I am not exactly the world’s most cosmopolitan traveler. I never got on a plane until I was twenty years old, and I’ve only really visited a handful of countries. When my wife and I decided to go to Mexico City for a week this Fall, we went into it with some unwarranted assumptions. The biggest city in the Western hemisphere, we thought, would likely be a dense, chaotic metropolis akin to Karachi or Bangkok. The stereotype of the overcrowded and congested Third World city loomed large in our minds, and Mexico City seemed like it would fit that pattern.
I was afraid of the capital, influenced by the propaganda dismissing it as a teeming, overpopulated, polluted bedlam, full of horrific testimonies of insuperable poverty. I imagined the armless beggars of Calcutta brandishing their stumps in tourists’ faces, hoping the display would result in a handout.
As it turns out, our expectations were very far from the truth. The small slice of Mexico City that we saw, in any case, was affluent and orderly compared to, say, Karachi. Undoubtedly much of Mexico is poor and rural, but the capital appeared to lack the evident and inescapable signs of extreme poverty that one finds in other megacities of the developing world. (As Lida points out, the city “has eighty-four hundred people per square kilometer, while Mumbai, Lagos, Karachi, and Seoul have more than double that figure.”) There were beggars and homeless people, of course, but one finds as many or more in American cities like New York or San Francisco.
The foremost financial and cultural center of Latin America was more distinguished by other hallmarks–those of capitalist prosperity and gleaming skyscrapers, gentrification and hip urbanism, tourism and historic preservation. Indeed, more late model cars clogged its crowded highways than we see at home in Atlanta, a sign of growing affluence, at least, among the population of the urban core, if not the poorer districts that surround the capital.
A few scattered observations of the city:
A mind-bogglingly extensive and accessible public transit system, that stretched over a vast urban landscape encompassing as many as 20 million people.
A remarkable predilection for PDA (public displays of affection), with couples kissing, groping, and practically dry-humping everywhere from escalators to subway cars to Starbucks.
Lots of pizza places.
A rich history as a destination for artists, writers, and political radicals, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Leon Trotsky.
A large number of bookstores and even a surviving Blockbuster Video.
Bootleg media, albeit seemingly not as prevalent as in many Asian cities.
A visible legacy of radicalism, embodied in the ubiquitous paintings of Diego Rivera and other artists who contributed leftist depictions of class, race, and historical struggle to the nation’s iconography and mythology–as well as contemporary graffiti denouncing the murder of 43 students at the hands of government authorities and crime syndicates in 2014.
The utterly comprehensive embrace of American popular culture–fashion, food, entertainment, and technology–by the urban middle class (if not necessarily everyone else), in a way that surpasses even the zeal for all things American in South Asia. The affluent shopping mall we visited in Coyoacan/Copilco featured every American brand imaginable, from Skechers to Burger Fi to Quizno’s, with few local or national retailers to speak of. (“While foreigners here, principally Europeans, complain about the proliferation of Starbucks and Wal-Marts,” Lida notes, “middle-class Mexicans revel in the First World status bestowed by these establishments.”)
And while notions of race, class, and ethnicity clearly function differently in Mexico than the United States, it was impossible to miss a gradation of economic inequality shading from European to indigenous ancestry. In the most lavish new shopping malls, consumers were overwhelmingly fair-skinned and middle-class, sporting designer clothes from America and Europe. In the metro (disdained by some affluent residents as a form of transit), darker faces were numerous–except, of course, in the nicer, newer train line (the one that had air-conditioning) where we noticed (surprise!) whiter ones.
In the end, we found a profoundly beautiful and varied built environment, from the grand Baroque structures of Zocalo, the historic downtown district, to the Spanish colonial architecture of Coyoacan and San Angel to the more contemporary commercial landscape of the city’s younger neighborhoods. Like New York–the metropolis that Mexico City most reminded me of–a visit of a week is far too brief to get a sense of its vast and heterogenous social geography. But, as the great urban historian Ken Jackson once said, you don’t have to drink the ocean to know it’s salty. Here is a brief taste of the sights and textures of the capitol of Latin America, as seen from Copilco looking out.
In City of Suspects, published in 2001, I tried to understand crime as an urban phenomenon, a product of the interactions between actors and institutions suddenly brought together by the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the late nineteenth century. The most important sources for that project were the judicial records kept by the city’s judicial power in the basement of one of its main penitentiaries, which I consulted around 1995.
In the years since, those trial records were moved to the Archivo General de la Nación and, paradoxically, became harder to consult, at least for the decades following those covered by the first book. When I decided to return to the history of crime, starting the project that resulted in A History of Infamy, I tried to understand the urban setting of crime in different way.
While in the first book I looked at the spatial and demographic expansion that produced the capital’s colonias, neighborhoods often built during the late 1920s and 1930s on expropriated urban land for workers, the new book focused on the debates about crime and justice that took place in courtrooms, newspapers and crime fiction. These were also essentially urban settings, but they reflected the realities of crime and punishment in different ways. Judicial records demonstrated, for example, that the lack of interest of the Porfirian state in the welfare of urban working classes forced urban communities to deal in their own terms with the problems of theft and interpersonal violence. Thus, neighbors and relatives could intervene to negotiate the return of stolen property, or fights could be arranged in order to solve long-standing disputes—all of this without the disruptive intervention of the police.
By the mid twentieth century, however, the tabloid newspapers centered on crime (the publications were known in Mexico as the nota roja) became a record of the critical views of urban dwellers toward the police and the judiciary. While crime rates declined, reflecting the diminishing frequency of people’s use of violence to solve conflicts, the pressure of public opinion became the most important driver in the pursuit of justice. Newspapers reflected, and shaped, the emergence of the urban publics that demanded investigations and the solution of the most egregious crimes.
