Of Red Lights & Blue Books
The first tenderloin section of New Orleans was in Gallatin Street, a short alley that runs from the French Market to the Mint, between North Peters and Decatur Streets. Its proximity to the river front long ago helped to earn for Gallatin Street a most unsavory reputation, which clung to it until about 1900. Prostitutes from every nation gathered there, living a life of boisterous lawlessness and open vice. In recent years it became a street of empty houses, the lower floors of which were some times used for the storage of produce. In 1936 the houses on the river side of Gallatin Street were torn down to make way for new market buildings.
As the city grew in size disorderly houses gained footholds in other sections. About 1850, some of them were driven off Canal Street. A newspaper account of the great fire of 1851, when the St. Charles Hotel and many other buildings were burned, mentions the destruction of two houses of ill fame on Poydras Street next to the Methodist Church. Commer cialized vice often followed in the wake of disappearing respectability. Fine old homes, once occupied by the city's elite, later became boarding houses as the neighborhoods changed, and still later, scattered havens of prostitution. Annunciation Square, residential sections of Camp, St. Charles, and Carondelet Streets, the famous 13 Buildings on Julia Street, on the uptown side between Camp and St. Charles where many of the prominent families of the forties and fifties made their homes, and
many a fine home in the French section, all passed through this checkered experience.
The first action against immoral establishments was taken in 1817 by the city council, which imposed a fine on both woman and house-owner for disturbing the peace or occasioning scandal. In 1845 lewd women were forbidden to frequent or drink in coffee houses. In 1857 a detailed
ordinance was passed, defining the limits beyond which prostitution would not be tolerated, imposing taxes on the inmates and house-owners, and requiring that each woman should take out a yearly license, to be issued to her by the Mayor upon proof that her taxes had been paid. White women and free women of color were forbidden to live in the same house. Standing or sitting on the sidewalk in indecent posture, and the accosting of passersby, were prohibited under penalty of a fine or jail sentence.
The territorial limits prescribed at that time are interesting. They were: Felicity Road, Hercules (South Rampart), New Canal (New Basin), Claiborne, and Canal Streets in the First District; Canal, Basin, Toulouse, and Bayou St. John (Carondelet Canal), Esplanade and Toulouse in the Second District; Esplanade, Broad, and Elysian Fields Streets in the Third District. These boundaries indicate that the establishments in Basin Street were of an early origin.
Following the emancipation of Negro slaves and the legalization of gambling in Louisiana in 1869, social life in the New Orleans underworld assumed a new status. Centralization began anew, and the restricted district was but a step ahead. An eyewitness gives us a graphic picture of Royal Street during the Cotton Exposition of 1884:
Brilliantly lighted by a new electric flare system, the street is thronged with men of all classes, who enter or emerge from its many saloons and gambling houses, which throb with the raucous sounds of pleasure-bent men and women. Timid crowds of men stand upon the curbstone to catch a glimpse of female limbs draped in gauze of pink and blue . . . Arrayed in scant garments, but gorgeous in combinations of color, are young and middle-aged; youthful and fresh, together with wearied and worn, whited sepulchers; watching among the throng which enters, those whom their judgment dictates have money to spend or throw away upon them in remuneration for a display of their utter unconsciousness of virtue.During the reform agitation of the eighties and nineties a school of thought developed which advocated a restricted district for the better control of prostitution. This plan finally found expression in an ordinance, sponsored by Alderman Story, and passed by the city council on January 26th, 1897, at the first session under Mayor Flower. Definite limits were set down for the district, but even so, residence there was not legalized, so that the city held complete control of the situation. The theory was that all prostitutes could be confined within these limits, policed, and controlled, and that thus the evil could be kept in hand. This theory was not entirely successful in practice, for houses of assignation were to be found elsewhere, sometimes on the finest residential streets. Nevertheless the restricted district soon became one of the most amazing spectacles of legalized vice that had ever been seen.
