From Basin to Backatown: The Untold Story of Storyville
Basin Street is a cultural hangout that parallels Rampart Street and neighbors the historic French Quarter and St. Louis Cemetery #1. Pre-Hurricane Katrina, it was the site of the former Iberville Housing Projects (now mixed-income apartments) and carries an even deeper history as the site of New Orleans’ “red-light” district.. Every area in New Orleans has a story, here is that of Storyville.
After many failed attempts to eradicate prostitution and gambling within the city, the New Orleans City Council adopted an ordinance in 1897. Ordinance No. 13, 485 C.S. was introduced by Alderman Sidney Story and contained a list of guidelines to regulate prostitution and other illegal acts. It designated thirty-eight blocks where prostitution was technically tolerated, but illegal in any other part of the city. The area became known as the "red-light district" and "Storyville" after Sidney Story. It stretched throughout Basin Street, beginning at the former Basin Street Railroad. The district was located at the current site of the Iberville Housing Projects.
Storyville employed over 2,000 prostitutes and generated millions of dollars in economic activity. It attracted people from all over the country and served as a playground for prostitution, gambling, segregation, music, drugs, alcohol, and racial and sexual exploitation. Storyville was New Orleans' attempt to contain crude and illegal activity into one area (making it easier for police to regulate) rather than trying to address these issues city-wide. It was lined with mansions, saloons, and brothels, in which these illicit activities would take place. Blue books, known as the "guidebooks to sin," were booklets that advertised the activity of Storyville and served as a directory for the prostitutes and "madames" of the district, many of whom were categorized by race. "W" for white, "C" for colored, and "Oct." for octoroon, meaning one-eighth Black. Black women, especially those that were dark-skinned or visibly Black, were deemed as the least valuable women in Storyville. They often worked in deplorable conditions and were the subject of exploitation. Many light-skinned, mixed race, and/or Creole women worked at Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, a luxurious parlor occupied by rich, white men that (creepily) fetishized the racial ambiguity of these women.
Your race determined your positioning within Storyville. The white "parlors," were mansions known as the high-end brothels (Basin to S. Liberty Street). Lower-end brothels contained a mix of races (S. Liberty to N. Villere Street). The Black, "colored area" consisted of run-down brothels known as "cribs," and were located closer to the cemetery, away from the main action of the district. Although Black and white brothels coexisted in Storyville, Black prostitutes were not allowed in the predominately white sections unless they were working. Black men were not allowed in the white establishments unless they were musicians brought in to perform. In other words: if you were Black, you were only deemed useful if you were providing a form of service or entertainment.
Basin Street lies just outside of the Tremé neighborhood, which is known as the birthplace of jazz. Consequently, it was common for Black jazz musicians to play in white brothels as a form of entertainment. While jazz did not originate in Storyville, Storyville certainly played a role in the development of jazz, since Black artists were not allowed to perform in other white clubs in the city. Many famous jazz players got their start in the brothels of Storyville, including Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver, Buddy Bolden, even a young Louis Armstrong made money by bringing coal to the brothels within the district.
Another ordinance was proposed, which required all Black prostitutes to move in a separate "vice" district across Canal Street. This red-light district became known as the "Black Storyville," what we know today as "Backatown." This area was just down the street from Storyville, right across Canal, near present-day City Hall. Louis Armstrong grew up in Backatown, or "Black Storyville," and ultimately became the most influential figure in jazz music. Black organizations grew upset that Fisk school was located in "Black Storyville." Louis Armstrong, a student at Fisk, expressed how the school was in the midst of saloons and brothels. In result, the school board decided to move the Black students of Fisk to McDonogh 13, an all-white school on the outskirts of the district, and convert it to a Black school. White parents were outraged, protests followed, but the school board followed through with the decision. The school was renamed McDonogh No. 35 and became the first Black high school in New Orleans.
As years passed, many attempts were made to eliminate Storyville: a ban on musical instruments inside of saloons, on women in establishments that only sold alcohol, and on Black and white people drinking together. At the beginning of World War I, prostitution districts within five miles of an American military base were strictly prohibited, resulting in the complete shut down of Storyville. The jazz musicians made an exodus to Chicago, which became the next step in jazz evolution. Most of the former brothels, saloons, and parlors were torn down, and the Iberville Housing Projects were built in its place with federal funding from the Housing Act of 1937. This program was segregated, in which only white residents (families of military soldiers) were permitted to live in the Iberville.
The Lafitte Projects, across Claiborne, were built in 1941 and only housed Black residents. At the time, the Lafitte is said to have been one of the best low-rent projects for Black people in the South.
The story of Storyville is often brushed under the rug due to the behaviors that surrounded it, but we can only learn from our history if we talk about it. While it was obscene, inappropriate, and in some cases, illegal, the district generated much of the city's tourism revenue during that time period. Tourists flocked to the lewd streets of Storyville, just as they do today on Bourbon Street. Without the brothels of Storyville, we may not have heard the names of those notable jazz musicians, and that young boy dropping off coal may not have ever met his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver, and grew up to become THE Louis Armstrong. The politics of Storyville parallels many of the issues we see today, whether we're talking racism, colorism, sexism, or the exploitation of Black bodies.
In order to know where you're going, you gotta know where you come from. As NOIR 'N NOLA™, we come from a diverse lineage of strong men and women that always found a way to capitalize off their environment and oppressions. Who knew that jazz greats, forms of women liberation, a historically Black school, and economic increase would come from the slums of Storyville?
Racism, colorism, violence, sexism, and exploitation plagued the Storyville district in the late 1800s, as they continue to plague our communities today. Those issues are the true enemy, the true threats to ourselves. Not each other. From Basin, to Backatown -- from the Iberville, to the Lafitte. To understand our history is to understand our connectedness to each other. New Orleans is close-knit, family-oriented, and whether we realize it or not, we move as a unit. We are fused in more ways than we are divided, and it's about time we start acting like it.
"Farewell to Storyville" - Billie Holiday & Louis Armstrong
All, you old-time queens, from New Orleans, who lived in Storyville You sang the blues, try to amuse, here's how they pay the bill The law step-in and call it sin to have a little fun The police car has made a stop and Storyville is done
Just say farewell now and get your one last thrill Your one last thrill Just say farewell now, farewell to Storyville...