Newspapers became the main, although not the only, source for what I call criminal literacy–the knowledge that any inhabitant of the city had to possess in order to navigate the dangers of modern life. This knowledge included a map of the dangerous areas of the city, the colonias where it was better not to walk at night, the practices of thieves and con men, and the risky attractions of night life. At the heart of criminal literacy were the stories of famous criminals, like Goyo Cárdenas, the man who killed four women and buried them in the backyard of his house, in a new working class neighborhood north of the city.
One piece of criminal literacy of particular importance required to understand the transformation of the city between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1950s was the emergence of the pistolero. This was the name given to the gunmen who worked for politicians, usually under the guise of bodyguards, and were charged with intimidating, beating and in some cases eliminating adversaries.
Pistoleros became a highly visible component of post-revolutionary politics with their violent interventions in strikes, agrarian conflicts, and elections. People knew about them and their threat, but they also knew that they were protected by powerful interests and seldom faced punishment. Impunity also allowed pistoleros to maintain other profitable activities on the side: they could extort prostitutes, protect drug traffickers, engage in robberies and, in some cases, murder for money. For the inhabitants of Mexico City, pistoleros embodied the corruption of post-revolutionary politics but also the legacy of the revolution itself. They were perceived as a byproduct of the violent rural politics that in the second decade of the century exploded with the civil war and invaded the city after the end of the conflict. With their brutality and ostentatious impunity, pistoleros seemed to represent the occupation of the respectable spaces of the capital by strong men from the countryside. Yet pistoleros also evoked the dizzying pace of modernization: with their tailored suits, Texan hats, shiny cars, and general similarity to U.S. movie gangsters, they were only appropriating the goods that all city dwellers aspired to have.
Looking beyond the judicial and police records, in other words, allowed me to appreciate how crime and justice, or the lack thereof, became central aspects of urban life in modern Mexico. Newspapers and crime fiction reflected on impunity, a key shortcoming of the state that emerged out of the revolution. Public debates involving actors from all social backgrounds proved that the concern about violence and corruption was a constant of everyday life for city dwellers, even as violence was, in general terms, becoming less frequent. The city that I had initially explored as a space for social practices was also, I realized, the virtual space of a public sphere where crime and justice were central themes.
Pablo Piccato (B.A. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1989; Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin, 1997) is professor at the Department of History, Columbia University. His research and teaching focus on modern Mexico, particularly on crime, politics, and culture. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900-1931 (2001) and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor in the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere (2010).
A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (University of California Press, 2017) explores the broken nexus between crime, justice, and the truth in mid-twentieth century Mexico. Facing the violence and impunity that defined politics, policing, and the judicial system in post-revolutionary times, Mexicans sought truth and justice outside state institutions. During this time, the criminal news beat and crime fiction flourished. Civil society’s search for truth and justice lead, paradoxically, to the normalization of extrajudicial violence and neglect for the rights of victims. Ordinary people in Mexico have made crime and punishment central concerns of the public sphere during the last century, and in doing so have shaped how crime and violence took form over time.
“The city has become a monster, an urban disaster, a planner’s nightmare,” wrote Ruben Gallo. “Glorious Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, is now gasping for breath in a sea of people, poverty, and pollution,” Diane Davis bemoaned in the opening to her deeply influential history of the city, Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century. Indeed, over the course of the twentieth century, countless scholars offered similar assessments of the Mexican capital; Octavio Paz assailed Mexico’s leaders for their technocratic modernizing efforts which failed to solve the overcrowding and rampant expansion that had “converted Mexico City into a monstrous inflated head, crushing the frail body that holds it up.”
For some, even revisiting the city’s establishment and place at the center of the Aztec empire provoked deep ambivalence. Jorge Ibargüengoitia characterized the city’s founding as a mistake, only “one of the most belligerent tribes in history” would think to build a city “in the middle of the lake,” he opined. Once the lake “dried up” and the surrounding tribes and Aztecs came into close proximity, local hostilities abated. “What remained was mud, unstable ground, and dust clouds. So our first conclusion can be that the city is here because it was put here, although there’s no good reason for its continued presence on this spot.”
“And yet not everything in Mexico City is all that bad,” Gallo later admitted. The city’s history as the magnet of MesoAmerican Empire in the pre-Columbian period, a colonial metropole, and later a capital of Latin America—culturally, economically, and politically—undoubtedly bestows upon Distrito Federal no small measure of gravitas. The DF can claim “influential publishing houses”, “a booming film industry, a lively music scene”, “spectacular museums … And above all it is one of the most vibrant urban spaces in the world.” Gallo paraphrases Juan Villoro, “we have fallen in love with the bearded lady.” It might be a mess, but no other city matches its chaotic charm.
Consider its centuries of importance; an echo over the North American landscape that shaped not only policy in Latin America and Mexico, but brought dollars, culture, and politics to the Yankees up North. The city witnessed Aztec conquest, the unimaginable wealth and exploitation of Colonial Spain, the dizzying liberation of independence, the struggle of revolution, and the burgeoning modernism of the 20th century. Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo called it home for periods; the Menshevik communist famously died at the hand of Stalinist assassin in the DF.
Anyone who has ever visited the city marvels at the architecture, a compelling mash up of colonial, modernist, and post-modernist styles. Its people hail from across the Americas, Europe, and even on occasion Asia; indigenous faces and culture are sewn into is fabric. Like many cities, the DF struggles with inequality, poverty, and corruption, but to focus only on its problems misses the point.
As with every Metropolis of the Month, The Metropole has compiled a bibliography for anyone interested in reading more about the history of Mexico City. Our list leans heavily toward the modern and the English language, a weakness that can undoubtedly be ascribed to our own specialization in the twentieth century history and our sadly inadequate language skills. As always, we hope readers can improve upon our start here by providing further suggestions in the comments.
Over the course of May, several scholars will publish posts with The Metropole on various aspects of the city’s history. First up will be Columbia University’s Pablo Piccato, who provides some perspective on crime and justice in the DF while also giving readers a taste of his new work, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico. Several other posts will follow including travelogues by non-specialists such as Georgia State Professor and Tropics of Meta Senior Editor, Alex Sayf Cummings on his 2016 visit to the city.