The limits of the district, as defined by the ordinance, were: the south side of Custom House (Iberville) Street, from Basin to Robertson Streets, east side of Robertson Street from Customhouse to St. Louis Streets, south side of St. Louis from Robertson to Basin. At first the Negroes and mulattoes were allowed in certain sections of the restricted district, but on March 1, 1917, a restricted Negro district was established. The boundaries were: Perdido Street to the lower side of Gravier, and from the river side of Franklin to the wood side of Locust (Liberty).
The restricted district enjoyed a legal existence from 1897 to 1917. During those two decades it attained the zenith of its fame; it was the show place and scandal of the city. Visitors from near and far, lured by the tales of wantonness and tinseled gaiety, almost invariably included the district in their itinerary. Depending upon their temperaments and viewpoints, they left elated or appalled by the scenes they had witnessed, scenes that usually far surpassed even their most fantastic expectations. To the average well-bred native Orleanian, however, the district was no thing of beauty ; it was merely a rather bad civic sore, which one was aware of but avoided. It was a world of honky-tonks and dives/palaces, and cribs, sordid indeed, but militantly gay and carefree. Jazz and swing music are said to have originated in the dance halls and saloons of New Orleans red light district.
At Carnival time, and especially on Mardi Gras Day, the district opened its arms to welcome everyone. King Zulu, leader of the Negro carnival celebration, had his headquarters in the black section of the district, back toward Robertson and St. Louis Streets. Maskers thronged its streets and peals of celebrations rang from every house. In other seasons, the district flourished only at night, for it was drab and deserted by day. As it adjoined the tracks leading into the Terminal Station on Canal Street, visitors arriving in the city were treated to a broadside view of its palaces and glimpses up side streets of the crib sections, before they saw much else; and respectable citizens who otherwise never went near the place furtively surveyed the scene when departing on, or returning from, a trip.
The restricted district was ironically dubbed Storyville in honor of the alderman whose ordinance created it. Storyville's central spot was the Arlington Annex, Tom Anderson's main saloon, at the corner of Customhouse and Basin Streets, adjoining the Arlington palace. The Annex was figuratively the city hall of Storyville, and Tom Anderson was its mayor. He bossed the restricted district and in addition was a member of the State Legislature, the owner of a chain of saloons, and the head of an oil company.
In Arlington Annex one could obtain for twenty-five cents a copy of the Blue Book, official directory and guide to Storyville. The Blue Book listed in alphabetical order and in separate sections respectively the names and addresses of all the prostitutes in the place. It also contained many advertisements from local and national distillers and cigarmakers, as well as a few from neighboring drugstores and taxi companies. Most enticing of all Blue Book contents, however, were the puffs and occasional photographs, which extolled the graces and qualifications of Storyville s most prominent sirens.
Why visit the playhouse to see the famous Parisian models, urged one of these, when one can see the French damsels, Norma and Diana? Their names have been known on both continents, because everything goes as it will, and those that cannot be satisfied with these must surely be of a queer nature. Another assures the reader that he can travel from one end of this continent to the other, but to find another good fellow as game as Gipsy (Shaffer), who is always ready to receive and entertain, will be almost an impossibility. A third proclaims that Miss May Spencer has the distinction of conducting one of the best establishments in the Tenderloin District, where swell men can be socially entertained by an array of swell ladies. If you have the blues, says a fourth,
the Countess (Willie Piazza) and her girls can cure them. And so they went on and on, each mistress attempting to outdo her rivals in luring the wealthy sport to her palace of joy.
Two other publications in the flush times of the district contained, together with much more reporting of the Police Gazette kind, notices of the doings of the prostitutes, prominent and obscure. In 1894, the Mascot, the more important of the two, inaugurated a Society column in which the gay whirl of life on the turf was reported. The Sunday Sun, the other of these weeklies, soon followed suit with a Chat column.
