History, Geography, and the New Orleans Tourism Industry: A Review of Bourbon Street

University of Massachusetts Boston
Published September 22, 2015
Overview 

Lynnell L. Thomas reviews Richard Campanella's Bourbon Street: A History (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2014).

Review

In the early hours of June 29, 2014, a Bourbon Street shootout left twenty-one-year-old Brittany Thomas, a visitor to New Orleans, dead and nine other bystanders injured.1 For many, the recent rise of gun violence on Bourbon Street, and in the city's tourism districts more generally, threatens a booming industry. Richard Campanella's Bourbon Street: A History, published three months before the tragedy, places recent gun violence within a much longer history of social, political, and environmental threats that have failed to effect Bourbon Street's oft-predicted demise: "It has survived Prohibition, the Depression, wars, recessions, fires, hurricanes, floods, mobsters, raids, crackdowns, segregation, integration, white flight, hippies, rappers, evangelists, the oil bust, the dot-com bust, and relentless cycles of cultural tastes" (257), a testament, Campanella argues, to Bourbon Street's resilience and to its cultural and economic significance.

Plan of New Orleans the Capital of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1761. Map by Richard Benning. Courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, G4014.N5 1761 .P53.

A prolific, award-winning author and commentator on New Orleans's historical geography, Campanella has made a career of heralding the significance of the city's cultural and historic neighborhoods. In Bourbon Street, he turns his attention to the city's most iconic thoroughfare and its development from "pedestrian, unpretentious, and utterly unexceptional" (21) origins as Rue Bourbon in the eighteenth century to its present-day renown as "a signature street, one that [speaks] on behalf of the whole city to the nation and the world" (222). The book is divided into three parts: "Origins," "Fame and Infamy," and "Bourbon Street as a Social Artifact."

"Origins" reprises Campanella's previous studies on the environmental, topographical, and social conditions that shaped the early cityscape from the French colonial period to the antebellum era. As part of the original urban core, Bourbon Street's relatively high elevation and proximity to the river, the "front of town," made it much more economically and environmentally sound than the flood-prone, low-lying swampy areas of the "back of town" (34). In this period, Bourbon Street also represented the "ironic spatial integration" of New Orleans (36), which, as a major port city and the largest slave market in North America, thrust together a diverse, yet socially stratified population.

"Fame and Infamy" forms the heart of the book, tracing the reciprocal evolution of Bourbon Street's international notoriety and the upsurge of the modern tourism industry. Campanella pinpoints "the birthplace and birthday of modern Bourbon Street" (107) as the opening of Maxime's nightclub in January 1926, and chronicles the social, cultural, and economic changes that created the atmosphere of "beachy tropicality and Caribbean escapism" that characterize Bourbon Street's continuous parade in the twenty-first century (228). In between, he traces fluctuating attitudes about the Street as, at turns, "dirty, depressed, and dodgy" (74) and as a successful "stable social and economic space" that fuels the local economy and leaves an indelible imprint on national and global culture (250).

In the book's final section, "Bourbon Street as Social Artifact," Campanella attempts to uncover how cultural and social practice has constructed the street. He provides an ethnography of work and workers, maps the circulation of Bourbon Street as metonym for "pedestrian-scale drinking, eating, and entertainment districts" throughout the world (308), and charts the emergence of "anti-Bourbons"—entertainment zones that offer a putatively more authentic alternative. In the process, Campanella shows how geographic, demographic, and economic features shape the Street's character and success, parses debates over authenticity between critics and aficionados, and touts the recovery following Hurricane Katrina.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1977. Photograph by Derzi Elekes Andor. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

Because much of Bourbon Street's social and cultural history is a synthesis of other New Orleans histories, including Campanella's, the book's most original and compelling contribution is a delineation of the Street's changing cultural geography. Campanella chronicles several social and cultural developments that helped transform the strip: racial segregation and desegregation, the changing soundscape, the ubiquity of souvenir shops, the popularity of female public nudity, the demarcation of queer space, and the innovation of the go-cup that supplanted nightclubs and "completely rewire[d] the social and economic dynamics of Bourbon Street" (211). Campanella's meticulous archival and cartographic research draws on a wealth of primary sources—including census records, city directories, maps, and police reports—to demystify Bourbon Street and reveal its inner workings.