Edward E. Calnek, “Patterns of Empire Formation in the Valley of Mexico, Late Post Classical Period 1200-1521”, in Inca and Aztec States, 1400-1800: Anthropology and History, Eds. George A. Collier, Renato I. Rosaldo, John D. Wirth, (New York: Academic Press, 1982), 43-62.
Christopher P. Garraty, “Aztec TeotihuacaÌn: Political Processes at a Postclassic and Early Colonial City-State in the Basin of Mexico,” Latin America Antiquity 17.4 (December 2006): 363-387.
On February 3, 2013, New Orleans became the American capitol for the day while the city hosted Super Bowl XLVII. The 2013 Super Bowl is most remembered for two events unrelated to the football game: the blackout and the halftime show. Beyoncé Carter-Knowles headlined, garnering praise for her performance of hits like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Independent Women Part I” with the backing of an all-female band and crew of dancers. It became, at the time, the second most-watched halftime show ever. Beyoncé returned to the Super Bowl in 2016, dominating the show (and eclipsing headliner Coldplay) with an explosive performance of her brand new single, “Formation.” Although the game occurred in the San Francisco Bay area—and the performance alluded to the Black Panthers, which originated in nearby Oakland—“Formation” also represented Beyonce’s return to the Crescent City; the track is laden with lyrical, sampled, and visual references to New Orleans.
Lemonade, the subsequently released visual album which includes “Formation”, became the most significant artistic and cultural production of the year (if not the decade). Much of the album was filmed in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana, and the artist and her collaborators use images of black life and black residents of the Crescent City to explore the album’s overarching themes of race, gender, feminism, marriage, southern identity, power, wealth, and status. “Formation,” in particular, resonated with fans for its revolutionary sound and lyrics.
Dr. Zandria Robinson at New South Negress argues that New Orleans is a character in Beyonce’s story, essential to understanding both the historical formation of blackness and black lives, and, more importantly, the potential for black re-formation and revolution. In Robinson’s analysis:
“[T]he visuals for ‘Formation’ offer up New Orleans as convergence place for a blackness that slays through dreams, work, ownership, legacy, and the audacity of bodies that dare move and live in the face of death. As an actual and imagined site of black southern ecstasy, tragedy, remembrance, and revolutionary possibility, NOLA is the pendulum on which Beyoncé rides a southern genealogy that traverses the Deep South from Alabama to Louisiana to Texas, back and through, with stops in between.”
Like a true boss, in “Formation” Beyoncé manages to bridge centuries of history and to offer a compelling and complicated critique of racism and misogyny in under five minutes.
In re-reading the past month’s coverage of New Orleans for The Metropole’s first Metropolis of the Month series, I was struck by the similarities between how urban historians and Beyoncé have examined the city. Indeed, historians are inherently interested in formation, and many of our posts spoke of creation, evolution, and revolution in the city. Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City surveys New Orleans’ development in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to demonstrate how “the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality.” On a smaller scale, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness examines a single neighborhood in the Big Easy, the red-light district of Storyville, to demonstrate how “both its creation and its closing down were pushed by ‘progressive’ reformers.” In his essay contrasting masks and memorialization in New Orleans, Craig Colten describes how the city’s destruction by three major hurricanes in the twentieth century inspired the construction of the levee system that eventually failed during Hurricane Katrina—further perpetuating the cycle.
The “Formation” video begins with two allusions to Hurricane Katrina—the artist sitting on top of a submerged police car, amidst flooded homes, over which is layered a sample of late comedian Messy Mya asking, “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” “Beyoncé encourages us to hear [it] as a question about the comedian’s unsolved murder,” Robinson argues, “as well as a question about the city and black folks and the South: ‘What happened after New Orleans?’” Beyoncé plays with the ambiguity of Messy Mya’s question, using “What happened” as a way to look back at the city’s history of oppression against its black citizens, and to critique the present perception that black New Orleans has recovered from Katrina.
This longer chronological perspective also characterized our posts on The Metropole. Although references to the hurricane appeared in Colten’s essay and in our roundup of articles on New Orleans published in the Journal of Urban History, it served as an entry point to a broader examination of the city rather than the subject itself. As we wrote in our introduction to the JUH article roundup, “rather than rubbernecking at disaster, [scholars] have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.”
In our discussions of urban histories of New Orleans, just as in Lemonade, the city’s legacy of slavery appeared as a consistent theme. While The Accidental City described how infrastructure built by slaves pulled “New Orleans out of the mud,” in her interview with with The Metropole, Landau explained how Storyville’s red-light district perpetuated the Southern sexual hierarchy whereby white men had ownership over black women’s bodies. And both Colten and Moira Donegan, whose piece on New Orleans in n+1 we featured in the introduction to the JUH article roundup, discussed how a certain form of hurricane tourism has emerged that privileges the desires of white, wealthy visitors over those of the city’s many communities of color.
Finally, if nothing else our coverage on The Metropole encouraged readers to “get information” on the city’s fascinating history. Beginning next week, we head southwest to Mexico City. We have some exciting posts planned, and hope you will enjoy reading essays by several scholars, including one by Professor Pablo Piccato on his new book, a bibliography, and some travelogues about visiting the Distrito Federal.
In the process of building a bibliography for New Orleans, fellow scholars repeatedly recommended Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans. In Spectacular Wickedness, Landauprovides a window in the the Progressive Era politics that dominated the nation during the first two decades using the notorious Storyville neighborhood of New Orleans. Landau was kind enough to discuss with The Metropole: New Orleans, her work, and the value of sexuality as a historical lens for politics, culture, and economics.
What drew you to New Orleans as a topic of study?
