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The Lost Sights and Sounds of Storyville, New Orleans’s Red Light District

Storyville in New Orleans may be the most famous American red light district, but little of it survives. After prostitution in Storyville was prohibited in 1917, its seductively furnished brothels and raucous saloons gradually disappeared, with most demolished by the midcentury. Yet Storyville’s legacy endures a century later, whether in its role in the beginnings of jazz or the perception of New Orleans as a southern center of debauchery.

Photograph of Rita Walker from Blue Book (1913-15) (courtesy the Historic New Orleans Collection)

Storyville: Madams and Music, now at the Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), explores this complex history through photographs, maps, manuscripts, and architectural remnants, like the transom that once announced the name of madam Lulu White in red glass above the entrance to the plush Mahogany Hall. The exhibition features rare examples of the “blue books” which acted as directories for the sex workers, a display of which complements THNOC’s recent publication, Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans. The book by Pamela D. Arceneaux, THNOC senior librarian and rare books curator, is the first contemporary study of these pocket-sized guides.

“Examining the 20-year history of the Storyville district provides us with a lens into a time and place that was experiencing rapid and dramatic change,” Storyvillecurator Eric Seiferth told Hyperallergic.

He noted that a century since the end of Storyville, the exhibition is a portal to “the evolving social structure imposed by Jim Crow, which forced newly arrived African Americans — moving to New Orleans from plantations — into the same social and racial category as French-speaking Afro-Creoles,” as well as subsequent struggles “over the idea of racial segregation.” At that moment, there were also shifting moral attitudes in the city, urban expansion transformed a previously sequestered neighborhood with the building of the Southern Railway Terminal, and the development of jazz brought pianists experimenting with novel styles in Storyville’s entertainment venues. “Many aspects of New Orleans’s modern identity can be traced back, at least in part, to the district — the most apparent being the city’s identity as an adult tourism destination and music hub,” he added.

This “Tenderloin District,” as it was sometimes called, was contained between the streets of Iberville, St. Louis, North Basin, and North Robertson. It got its Storyville name from Alderman Sidney Story, who created the 1897 ordinance for an area of legalized prostitution (and wasn’t too thrilled by his titular notoriety). THNOC has digitized its early 1900s blue books, which are available to scroll through on a gallery touchscreen, and in their online catalog(search for “blue book” and click on “Bibliographic Records”). One blue book from 1908 boasts in its preface that the volume will put “the stranger on a proper grade or path as to where to go and be secure from hold-ups, brace games and other illegal practices usually worked on the unwise in Red Light Districts.” It adds that in the directory, “Names in capitals are Landladies. ‘W’ stands for white, ‘C’ for colored, ‘Oct’ for octoroon. The contents of this book are facts and not dreams from a ‘hop joint.'”

Aside from name and address, race was the only individual description offered for most women. Some brothels were segregated, others advertised their diversity. In a blue book from 1907, Madame Emma Johnson’s brothel includes this enticement:

Emma’s “Home of all Nations,” as it is commonly called, is one place of amusement you can’t very well afford to miss while in the Tenderloin District. Everything goes here. Fun is the watchword.

Other locales emphasized their stylish and elegant decor as much as their inhabitants, the high class of the salons a code for the quality of the women. Here is a passage from a 1905 blue book:

Miss Cummings also has the distinction [sic] of keeping one of the quietest and most elaborately furnished establishments in the city, where an array of beautiful women, and good times reign supreme. A visit will teach more than the pen can describe.

The blue books portrayed a romanticized, consumer-oriented view of Storyville generated for white men, and life for the women, especially women of color, could often be exploitative or abusive. Venereal disease was a major issue; a 1901 blue book has an advertisement for the Arlington Restaurant with “everything that is good to eat and drink with peerless and prompt service” opposite one for a drug with a “marvelous success with Gonorrhea and Gleet.” Mugshots of prostitutes from 1910 in Storyville show solemn, weathered faces, while nearby portraits by E. J. Bellocq, whose nude and clothed photographs of the Storyville women were discovered after his death, sensitively frame their bodies and brothel settings.

THNOC, located in the French Quarter, is walking distance from Storyville’s former district. “Only a few buildings remain from 100 years ago,” Seiferth explained. “This is largely due to the area being razed by the city in the late 1930s to allow for the construction of the Iberville Housing Projects, whose footprint more or less matched that of Storyville.” He stated that recently those projects were demolished for new buildings, “changing the neighborhood almost entirely for the fourth time since the end of the 19th century.”

The early 20th-century sex trade is only one side of Storyville at THNOC, which notes that the same year the district was closed, the first commercial jazz record — Livery Stable Blues by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — was released. Storyville is just a component in the evolution of jazz, but the performances of musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and Manuel “Fess” Manetta in the district makes it part of this American music narrative. “Women and music comprise two of the most compelling components in Storyville’s history,” Seiferth said. “That said, there are other aspects of the complicated history of Storyville that we discuss, including issues of racial and cultural exploitation, displacement, the emerging Jim Crow South and segregation, and the lingering national fascination with New Orleans as an adult tourism destination.”

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