Former On Leong Merchant Association Building, 530 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Flickr user Winson Ho. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

In his descriptions of mid-twentieth-century Bourbon Street, Campanella becomes the ultimate tour guide, immersing readers in the spectacular, cacophonous, and malodorous sensory experience of the booming vice district. He directs readers past racially stereotyped tap dancers and blackface performers on the strictly segregated Street. He offers a sneak peek at the burlesque performances—and far less glamorous dressing rooms of—Evangeline the Oyster Girl, Rita Alexander the Champagne Girl, and Alouette LeBlanc the Tassel Spinner, so named for her skill at "twirling in opposing directions four tassels attached to her breasts and buttocks" (167). Campanella introduces a colorful cast of characters, such as Gaspar Gulotta, the "Little Mayor of Bourbon Street" (146), who mediated between the various factions and personalities that held a stake in the Street's economic and cultural advancement. He takes an unexpected jaunt through Chinatown, where Chinese merchants established themselves during the Great Depression. Campanella also draws on his own primary research—interviews, photographs, observations, and painstaking analyses of pedestrian traffic and balcony occupancy—to give readers a contemporary experience. Campanella shows how by the late twentieth century, Bourbon Street had transformed from a multigenerational, ethnically and racially diverse, working-class, mixed residential and commercial milieu to a tourist strip with "fewer children, fewer blacks, fewer ethnic whites, more transplants, higher housing prices, and higher incomes" (185). Certainly, Bourbon Street's transformation had significant cultural, social, and political implications for the rest of New Orleans, particularly for the African Americans, ethnic whites, and working class families that could no longer afford to live there. But Campanella's study is less concerned with illuminating this mutuality than in promoting Bourbon Street as the quintessential American success story.

NOPD Police Sign on Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Flickr user Kris Krüg. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Campanella celebrates the "ethnic white working class of downtown New Orleans," whom he credits with Bourbon Street's fame and financial success. The meteoric rise is all the more commendable because it occurred with "no consolidated administration, no president, no coordinator, no lobby, no marketers, and no corporate funding. Bourbon Street as we know it today effectively invented itself, locally, from the bottom up, with each constituent entity experimenting individually and adopting innovations laterally via competitive forces" (146). This American success myth, described by film scholar Julie Levinson as incorporating "the dream of rags-to-riches, the image of the can-do American, the credo of self-reliance, the doctrine of individual enterprise, and the faith in meritocracy" is based on the faulty proposition that "we are unbound by the past, by social identities, or by economic circumstances."2 However, Campanella's documentation of a long history of racism and sexual exploitation suggests that the exclusion and subordination of some groups, such as African Americans and women, were as integral to Bourbon Street's success as entrepreneurial experimentation and innovation. Further, Bourbon Street: A History presents myriad examples of special zoning ordinances, exemptions from code-enforcement and litigation, sympathetic task forces and commissions, disproportionate investment in infrastructure and policing, and other accommodations that subsidized economic development. As historian J. Mark Souther and others have shown, these subsidies to the city's tourist core came at the expense of other neighborhoods, "leading to the increasing spatial differentiation into privileged and disadvantaged districts."3 Campanella's own evidence undermines the free-market fundamentalist premise that on Bourbon Street "those who don't flexibly adapt to demand go bankrupt; those who survive must be effectively and efficiently giving the people exactly what they want" (303).

Campanella even attributes Bourbon's Street's post-Katrina recovery to this type of flexibility and efficiency, explaining that "brave Bourbonites incentivized the first businesses to return, and seeded the re-formation of an economy—not just Bourbon's, but that of the entire city. . . . Unlike so many other entities, Bourbon Street recovered with little if any federal aid and zero charitable assistance. Bourbon Street was not only New Orleans's most successful invention, it was also its most resilient and self-reliant" (310, 311). Yet, as scholarship on post-Katrina New Orleans chronicles, the city's market-driven approach to recovery has been unevenly and inequitably administered, exacerbating an already "uneven landscape of risk and resiliency."4 Black studies scholar Clyde Woods used the apropos phrase "neo-Bourbon/neoliberal agenda" to refer to the political, social, legal, and economic policies that created and maintained this landscape that prioritized tourism interests and private profits over community needs and social justice initiatives.5 Bourbon Street: A History rejects this type of criticism and sets up a rigid binary between those who appreciate Bourbon Street as "a delectable mélange of historicity and hedonism" and haters who view it as "iniquitous, crass, phony, and offensive" (xiii). This reductive pro-/anti-Bourbon framework elides the complicated, reciprocal processes of touristification and criminalization that prompts investment in tourist spaces and containment of other neighborhoods.6

The Maison Bourbon jazz band performs, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Flickr user Carol M. Highsmith. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

Although Campanella claims to offer "a nonjudgmental analysis of a complex phenomenon from many angles" (xvi), he levels his most strident criticism against "the cultural elite and their aspirants—image-conscious doyens, urbanophiles and preservationists, literati and academics, music connoisseurs and foodies, insecure transplants proving their bona fides, college students making a statement" (297). Their disdain for Bourbon Street, Campanella maintains, rests on elitist and ahistorical notions of authenticity. In contrast, Campanella proposes a relativist notion of authenticity: "Everything is real. Bourbon Street today is just as authentically part of real New Orleans culture as Storyville was a hundred years ago, and as Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, the housing projects, Creoles, and Tremé are today – no more, no less" (300). Yet, Campanella's authority to determine what is real and who is qualified to judge that reality rests, in part, on his own status as a New Orleans insider whose experiences trump the criticisms leveled by the progressives he disparages.7