To be honest, when I began the project I knew very little about New Orleans; I was drawn to the city through Storyville. What began as an investigation into the discursive construction of “the octoroon” became a history of New Orleans as I sorted through the various myths surrounding that figure in the city. It was important to me to understand and to show the historical background(s) and political contexts of the creation of the sexualized “light-skinned,” female slave, and her continued circulation, if you will, as a type through the nineteenth century, in Storyville, and, frankly, even today.
How would you describe your work, Spectacular Wickedness to someone unfamiliar with New Orleans?
First of all, the book is a history of Storyville, the red-light district, which opened in 1897 and closed in 1917. Thus, the book explores those twenty years in the history of New Orleans. It is hard to imagine someone unfamiliar with New Orleans’s reputation for sybaritic excess, but I suppose I would outline the broad contours of that reputation (and the history behind it) and then explain that Storyville was actually an attempt to curb rampant prostitution in the city, contrary to popular understanding.
Second, the book puts that history into a broader national narrative about the establishment of strict racial segregation. Storyville offered a wide array of entertainments for its visitors, but its most notorious attraction was the easy (and advertised) availability of women of color to white men. The book describes the goings-on in Storyville and analyzes them in the larger contexts of increasingly rigid racial segregation and contemporaneous sexual purity campaigns, both of which denounced sex across the color line. The argument, at its most simple and general, is that one cannot properly understand racial politics in that (or any) era without also understanding the social construction of gender and the politics of sex and sexuality. Storyville becomes a kind of case study, an extreme one, to be sure, of national attitudes toward race and sex, and therefore also about power.
Because I knew so little myself about New Orleans when I began, I felt compelled to include a fair amount of history in the book, going back to the earliest days of settlement, if you can call it that, in the area. This was partly to provide some historical background, and partly to show how Storyville’s promoters used the long history of “spectacular wickedness” in their city to promote more of it!
Spectacular Wickedness uses the Storyville district of New Orleans to touch on a number of key subjects: Progressive Era politics, sexuality, race, and the economics of the New South. In many ways, it explores the tensions that exist between these forces/issues and the contradictions that emerge as a result. How did you begin to understand and sketch these connections through Storyville in your research and writing?
One of the first artifacts I saw from Storyville was a little guidebook to the district. As if this was not stunning enough on its own (a tour guide to a commercial sex district!!), the contents of the booklet were astonishing and dictated the direction my research would take. The book listed the women of Storyville according to “race,” so that there were women listed as “c” for “colored,” “w” for “white,” and “oct.” for “octoroon.” There was a rubric explaining all this at the beginning of the booklet, too. I was surprised that the district so blatantly advertised sex with women of color; I was also perplexed by the booklet’s use of the term, “octoroon” to describe women working there. I knew that the Plessy v. Ferguson case had sanctioned state segregation-by-race laws just the year before Storyville opened, so I was intrigued by what seemed a clear flaunting of racial proscriptions in the South. Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in that famous case, was himself a New Orleanian; his lawyer, Albion Tourgée, made much of his light skin, referring to him as an “octoroon” in his arguments. After the decision, that designation seemed entirely moot, atavistic. But Storyville’s promoters made much of that same category, in a modern way. It was important to me to show that Storyville was very much a product of its time and place—and not a throwback to an earlier New Orleans, on the one hand, or an exemplar of New Orleans’s “devil-may-care” attitudes about race-mixing and morality, on the other. The latter is most certainly part of New Orleans’s mythology, but it is not true. So, in order to pierce that mythology, I had to make the connections you mention in your question and show how Storyville fit into the larger web those connections create.
In recent years, historians have produced a number of works that use sexuality as a means to draw larger conclusions about politics: Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian LosAngeles, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and Stranger Intimacy, and Margot Canaday’s The Straight State serve as just a few examples (not all of which are urban history). Why is sexuality such a useful lens from which to study politics and economic trends, particularly in an urban setting?
While I can’t speak to the motivations of these other authors, I can say that social attitudes toward sex and sexuality more broadly are useful cultural barometers, worth probing. Anxiety about who is having sex with whom—and how society as a whole must deal with those relationships—reveals fundamental anxieties about the ordering of society; social hierarchies are inherently about power and powerlessness. Re-ordering society requires political access and clout. Urban spaces are both anonymous and intimate (sometimes at the same time). Looking at cities through the lens of sexual politics often can reveal the more subtle contours of those spaces and how they are mapped culturally, socially, and, of course, economically. Which urban spaces become “safe” spaces for what dominant society considers transgressive? (And how safe are they, really—and for whom?) Why are they where they are? Who is trying to find them and eradicate them? Again, why? Answering these types of questions requires some deep probing into the politics of space and representation, which revolve around questions of electoral politics and economics.
Contradictions abound in Storyville. For example, the district simultaneously celebrated the Old South while mocking the new acquisitive, model of the New South, yet it depended on the latter for a large chunk of its business. Interracial sex was celebrated openly but also still seen as inappropriate. One could go on. What does this tell us about New Orleans? What might this tell us about the United States during this period?
I would say that Storyville developed a marketing niche. The district celebrated a very particular aspect of the Old South: the sexual power of white men over women of all shades. This sexual power over women also translated into raw power over black men. (And, let’s be frank, white men had sexual power over black men as well; I am waiting for the scholarly work on that. Maybe it is out there or in progress, but I am not, as yet, aware of it.) By suggesting that Storyville could provide white men with that kind of sexual access and power, for a fee, Storyville’s entrepreneurs implied that all white men shared in the plantation legacy of absolute power and the sexual prerogatives that went along with it, at a time when that legacy was not so secure. The fantasy was aspirational, as slave-holding had been for many in the antebellum years. Storyville was a commercial enterprise, and its promoters availed themselves of modern advertising techniques, mostly in the blue books. It was a transgressive space, so the mocking of contemporary society must be seen in that context. Nobody thought of Storyville as legitimate or moral, obviously, and so there was a fair amount of winking in the ads for it.
