Storyville. What strikes me most when I hear the word or see it emblazoned across the chest of a baby romper is how weird New Orleans is. We have embraced the memory of a red light district that closed its green shutters almost a century ago as a source of pride. We’re nostalgic over prostitution. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise me, considering this city’s often-exuberant relationship with its own debauchery. But the way our city gleefully remembers Storyville has always sat strangely with me.
There’s no denying that it’s important to our history. Storyville wasn’t the first red light district in New Orleans, but it was the only legally protected one. Located at the edge of the French Quarter in the area New Orleanians know today as the Iberville Housing Projects, then it was simply called The District. The name Storyville started as a satirical dig at Sidney Story, the alderman who made prostitution illegal outside of The District because brothels were bad for French Quarter property values.
Storyville was America’s most famous red light district, but it became more than that. It was a space outside mainstream constrictions where black musicians could play whatever they wanted, giving ragtime and the blues room to grow and become syncopated into something new. New Orleans at-large is the birthplace of jazz. But with Basin Street as its main thoroughfare and as the literal birthplace of Jelly Roll Morton, an argument could be made that Storyville is where jazz was conceived.
Louis Armstrong was a fifteen-year-old delivering stone coal to The District’s cribs in 1917 when the Navy pressured our city into shutting Storyville down. This wartime effort to cut back on the venereal diseases and stabbings that afflicted sailors on leave didn’t just affect prostitutes. A whole community of cooks, butlers, waiters, cleaning women, musicians and support staff, like Armstrong, was put out of work. The day the “Red Light Queens” wheeled their personal belongings out of the neighborhood in wheelbarrows, it’s said that musicians massed together in the streets to play “Nearer My God to Thee” as a death march to The District. It’s a romantic story, one that I am not unaffected by.
But look at E. J. Belloqc’s photographs of Storyville sex workers. What makes these portraits beautiful is not the nudity. They capture the joy of one woman’s laugh, another’s direct stare despite her flawed body. A third’s pride is made clear in her careful outfit and fashion-plate pose. What’s captured is their humanity. And what’s forgotten when we put Storyville on T-shirts and giggle at the idea of Blue Books handed out at the train station with the descriptions of each woman — black, white, quadroon or octoroon — right next to their price, is that these were human beings. Women, without the rights of men, whose bodies were bought and sold.
New Orleans should celebrate Storyville; prostitutes were the founding women of our city and music is our greatest legacy. But rather than romanticize, let’s recognize its contradictions. People were pushed to this periphery of society because of their race, class, or profession, and there are dark stories to be told about their lives. But Storyville was also a haven, a place of legal protection and artistic freedom. And that’s why we’re still talking about it today.
Robin Baudier is a New Orleans native seeking her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. She is Associate Editor of Bayou Magazine as well as literary events writer for New Orleans & Me. Her writing has been aired on NPR’s “This I Believe” and published in This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies from Remarkable Men and Women.
Storyville is a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.
Produced by Laine Kaplan-Levenson.