I realized there was something exciting and quite different about New Orleans the first time that I visited the city. Today, if you go south on Canal Street you will eventually end up at the Mississippi River. The City is in the process of rebuilding, but if you had followed Canal to the River before Hurricane Katrina you would have encountered many tourist attractions such as the Aquarium of the Americas, the World Trade Center and the Canal Street Wharf. Unlike today’s tourist-driven atmosphere you would have found something quite different had you taken the same journey in the 1950's.
I first visited New Orleans during the Eisenhower Era and remember standing on south Canal Street and staring down the hill toward the Mississippi River. New Orleans is a major international seaport and what I saw was a bunch of seedy bars that sailors from many countries frequented when they were in port. The bars were off-limits to American military personnel, and for good reason. They were dangerous, the women you met there "loose," and venereal diseases rampant.
"Those bars are a good place to get killed," my Aunt Carmol, an ex-marine during World War II and no shrinking violet herself, had told my brother and me. "Don’t ever go there."
The Canal Street bars were long gone before I ever had the opportunity to defy Aunt Carmol’s advice. Still, even as a youngster I felt the potential danger and lingering intrigue present around nearly every corner of New Orleans. One less dangerous but very intriguing place that was eventually cleaned up by the U.S. Navy was Storyville, the Big Easy’s early-day fantasy land that did as much to establish the City’s reputation as a latter-day Gomorrah as anything else in its history.
During the early days of New Orleans there was a shortage of females. To alleviate this situation, street prostitutes were released from French prisons on the condition that they migrate to the new colony. In 1744, the number of bordellos and houses of prostitution prompted a French army officer to comment that there were not ten women of blameless character in New Orleans. City-wide prostitution continued until 1897 when a puritanical city official devised a plan to control the problem. The plan resulted in the formation of Storyville.
Locals called Storyville "The District." It existed from 1897 until 1917, the concept of New Orleans’ alderman Sidney Story. Story’s plan wasn’t to legalize prostitution, but to control it by defining the boundaries within which it would not be prosecuted as a crime. The concept worked for nearly two decades and ironically the District became one of the City’s leading tourist attractions.
Despite the belief of many - likely propagated by fictional accounts in literature - Storyville wasn’t located in the French Quarter. It encompassed an area north of the Quarter, just east of Canal Street between N. Rampart and N. Claiborne. Elaborate bordellos, fancy restaurants and dance halls quickly appeared and flourished, along Basin, the street that became a legend because of its association with early jazz.
Jazz flourished in Storyville, although it didn’t originate there. Each bordello was a place for music as well as prostitution and each establishment generally had a piano player to entertain its guests. The bordellos often hired bands to perform, as did the restaurants and clubs that sprang up in the District. Jazz superstars such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong often performed there. Storyville was near a train station and many visitors to the City also frequented the bordellos and the clubs to listen to jazz. These visitors, as well as sailors of all nationalities, took this new sound back with them to their cities and countries of origin.
In 1917 the Secretary of the Navy was Josephus Daniels and his nickname "Tea Totaling" perfectly described his tolerance for sin. Daniels insisted that New Orleans either shut down Storyville, or else he would close the naval base across the river in Algiers. The base provided too much income to New Orleans for the City fathers to see it close so they shut down Storyville instead.
A wave of Puritanism swept across the United States during the era of World War I and the residents of New Orleans weren’t exempt from this phenomena. Embarrassed by Storyville, city fathers began systematically dismantling the District. In the years following 1917, all the elaborate bordellos were demolished leaving only a metaphorical scar in place of nearly two decades of irreplaceable history. Even the street names were changed, world famous Basin Street becoming North Saratoga.
Toward the end of World War II, city fathers made yet another planning blunder. Soldiers were returning home from war and needed a place to live, so the Iberville Housing Project was built on the site of Storyville. Never spoken about in travel brochures or in tourist information, the low-cost Iberville Housing Project quickly became dangerous and crime-ridden. Close to the French Quarter, the Project was a place to avoid at all costs instead of the tourist attraction that the District had once been.
Even with the dismantling of Storyville, prostitution never left New Orleans. It simply spread out across the city to places like the seedy bars frequented by sailors on south Canal. Unlike south Canal, transformed now into a tourist attraction rather than a city blight, the area around Storyville remains largely unknown and off limits to tourists.
New Orleans’ city fathers made a colossal blunder when they demolished the historical District. They compounded their error when they covered up their mistake by building the infamous Iberville Project. Finally realizing their horrible error in judgment, they did return the name Basin to the famous street that was home of legendary jazz and fabulous bordellos.
New Orleans still exudes a well deserved aura of danger and intrigue and there are still more than enough historical sights to see, even though one of the most famous is forever gone. Few vestiges of Storyville remain, yet like the tang of Tabasco Sauce on the palette, its memory remains long after the last spicy bite of Etouffee has been consumed.
Louisiana Mystery Writer