In the foreword I wrote for Pamela Arceneaux’s study of the blue books I make this point, perhaps more explicitly than in my book. (See Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans). The point is that the mocking is part of the transgressive fun—the customer is in on the joke and thus off the hook for the moral and social (and racial) transgression he is about to commit. Storyville was popular with locals and tourists alike. Nostalgia for the antebellum south was a national phenomenon, and this included a desire for a return to what seemed to many (white men) to have been a simpler and clearer race-and-gender order. One of my favorite books on this subject is Nina Silber’s wonderful The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900.
By the same token, Storyville seems almost a transitional space during its existence. It is created as a means to control vice, in a way, as an expression of Progressivism’s impulse to regulate all manner of social interactions (admittedly, I’m using Progressivism here broadly since it’s a fairly imprecise term considering the big tent nature of its beliefs). However, by the end this vice is what gets it targeted for elimination. Similarly, you use Storyville to encapsulate other shifts: the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from a nation divided regionally to a more national identity (consolidated arguably by WWI and the consumer culture of the 1920s that followed), from a rural population to an urban one, and from interracial sex as an expression of white male power and supremacy to a representation of the same as a weakness. To what extent do you think such developments were unique to New Orleans? Was this an aspect of the book you recognized early on or one that developed as you dug deeper into research?
One of the funniest things about Storyville is that both its creation and its closing down were pushed by “progressive” reformers. In the late 1890s their idea was to map the city according to morality. This was never about the women who worked as prostitutes, or even, really, the men who patronized them. The rationale was to preserve areas of the city for “legitimate” business. In this way, the creation of red-light districts might be seen in a similar light to the most significant urban mapping program of the day: segregation by race. I write about this in the book as well. By 1917, reformers who sought an end to any kind of tolerated vice had gained the upper hand, not least because of the war. There was a newly urgent imperative to keep young men “fit to fight” both morally and physically, and so the era of tolerated (or grudgingly acknowledged) red light districts came to a close.
Tracking the transitions within the Progressive Era through Storyville shows some of the shifts in the nation during those twenty years. Among the most important is the ascendancy of Woodrow Wilson and the southern progressives in his circle. Wilson’s progressivism included segregating the federal government and removing, where possible, African Americans from the civil service, or relegating them to inferior positions. By the time New Orleans “closed” the district, racial segregation was more or less complete, either de jure or de facto. It is a very dynamic period, containing not only the changes you list above, but the vigorous efforts of American citizens to combat them or move them more swiftly along. Storyville is an unlikely microcosm, but because it is so extreme an example, because, that is, its very transgressive nature meant it showcased a kind of underside of modern life that most reformers sought to hide, it is potentially very revelatory. Storyville was unique in many ways, to be sure, but it was not a secret. Its international reputation certainly had national implications.
Lulu White embodies the complexities of Storyville well. On one hand, the district offered her a level of agency, yet an agency that explicitly depended on a level of racialized subservience that bounded her and other women like her to a system of Jim Crow inequality. By the end of the book, she seems undone by the requirements of this limited agency, while her counterpart Willie Piazza, who to some degree took a different strategy in regard to race than White did during Storyville’s final years, appears to have done markedly better. How did your views of White evolve over the course of your research? Did you find any explanation as to why Willie Piazza seemed to do better in the aftermath of Storyville’s demise than her competitor/peer White?
I am not sure that I would juxtapose their different post-Storyville lives in terms of decisions regarding race. Willie Piazza seems to have been a much better money manager. She saved and made good investments. White, on the other hand, died poor, not having saved or invested. There is also a rumor that White was robbed or cheated out of whatever savings she did have. What I learned about Lulu White over the course of my research and writing was that I would never really know her as a person, and that there was always going to be more about her that I did not know, and never would know.
What promising trends do you see in future works on New Orleans?
Historians are taking New Orleans seriously as a subject of scholarship. At the recent Organization of American Historians conference—in New Orleans—a scholar described her experience of being told NOT to write about New Orleans because no one would take such work seriously. I don’t think that would happen today. I can’t really speak to trends in urban history, sorry to say.
Do you have any favorite works of pop culture on New Orleans that you love or would recommend to others?
I am among the few who loved the HBO series, “Treme.”
What are you working on now or hoping to begin working on?
My next project will be a study of murder ballads and the culture that produced them. So, I will move away from New Orleans and into Appalachia, but continue to focus on gender, sexuality, race, and politics.
In 2014, the literary journal/magazine n+1 released the edited collection, City by City; a series of short vignettes from urban writers reflecting on the state of the nation’s metropolises. To its credit, the anthology included cities like Fresno and regions like Northern Kentucky, so it gave voice to oft ignored metropolitan areas. Moira Donegan’s piece on New Orleans not only serves as an example of the book’s larger whole, it also offers some guidance for understanding the Journal of Urban History’s effort to cover the city since Katrina.
Donegan had moved to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and after graduating from college. She snagged a position working for Americorps at a food bank in the city, but sold merch on the side at music clubs on Frenchman Street to supplement her income and one assumes, to get a broader feel for the city in the process. The city seduces tourists and residents alike, “it tricks you into participating in its own mythology in ways that you don’t expect it to” she confessed. It largely still looks like it does in film. The broad oak lined avenues, the historic buildings, and gas streetlamps are just a few examples.
Donegan arrived just in time to witness Hurricane Isaac and, unsurprisingly, fatalistic locals told her the city would inevitably flood again “worse than it did in 2005.” Though the fatalism of residents seems to stretch back to its founding, as Lawrence Powell and other have suggested, the New Orleans Donegan encountered was a different city in other ways: “the heavy lifting of hurricane recovery was done and the steady push of gentrification had changed much of the city,” she wrote. The Winn-Dixie sold kale, and cupcake-only bakeries now existed. “After Katrina, New Orleans became a place where some people could live as yuppies. When the city was rebuilt, it was rebuilt largely in these people’s image.” Visitors to the Big Easy, she observed, descended on the city for two reasons: “to perform charity or party.” Each shaped its reformation.