Campanella's characterization of black New Orleanians is as problematic as his sweeping condemnation of progressives. Working-class African Americans escape the pitfalls of the authenticity debate because they supposedly "have all the authenticity they need" (297). In a similarly puzzling assessment, Campanella categorizes local nonwhites on Bourbon Street who are neither working in one of the establishments nor passing through on the way home, as being there to "loiter, beg, bicker, and settle scores among each other" (266). One is left to wonder about the experiences of local African Americans (and other groups) who go to Bourbon Street to witness the spectacle and indulge in the free entertainment, those who visit with out-of-town guests, socialize with attendees at black conventions and festivals, celebrate during Mardi Gras or after Saints games, or—as my own son did recently with a group of local black college-age friends—bring in the New Year. While Campanella offers the perspectives of informants who stereotype all black patrons as poor tippers, enact racially discriminatory policies, and deride an outing with high black turnout as "ghetto night" (273), he rarely presents the voices of black New Orleanians or black tourists or examines their complicated relationship to Bourbon Street.

Spanish colonial tiles, French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2007. Photograph by Infrogmation. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.5.

Campanella does an excellent job of mapping "geographies of pleasure" (99) that have made the tourist promenade such a central part of New Orleans's economic and cultural identity. What the senseless Bourbon Street shooting death of African American tourist Brittany Thomas illuminates is that these geographies of pleasure are inextricably linked to the geographies of pain that have also powerfully shaped the city's economy, geography, and historical memory.8

About the Author

Lynnell Thomas is associate professor and chair of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research interests include New Orleans tourism, popular culture, and African American history and literature. A native of New Orleans, Lynnell Thomas is part of the post-Katrina diaspora, which informs her teaching and scholarship. Her research is also concerned with the diverse backgrounds and experiences that constitute and contest American identity and values. Her most recent scholarship has examined post-civil rights era tourism, the HBO series Treme, and post-Katrina New Orleans.

  • 1. Ken Daley, "Bourbon Street Shooting Leaves 10 Wounded, 2 Critically, Tourism Image Scarred," NOLA.com, June 30, 2014, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2014/06/bourbon_street_gunfight_leaves.html; Helen Freund, "Bourbon Street Shooting Victim, 21, Dies," NOLA.com, July 2, 2014, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2014/07/bourbon_street_shooting_victim.html.
  • 2. Julie Levinson, The American Success Myth on Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 11–12.
  • 3. J. Mark Souther, New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 226. Political scientist Paul A. Passavant makes a similar argument in "Mega-Events, the Superdome, and the Return of the Repressed in New Orleans," in The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans, ed. Cedric Johnson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 87–129.
  • 4. Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg, Crisis Cities: Disaster and Redevelopment in New York and New Orleans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), viii. For other examples of recent scholarship critical of the market-driven approach to post-Katrina recovery, see Vincanne Adams, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); John Arena, Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Cedric Johnson, ed., The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Lawrence N. Powell, "What Does American History Tell Us about Katrina and Vice Versa?," Journal of American History 94, no. 3 (December 2007): 863–876; Lynnell L. Thomas, Desire and Disaster in New Orleans: Tourism, Race, and Historical Memory (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 158–173.
  • 5. Clyde Woods, "Katrina's World: Blues, Bourbon, and the Return to the Source," American Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2009): 448.
  • 6. Passavant, "Mega-Events, the Superdome, and the Return of the Repressed in New Orleans."
  • 7. For an analysis of the implications of Campanella's privileging of experience-knowledge, see Christopher Lirette, "Category 3 Gentrification: On New Orleans's Population Trends and the Hostility of Internet Commenters," Southern Spaces, April 17, 2013, http://southernspaces.org/blog/category-3-gentrification-new-orleanss-population-trends-and-hostility-internet-commenters.
  • 8. By a cruel irony, the June 2014 Bourbon Street shooting occurred just outside Johnny White's bar, the same bar that famously stayed open during and after Hurricane Katrina. The fact that this Bourbon Street institution has served as both a symbol of the city's rebirth and a reminder of its rampant violence and criminalizaton highlights the relationship between geographies of pleasure and pain. See, Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, "Bourbon Street Shooting Sent Bystanders Rushing into Nearby Businesses," NOLA.com, June 29, 2014, http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2014/06/as_bourbon_street_shooting_occ.html; Richard Campanella, Bourbon Street: A History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), 310.
Cover Image Attribution: 
Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1977. Photograph by Derzi Elekes Andor. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.
doi:10.18737/M7J30J
Creative Commons Licence

Browse by