legends without examining Storyville’s political, social, cultural, or economic significance. A widely ignored aspect of Storyville’s history, and the history of its sister district slightly further uptown, is that these two neighborhoods were the city’s first testing grounds for mandatory residential segregation. This segregation was not based explicitly on race, but on gender, requiring any woman who engaged in prostitution to live within the specified boundaries. In the era of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the city’s right to maintain those vice district boundaries. Though Storyville has been romanticized to the point of silliness, its history reveals how multiple forms of prejudice—in this case directed against people on the basis of gender, race, class, and a reputed lack of respectability—are mutually reinforcing. The ordinance that created Storyville mapped white male social and sexual supremacy onto the city’s grid, and it was all perfectly legal.[10]

The two vice districts were shuttered in 1917, but not because anyone on the local scene was willing to grapple with issues of racial and gender equality. Rather, the upsurge of patriotism, conservatism, and cultural piety that accompanied U.S. entry into World War I led to the closure of vice districts nationwide, and, though city leaders directly and tirelessly defended segregated vice, for once New Orleans was no exception. In the first two decades after the official demise, a few madams held on and continued to do business in the area formerly known as Storyville. As the neighborhood, its fortunes, and its structures declined, the poor and disadvantaged, most of whom were African American, began to move back in.

Poverty Is the New Prostitution: Race, Poverty, and Public Housing in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Alecia P. Long
Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 795–803

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