The Katrina tours that became so morbidly popular rankled Donegan as much as they did everyone else in New Orleans, but though she wanted to rage at the night for such indignities, the fact was she “didn’t have much claim to.” Her interaction with the Big Easy had been framed by volunteerism and non-profit work, the focus being on solving its pathologies. “This was starting to feel like voluntary rubbernecking … Places are filled with all kinds of self defeating contradictions and in New Orleans one of the most potent was that many of the people who had come to help the city were also hurting it.”
Urban historians hope to avoid falling into such traps; how successful such endeavors are probably depends on numerous factors. Since 2005, Katrina sometimes feels as if it has sucked the air out of any discussion of the city. Scholarship and popular culture understandably focuses on the natural disaster and political tragedy (after all the levees could and should have been fixed). Indeed, beyond those lives lost in its path and the heartbreak of locales who managed to survive, Katrina had national implications. Undoubtedly, numerous works have examined the city’s history beyond Katrina: the aforementioned Powell’s 2012 work The Accidental City, Emily Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness (2014), Emily Clark’s The Strange History of the American Quadroon (2013), and Raushana Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis (2016) among numerous other examples.
Over the past ten years, the Journal of Urban History has, of course, published several essays that relate in some way to 2005, including a special issue in 2009 dedicated to the subject (the Journal of American History did the same in 2007). However, rather than rubbernecking at disaster, the JUH, JAH, and others have tried to use the hurricane to situate the city’s longer history; Katrina as organizing principle rather than a principle unto itself.
Below is a listing of articles and reviews essays published in JUH since 2007. Please keep in mind, you might need to login into your UHA account at urbanhistory.org and then cut and past the link into the browser to access the PDF (this will all depend on your browser, be warned that Safari works about as well you would expect it.)
Famed geographer Carl Suer once wrote: “Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape the result.” To put it less eloquently, people shape the landscape through husbandry, conservation, and architecture, and the end results speak volumes.
While New Orleans might not be the perfect encapsulation of such an idea, as evidenced by Lawrence Powell in his 2012 work, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality. The self interest of founder Sieur de Bienville—coupled with French distraction at humanitarian disaster along the Gulf Coast and in France itself— enabled Beinville to direct settlers to the developing, flood prone settlement. Bienville ignored, and actively plotted against, French plans to establish a colonial city at Bayou Manchac or even Biloxi. Land grants and slaves proffered to new arrivals in exchange for their residence quickly built up the local population.
With rising numbers of slaves and colonists, Bienville had established a demographic threshold beyond those of his colonial counterparts. By late November of 1721, and despite insect infestations, disease, floods, political rivalry, and official condemnation from France, New Orleans emerged as the most “densely settled territory along the entire Mississippi.” Over 450 persons resided in today’s French Quarter; nearly another 450 along St. Bayou St. John and in the Chapitoulas District. Counting the West Bank settlements that stretched from modern day Algiers Point to English Turn, over 1,200 people resided in the region. A great number of those counted were slaves, mostly African and some Native American; none willingly residing in the area, but as Powell writes, numbers were numbers “whether black, red or white. And to the extent that demographic facts might carry weight at the end of the day, no one could deny Bienville was holding a strong hand.”
Bienville’s machinations provide an instructive lens from which to view Powell’s book and the history of New Orleans it presents. From the outset, the New Orleans economy seemed to produce more money for itself than its colonial masters; residents did so by hook or by crook, engaging in economic pursuits beyond the purview of officialdom that far more often flowed into the coffers of locals more than into European capitals overseas. This viewpoint makes greater sense when one considers how many masters the city endured: French, Spanish, and of course American. The town always figured out a way to line its own pockets; smuggling, vice, and black markets frequently made up for much of the city’s economy. Second, but no less important the physical environment deeply impacted its culture in at least two ways: the introduction of slavery to build infrastructure and establish an economy and the sense of fatalism due to frequent storms, floods, and fires that seemed to beset the city.
Slavery, as was the case in much of the New World, played a central role in New Orleans’ growth, though much differently than its Anglo neighbors to the northeast. Plantation slavery grew much faster than in the English colonies where it began on a smaller scale and slaves largely came from the West Indies. With the explosion of tobacco and later cotton, the English colonies transformed from “societies with slaves” to “full fledged slave societies where the norms of agro-export plantation agriculture permeated all areas of life: the economy, culture, law, politics.” In contrast, Louisiana experienced what Powell describes as the “big bang of slavery” almost overnight, incorporating large-scale slavery into its economy and culture. Though according to scholars such as Jennifer Spear and Emily Epstein Landau, it took decades before Louisiana “became a settled plantation society.” Slavery imprinted itself onto the New Orleans landscape very early and attempts at state regulation followed. The Code Noir, to paraphrase Powell, did not gradually crystallize from experience but instead arrived as law, fully-grown, drawn largely from Saint Domingue’s 1685 slave code.
Needless to say, it would be slaves that pulled “Louisiana and New Orleans out of the mud.” They built the infrastructure of its early streets, drainage systems, and levees that would prove vital to the city’s survival. They populated the city and brought artisan skills sorely lacking among its white settlers. Slaves hailing from Senegal largely designed and built “the complex drainage and mortar and pestle technology of rice cultivation” that saved the colony from starvation. “France may have founded Louisiana … but it was slaves from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation,” writes Powell. In 1731, the African slave trade ended when the Companies of the Indies relinquished its charter; creole slaves would fill the void. Together, Africans and creoles not only shaped its physical landscape but also nearly every other aspect of New Orleans life.
