A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Digging the "Sporting Life" in Old New Orleans
In the waning years of the nineteenth century, Las Vegas was just a sleepy Mormon farming community, its reputation as "Sin City" still decades away. The unofficial American capital of vice was 1,700 miles to the east, in Storyville--a rollicking 20-block area in the heart of New Orleans where prostitution flourished openly and a seductive new sound called jazz was coming into its own. America's most notorious red-light district, Storyville was also the nation's only legal one, courtesy of carefully worded Ordinance No. 13,032, which absolutely forbade any and all prostitution in New Orleans outside of a tightly defined district just northwest of the French Quarter. The ordinance was pushed through in 1897 by Alderman Sidney Story, who hoped that consolidating prostitution in one area would salvage property values in neighborhoods where brothels were sprouting unchecked. Though known at the time as simply the "District," local wags quickly dubbed the area Storyville. The name stuck, much to the alderman's enduring mortification.
Storyville prospered for 19 years, attracting everyone from sailors and traveling salesmen to luminaries like P.T. Barnum and Babe Ruth. Louis Armstrong delivered coal to the district as a boy, and lingered to hear the great jazzmen who performed in elegantly appointed bordellos and scruffy saloons. Madams like Lulu White and "Countess" Willie V. Piazza became local celebrities, paying rent that lined the pockets of New Orleans' most respected businessmen and enriched institutions like Tulane University and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, neither of which shrank from owning property in the district. According to one estimate, in its heyday Storyville brought in profits of one million dollars a month. Connections to powerful clients that frequented their "sporting clubs" ensured Storyville's madams a role in New Orleans politics.
All that came to an end in 1917, when a wartime federal order meant to eradicate prostitution near naval bases shut the district down. Most of Storyville's bordellos, saloons and "cribs" (residential buildings where prostitutes rented rooms) were razed to make way for the Iberville federal housing projects in the 1940s. In 1949, jazz historians made a bid to save one of the last of the brothels, Lulu White's once-ritzy Mahogany Hall, immortalized in "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a jazz standard recorded by Armstrong and others. Despite their efforts, the building was demolished. Today, only three forlorn structures from the Storyville era remain. By all appearances the physical legacy of the district has been swept away, but the past has a way of surfacing at unpredictable moments, no matter how hard you try to bury it.
Eric A. Powell is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. Storyville was the subject of a public lecture January 4, 2003, at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in New Orleans.