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NOLA History: The Legendary Storyville District

There are several distinct neighborhoods in Faubourg Treme, the most famous of which has not existed for almost a century. The “Storyville” district still sparks creativity in writers and poets, because of the way “The District” blended people together, black and white, rich and poor.

New Orleans historic Storyville neighborhood

View of Storyville from Canal Street, 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)

Storyville, which is bounded by Rue Iberville, Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and N. Robertson streets, was located next to two major transportation focal points in the city: The turning basin at the end of the Carondelet Canal, and the tracks leading to the Southern Railway’s Canal Street terminal. With transportation, trade, and commerce nearby, it was only natural that entrepreneurs would offer adult entertainment in the form of prostitution nearby. Brothels, ranging from inexpensive rooms (“cribs”) to elegant homes, began to appear. By 1897, a New Orleans alterman named Sidney Story proposed to define a specific red-light district for New Orleans, similar to those in port cities such as Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Prostitution was to be legalized, and the brothels in this district were to be monitored, and prostitution was discouraged in neighborhoods outside the defined district. Story received the dubious honor of having the red-light district he advocated named for him.

New Orleans Storyville lady

A "New Orleans Lady" of Storyville, photographed in 1912 by E. J. Bellocq. (Wikimedia Commons)

Storyville attracted prostitutes whose fees ranged from fifty cents to ten dollars or more. An enterprising woman who saved her money could start in the “cribs” on the low end of the scale, eventually moving into one of the nicer establishments located along Basin Street. (A wonderful depiction of life in Storyville for musicians and prostitutes alike is offered by New Orleans author Louis Maistros in his historical-fiction novel, The Sound of Building Coffins.) Storyville wasn’t a sanitized amusement park; there was a seedy underside of gambling, crime, even murder in the district.

The proximity of those elegant mansions to the train station made them the most popular and profitable. While the cribs were single-bedroom and no-frills, the luxury houses were well-appointed, the sort of place a man with financial means would feel comfortable. As the brothels established themselves in the late 1890s, restaurants and saloons popped up nearby. The district was a full-fledged entertainment zone by 1900.

The wonderful form of music we know as Jazz did not originate in Storyville, as many believe, but the district nurtured the music and its players. The upscale brothels would hire piano players to offer light music in their parlors before the couples went upstairs. Some of these houses would even hire fledgling jazz combos to entertain the clients. The saloons in Storyville were also looking to attract customers, and the owners of those joints knew live music was a winner even then. Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Pops Foster, and a host of other early jazz musicians performed in the brothels and saloons of Storyville. A young Louis Armstrong earned money by hauling coal to the brothels and saloons. This gave him the opportunity to listen to the musicians playing in the saloons. Armstrong later said Joe “King” Oliver was his first horn teacher, a relationship likely formed while Oliver was performing in Storyville.

New Orleans Storyville brothels

Brothels located on Basin Street, circa 1905. The house with the cupola was operated by the legendary madam Josie Arlington. (Wikimedia Commons)

As Jazz became more popular and nightclubs opened in other parts of town, Storyville slipped into decline after 1910. By the time the United States entered World War One in 1917, opponents of legalized prostitution began to push for the district’s closure. New Orleans was a major port of embarkation for troops going to Europe to fight in the war, and the US Navy had a large presence in the port. The Secretary of War in 1917, Newton D. Baker, did not want the US military exposed to entertainment he considered immoral, so he pressed the city government to close the district. His influence carried the day, overruling objections from the mayor and other city leaders, who wanted to keep prostitution in this one single area. The city ordered the brothels to be closed, but Storyville remained as an entertainment district through the 1920s.

The neighborhood was demolished in the 1930s to make way for public housing. The Iberville Housing Project was built to provide affordable housing during the depression. Those apartment buildings are being either demolished or renovated in an attempt to update affordable housing options near downtown.

The brothels and saloons of Storyville may be gone, but the music played in them lives on in the nightclubs of the French Quarter. When you hear a brass band playing Dixieland, stop for a moment and think back to that early time of trains and boats in the cradle of Jazz.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans.  His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.