“The creation of a hybrid culture – a Creole culture, whose whole was always greater than the sum of its ethnic parts,” notes Powell, “is one of the Atlantic World’s most vital contributions to modernity.” The French and Haitian Revolutions furthered such developments as refugees from both settled in New Orleans. The addition of Spanish and later American rule added additional cultural flavors and an ad-hoc sense of addressing problems. “They say New Orleans was a Creole city,” Powell muses, but “It’s probably just as accurate to call it a creolized city, for that’s how the place was cobbled together – from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly.”
As often is the case with colonies, the distance from the home country gave settlers and colonial leaders a certain amount of license. Attempts to build a large-scale tobacco industry failed; the climate simply would not allow for the production of a high quality product that could compete with that of its English competitors. Smuggling, gambling, and other forms of vice laid a basic economic foundation for residents, and this underground economy even drew in the ruling classes. This distance also led to a great deal of interracial interaction ranging from business dealings and gambling wagers in the backrooms of taverns to sexual couplings in the bedrooms of the common and elite.
Mixed race sexual relations occurred from the city’s founding. Male settlers first cohabited with local Native American women and while institutionalizing relationships between enslaved and free peoples through marriage was not legal, sexual relations were common and in many cases led to the growing free black population. “For here, especially during the Spanish period, interracial unions were a significant well spring of free black growth,” writes Powell. By 1791, the free black community made up 20 percent of New Orleans’s population and within that 20 percent over half were of racially mixed ancestry.
For readers not versed in New Orleans history prior to incorporation into the U.S., as is the case with this writer, Spain’s influence on New Orleans might prove surprising. Powell credits Spain with the city’s iconic “vernacular architecture.” Spanish colonial rulers even established New Orleans’ first public market, The French Market. However, Spain struggled to deliver comprehensive infrastructure projects. This was not unique to the Spanish. The physical environment often proved simply too powerful an actor for any governing body. “New Orleans’ quasi liquid landscape continually mocked European efforts to erase nature from the landscape,” Powell points out.
As always, an exception to this rule existed. By the end of the eighteenth century the levee system, though problematic, still subject to seepage, and vulnerable to inundation, did largely avoid mass flooding. The town, however, remained filthy: “the wet garbage of New Orleans seemed nastier than the dry garbage elsewhere.”
Powell also highlights the ways in which Spanish slave policy, though hardly humane, contributed to a growing free black population that would influence the city in countless ways. The colonial Spanish caste system, though clearly invested in racial hierarchy, had some fluidity. Individuals could change their racial status. ‘The truly remarkable feature about the sistema de castas was its malleability,” Powell points out. “Racial identity might be ascribed at birth, bit it wasn’t fixed at birth.” The system could be “played,” and baptism, marriage, and acquired wealth were just three ways to “lighten” one’s complexion and advance up the colonial Spanish caste system. One can find similar examples in Spanish and Mexican California.
Yet this malleability also led many free blacks to invest in the same system. After all, if one could find “cracks” in the system to advance socially and economically, that system might be worth protecting: “And herein lay the genius of the caste system: it encouraged subaltern classes to be unequal partners in erecting this distinctive tripartite structure of racial segmentation.” Oppressors might have imposed the system, but, to paraphrase Gramsci, hegemony takes work. In this case, free blacks shared the work with New Orleans’s European settlers.
In The Accidental City, Powell synthesizes a wealth of scholarship on the city and in doing so covers a great deal more ground than that which is discussed here. Much of the book’s first half explores the economics and politics of colonial New Orleans, while the second half devotes more attention to the ramifications of slavery and the creation of a creole culture. It largely ends with American rule of the city, though he does spend some time describing the tightening of racial lines and other aspects of the city’s incorporation into the United States.
Stylistically, Powell is more gifted than most; the Tulane professor knows how to turn a phrase. When discussing the end of the French period, Powell describes the city’s improvisational nature, flouting of Enlightenment ideals, and wayward relationship to the law as “though the entire town had been populated with inhabitants parachuted from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.” The shift in architecture and urban planning during the Spanish period meant the spilling out of the city’s boundaries physically and demographically; the expansion of Creole cottages with four square rooms, most with a front room louvered door and “a shuttered casement window that peered out on the street like some heavy lidded favorite uncle.” The increased number of freed slaves, while under Spanish rule, though not welcome, were eventually accepted by slave owners since “replacement costs were defrayed by cash provided by self purchaser whom the new slaves were replacing. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the road to freedom was paved with the millstones of bondage” One could go on with other examples.
Admittedly, women make far fewer appearances than men. Powell devotes several pages to the efforts and political stature of the Ursuline Nuns and there is some discussion of women in more general terms be they enslaved, free women of color, or white, but whether due to lack of sources or scholarship on the subject, they remain largely a secondary focus, not exactly ignored but also not at the forefront.
In the end, The Accidental City accomplishes quite a lot. For anyone starting their work on New Orleans or who issimply interested in dipping their toe into the city’s rich history, the book offers much. Powell’s love for the city comes through clearly. He believes it to be a singular contribution to global society. More than “a mere entrepot for a continent” the city emerged as a “state of mind built on the edge of disaster. The people of three continents of innumerable races and ethnic backgrounds “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learned to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture.”
 Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009); Emily Epstein Landau, Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013), 34.
New Orleans has just roared through its season of celebration and excess that ends on Mardi Gras – or Fat Tuesday. A big part of the annual carnival is the donning of masks. Celebrants tossing beads from floats hide their true identities; members of marching crews disguise their faces; and one of the trademark gifts of the season, sold by the thousand, is a mask.
The impulse to mask spills over into other seasonal celebrations. Halloween and other events where masking is allowed take on an even more significant role here in New Orleans. And I would argue, the spill over does not end there. Certain aspects of the city’s past, most notably tragic events, tend to get obscured or masked over.
Just as much as Mardi Gras is a defining event for New Orleans, its historic architecture along with traditional music and foods provide the basis for its heritage tourism. The French Quarter offers a rare glimpse into rare Europe-in-America landscape; the sprawling battlefield in Chalmette hosts visitors; each spring the Jazz and Heritage Fest assembles an impressive line up of local musical talent; and chefs dish out plates of creole fare. What is missing from the sampler of local traditions are the defining historical events that shaped the city, but that are associated with disaster. Tragedy wears a mask in the city that care forgot.
