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Silver Threads: Storyville stories


The early Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans

Back in the days when it was reported that many women celebrating Mardi Gras on French Quarter balconies were bearing their chests in hopes of getting beads tossed their way by passing revelers, I believed that few, if any, of the careless females were locals.

Can you imagine lifting your tee shirt, then going to work on Ash Wednesday and discovering that your boss and his family had been partying at eye level across the street?

One of the more notorious reports of extreme tackiness in the Quarter was a post-football game episode in which a male fan planted his bare genitalia against the neck of another man passed out at a table in a bar. Both were visitors in our town.

But New Orleans has a reputation for sinfulness, regardless of the residency of the perpetrator, and can be blamed for its ills even when the cause is otherworldly. Remember when the east coast Christian fundamentalist said the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina was due to the “decadence” of it’s citizenry? Returning to town after the storm, I noticed that a big church along our way home had lost its tall steeple to the winds.

I got to thinking about all this when reading the Saturday book pages of the Wall Street Journal and noticed the line printed at the top of one of them: “It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.”

The article was penned by J. Chandler Gregg, a clergyman who fought for the Union during the Civil War — and seemingly must have been posted in New Orleans and the Gulf South during the final days of the conflict. His book about it was printed in 1868, and the quote — presumably from it — ran above a photo of Buddy Bolden and his jazz band, circa 1905. Below that were the reviews of two new books, “Empire of Sin,” about our infamous Storyville and “The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case” about an unsolved crime that took place here during Reconstruction days.

“Created to regulate prostitution and drugs, Storyville was the red-light district of New Orleans from 1897 to 1917,” reads Wikipedia. “It was established by municipal ordinance under the New Orleans City Council, with Councilman Sidney Story writing guidelines and legislation to control prostitution within the city. Storyville did not legalize prostitution, but rather signified Storyville, a 16-block block area of the city, as the part of New Orleans that it was not illegal in.”

It was bound by the streets of North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis and was found between the French Quarter and Interstate 10. It was located by a train station, making it a popular destination for travelers throughout the city, and became a centralized attraction in the heart of New Orleans. Although most of its remnants are no longer visible, the neighborhood lies in Faubourg Treme.

At the beginning of World War I, it was ordered that a brothel could not be located within five miles of a military base. The U.S. Navy, driven by a reformist attitude at home, prohibited soldiers from frequenting prostitutes, based on public health.

In the early days of the war, four soldiers were killed in the District within weeks of each other. Both the Army and Navy subsequently demanded that Storyville be closed down, with the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels citing the district as a “bad influence”.

The New Orleans city government strongly protested against closing the district; Mayor Martin Behrman said, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” He then ordered the district be shut down by midnight of Nov. 14, 1917.

When I think of Storyville, I think of actress Helen Mirren; her husband, director Taylor Hackford; and Julia Street artist George Schmidt. In a series of historical paintings, George depicted a Storyville prostitute being photographed by E. J. Bellocq, who worked here during the days of our red-light district. He sits behind his camera in the foreground; in front of him stands the working woman, explicitly nude, every body hair on view, nothing covered but her eyes, which are hidden behind a black bar.

Mirren and Hackford bought the painting, probably for the house they once owned on Barracks Street, where it wouldn’t be thought shocking. I wonder where they hang it now?


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