Having purchased a copy of the Blue Book from the Annex, one could go down the line on Basin Street, where the exclusive mansions stood, or along Custom House (Iberville) Street, where rows and rows of cribs stretched out before him. The Basin Street palaces were lavishly furnished in the barbaric taste of the inhabitants. Heavily carved plush-covered furniture, and gaudy tapestries and drapes, provided a rococo atmosphere that was further accentuated by massive gilt statuary, ivory curios, leopard-skin rugs, potted palms, and cut-glass candelabra. Everything was in the worst possible taste. But to the various Spanish, French, Italian, Egyptian, and Octoroon damsels as well as their sundry mistresses, their environs rivaled the courts of kings.
This entertainment offered a direct contrast to that provided in the cribs which were bare one-room affairs that abutted on the sidewalk, and contained nothing more than a bed, a table, and a chair. There were from twenty to thirty cribs in a single block ancient structures with a common roof and low-hanging eaves. The barest of them, however, brought a rental of at least seventy-five dollars a month.
But whatever the crib sections lacked in quality and distinctiveness, they more than made up for in volume, boisterousness, amdjoie de vivre. The women were not permitted to leave the house, so they solicited vocally from behind doorways and window blinds. Those who went to see caught glimpses of beckoning hands and chalk-white faces in the poorly illumined rooms along the row. Some cribs outshone others by the variety and arrangement of red light bulbs that glowed in their interiors, but for the most part they presented a striking uniformity in every respect. Eventually in some sections restrictions as to color disappeared, and whites and blacks and all the possible variations were to be found in the same block.
From dance halls and saloons came the jangling of pianos and the shuffling sounds of dancers. Dice games were always in progress. Gruff voices of men and high-pitched tones of women intermingled in argument or laughter. Drunks who had spent or lost all their money were shoved away from one place after another until a policeman took them into custody. Finally, in the small hours of the morning, the last visitor made his rounds of the houses the rent collector who would listen to no excuse and whose business methods were ruthless.
Storyville today is not as we have here depicted it. In the last twenty years, its inhabitants have undergone many vicissitudes; its palaces and cribs have become decaying hulks. Many have disappeared altogether to make way for the increasing spread of automobile parking grounds.
On the heels of much persistent vice-crusading by Miss Jean Gordon and other civic leaders for the suppression of the restricted district, came a request from Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy under President Wilson, urging, as a war measure, the large cities of the nation to curb all forms of vice. A local ordinance therefore closed the district officially on October 10, 1917. The red-light district never regained its pre-war legal status.
That this is so can easily be demonstrated ; for where can one find the equals of former celebrated procuresses? Countess Willie Piazza, under whose roof a Central-American revolution was hatched, is dead. She is dead and her gilded mirrors and green plush chairs and white piano sold at auction; the piano, badly in need of tuning, going for $1.25. Josie Arlington was buried in and later removed from Metairie Cemetery, but a bronze maiden, representative of the virgins whom Josie never allowed in her house, still knocks in vain on the door of her tomb; and a legend which tells of a red light mysteriously issuing from the grave is current. Tom Anderson's name is in tile on the corner of Iberville and Saratoga Streets, and Lulu White's name may still be seen cut in the glass transom of her palace at 235 Basin Street; but the palace is now a warehouse. When Beth
Brown wrote For Men Only in 1930, her heroine, Lily Love, flourished in the whalebone period, as did Mae West in her cinematic portrayal of another sporting house Lulu, in Belle of the Nineties, which at first was to be called Belle of New Orleans. The Basin Street Blues hark back with a nostalgic wail to an era dead and gone.
\Von t-cha come a-long with me,
To the Mis-sis-sip-pi?
We ll take the boat to the Ian of dreams,
Steam down the river down to New Orleans;
The bands there to meet us,
Old friends to greet us,
Where all the light and the dark folks meet
This is Ba-sin Street.
Basin Street Blues