Historians have not neglected the floods and hurricanes, but there have been precious few reminders in the landscape, and until Katrina, the only real memorials were the massive levees constructed to protect the city from high water. These structures are the masks that obscure our view of tragic pasts.
Three major hurricanes struck the city in the 20th century, each inspired the construction of protective bulwarks, but no memorials, no markers, or remembrances. The 1915 hurricane caused extensive damage to lakefront dwellings and businesses. Property owners and civic leaders voiced determination to rebuild and restore their place in the city. The local levee board launched a nearly 20-year campaign to build a concrete seawall 9.5 feet above the lake level to provide protection from a similar storm in the future. Some 32 years later the next major storm once again drove water from the lake into the city and the new post-war suburbs in Jefferson Parish. Floods in the adjacent bedroom community prompted appeals to the Corps of Engineers to build a lakefront levee to protect suburban homeowners. And they did so. Hurricane Betsy roared ashore in 1965 and caused even more substantial damage across the urban area. Following this storm, the Corps proposed an even more ambitious levee system to surround the urban area. Its construction was fraught with delays and controversies, and it was still under construction in 2005 when Katrina made landfall.
Despite the absence of memorials for the previous storms, the hurricane protection system, which failed in 2005, was the most obvious reminder. Yet it masked the past, it provided that all-important false sense of security and prompted many to refuse the evacuation order as Katrina made its tragic landfall. There have been numerous structural improvements since Katrina, but there have also been a spate of markers and events to provide visual reminders. State historical markers have been placed at the location of the major levee breaches; there is a memorial cemetery, and a memorial sculpture in the Lower 9th Ward. People have even attached bronze markers to their houses that recall the spray-painted markings left by emergency responders. A form of “disaster tourism” has emerged gaining mixed reviews from local residents. The masks have been tossed aside.
But the grand irony is that emergency planners have argued in recent years that local populations have already begun to lose that sense of urgency that erupts in the wake of tragic events. That is, they are not responding to warnings about the annual hurricane season. After Hurricane Isaac in 2012, one critical report noted that emergency responders failed to utilize the plans developed in the wake of Katrina. They were setting aside the lessons learned less than a decade after the most dramatic storm in the city’s history. A complacency has begun to emerge, even with the masks removed.
Craig E. Colten, Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. Colten will be speaking on April 8, at the UHA luncheon at this year’s Organization of American Historians conference. For more information see here.
“It has been said that, in any New Orleans bar, the three subjects most likely to be discussed are the status of the seafood in season at the time, politics and sports – all with equal fervor,” notes the introduction to the 1983 reissue of The W.P.A. Guide to New Orleans. In the original guide, Harry L. Hopkins, the head administrator of the W.P.A. noted that the challenges of using and controlling the Mississippi River had “resulted in brilliant feats of commerce, engineering, sanitation and medical research.” Rost. S. Maestri, the Mayor of New Orleans, called the guide “the first major accomplishment of the Federal Writers’ Project of Louisiana” and described it as “more than a conventional guidebook” but rather an attempt to capture the “the history and heritage” of the city. The three perspectives underscore the intersection of environment, culture, and history that have made New Orleans a transnational American treasure.
Here at The Metropole, we harbor no grand ambition to reshape your understanding of the city, but as part of our monthly series have chosen arguably the nation’s most unique urban metropolis as our first focus. Admittedly, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) conference might have drawn our attention to “the Big Easy.” With that in mind, I’ll make a soft plug here for Craig Colten’s piece that The Metropole will publish tomorrow. Colten, the author of several works including Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (listed below) will be speaking at the UHA’s OAH luncheon on Saturday, April 8. The subject of Colten’s talk is one he’s explored widely in books like Unnatural Metropolis: Exporting Risk: New Orleans, Commerce, and Flood Water Diversion.
To the chagrin of the aforementioned denizens of New Orleans drinking establishments, we’ve not covered sports or culinary history, but have included plenty of politics (minus the Kingfish Huey Long), culture, geography, and of course, sex.
Regarding matters of the flesh for which the city has drawn equal parts renown, condemnation, and approbation, it would seem that from its birth writers depicted New Orleans “as a dark, primitive, an abandoned place, governed by immoral pleasures than by rationality or law,” as Shannon Dawdy noted in her 2008 work, Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans. Then again, according to Herbert Asbury Americans brought the city’s famed licentiousness to its peak: “it was under the rule of the United States that New Orleans embarked upon its golden age of glamour and spectacular wickedness.” As Dawdy, Jennifer Spear, Emily Epstein Landau and others have demonstrated, sex in New Orleans meant more than sinful pleasure; rather it was intertwined in politics, economics, and culture. Such examples tells us that complexity beats at the heart of the Big Easy.
Every month, we will bring you a curated bibliography or historiography in the hopes of piquing further exploration into the world’s cities and helping those who might be embarking on research in the area a means to get their proverbial feet wet. With that in mind, a very good starting point is the Journal of American History’s December 2007 special issue, “Through the Eyes of Katrina”. The issue features over 20 essays by prominent scholars in the field, many of which appear in the bibliography below.
Our list is by no means comprehensive and undoubtedly we’ve probably missed more than a few landmark works. Later this month we will post a roundup of New Orleans-related articles from the Journal of Urban History. We hope that readers will add those books and articles that have eluded us in the comments and/or on twitter (@UrbanHistoryA). Also, we’ll be putting out calls for future bibliography lists on social media and welcome your suggestions. For example, Mexico City is the Metropolis of the Month for May, Seattle for June, and Honolulu for July, so please do forward us book/article recommendations at our twitter account or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virginia Meacham Gould, “A Chaos of Iniquity and Discord”: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola,” in Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 232-246