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The Passing Parade

A Review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History. LSU Press, 2014.

For many outside the New Orleans area, the city is defined by one area: the French Quarter.  Further, the French Quarter is defined by one street, especially one part of that street: the lower half of Bourbon Street.  Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, has written a readable urban history which answers the question of why, or at least how, one street in what is currently just a small neighborhood in a major city came to define that city for at least the last seventy years.

Campanella begins at the start of the city three hundred years ago, when the French Quarter, or more formally for just over the last century the Vieux Carré, was New Orleans.  He demonstrates over his early chapters how in the first half of its existence, Bourbon Street was in many ways a typical New Orleans street, well-representing the various aspects of the growing city in terms of the changing ethnic demographics, the split between commercial and residential, and other changes in the urban landscape, even as the city quickly spread throughout a large part of its current location through the nineteenth century.  Interspersed throughout the monograph are excellent discussions of the changing architecture and urban planning (or lack thereof) which created the modern French Quarter.

New Orleans started out as a port city, with all the rough profligacy available to those transients of the shipping trades that represented.  More, it was the point where the United States met the Afro-Caribbean, and that clash of cultures combined with all that came with being both a major ocean port and the terminus of the Mississippi trade gave the city the reputation of the ‘Great Southern Babylon’ and ‘a second Sodom’ by the 1810s (pp. 60-61), a reputation which the city’s boosters have always, if sometimes surreptitiously, promoted: “New Orleans gained a hedonistic reputation because it earned one, deserved one, and wasted no time in developing one.” (p. 59).

Of course, we also know Bourbon Street’s reputation today, and Campanella charts the ‘sinful’ side of the Port of New Orleans, including the oft-moving center(s) of the drink, entertainment, and ‘adult’ trades.  While Bourbon Street was never fully a center of any of those trades until the 1920s, one or more areas in or near the French Quarter always were, and Bourbon Street was almost always within some of their peripheries.

From 1897 until World War I, New Orleans had a legalized red-light district just outside the Quarter (Storyville).  During that same period, Bourbon Street and the streets between Bourbon and Storyville came to cater to a nightlife based on restaurants, the newly-invented nightclubs, hotels, and slightly more upscale and somewhat more respectable if still adult-oriented entertainment than that provided in the brothels and dives of Storyville, which Campanella calls ‘the Tango Belt.’  The end of Storyville followed by the introduction of Prohibition moved much of the adult-oriented nightlife both underground and more fully into the Quarter.  The heart of the book, in terms of both content and the middle chapters, are the three chapters which cover the creation of the modern conception of Bourbon Street, from World War II to the present.

Restaurants have kept locals and visitors coming to Bourbon Street in the afternoons and evenings since the nineteenth century.  The French Opera House (1859-1919) on Bourbon and Toulouse and Wegner’s Concert Hall & Beer Garden (1868, Wegner’s Garden after 1876) also kept people coming after the Civil War.  Having one major brewery on the street (American/Regal, 1890s-1960s) and one just a few blocks away (Jax, 1890s-1970s) insured low prices.  It was the nearby sin centers which drew customers to the slightly tamer versions on lower Bourbon later at night.  It would be Prohibition, which brought crowds to the speakeasies of the area, which provided the incentive to keep those crowds in the area (and the desire to keep these activities to a comparative minimum in other parts of the city) which saw the proliferation of burlesque houses out front and illegal gaming in the backrooms not devoted to illegal drinks.  The visitors to the port kept the ‘sinful’ trades going after alcohol was relegalized, and New Orleans’ status as not only a major port but a major center of the US’s military buildup during World War II which saw the area’s reputation explode.  This saw the transition of lower Bourbon Street into something resembling its modern form, right down to the start of the ‘gay space’ around the intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann.  World War II through the early 1960s saw the heyday of ‘burlesque Bourbon,’ the concentration of which (although by no means exclusive) in one area brought the volume of visitors the enterprises needed for survival, followed by a decade of change.  By the late-1970s, Bourbon had modified itself into its current form of rock bars, strip clubs, and above all the window vending of alcohol straight to the crowds on the street, with public flashing during the Mardi Gras season and, by the turn of the millennium, weekends.

Campanella records it all in his well-documented monograph.  He also includes snippets of oral history, photographs, and his own original research into current street patterns, easily raising this work above being just a basic narrative of Bourbon.  In all, while written at perhaps a bit above the level of today’s stereotypical Bourbon Street visitor (at least above it after they have indulged in a few window-vended Hurricanes or Grenades and a Lucky Dog lunch), this provides an excellent introduction to today’s Bourbon Street (and to a lesser degree the French Quarter) and how it became the emblem for New Orleans.  Love it or hate it, the ‘Passing Parade’ of Bourbon Street seems set to enter the city’s fourth century as central to New Orleans as it has usually been in its first 300 years.

Reviewed by Terrance L. Lewis

Terrance L. Lewis is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Social Sciences at Winston-Salem State University.  From 1991 until Hurricane Katrina, he held the same position at Southern University at New Orleans.  His areas of specialization are Twentieth Century European and American Cultural History and Modern World History.