Tag Archives: Progressive Era

Member of the Week: Alan Lessoff

Lessoff at ND, TW photo, Oct 16Alan Lessoff

University Professor of History

Illinois State University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I’m in the middle of two projects. The first is an exhibition and book project undertaken with the McLean County Museum of History, an exemplary regional museum in this part of Illinois. The theme is unbuilt buildings and failed and defeated plans and development projects. A lot of large cities in the United States and elsewhere have had exhibition and publishing projects on the theme of the Unbuilt City. They are often gorgeous–because of all the renderings, charts, and models–and they invite imagination of all sorts of possibilities, negative as well as positive. They also draw people into a discussion of how groups of residents in the past understood and argued about their city and its problems and potential. As far as we can tell, this is the first time a mid-sized city has tried an Unbuilt City exhibit. Given the nature of planning and development in mid-sized cities, this invites a discussion of the state-of-the-art professional advice–the contemporary best practice–that planning consultants and architects have over time diffused from larger cities to regional and secondary metropolises and how that diffusion shaped cities everywhere.

My other current project is a pair of essays about how Europeans became aware of American debates over urban machine politics, focusing on James Bryce (whom I wrote about in the past) along with William T. Stead and Mosei Ostrogorski. This is part of an international project about urban politics and corruption that I’ve worked with off and on for about a decade. In general, Europeans tried to distance themselves from the idea that mass party politics could bring urban political machines to European cities, but there was also the counter-notion this might become another menacing form of Americanization, that European cities could become “Chicagos,” as contemporaries at times put it.

This is pretty typical for me over the past two decades–my urban history goes in a public and regional history direction, but I also try to keep going with more conventional, analytical work.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

Once a year, I teach a senior/graduate course on U.S. urban history that includes a segment in conjunction with the McLean County Museum that we have devised to involve students with urban history archives, how they are organized, and how one can work with them. Given where we are in Central Illinois, I use works like Ann Keating, Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, and Colin Gordon, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, to encourage students to have a geographic and visual sense of the urban region. Keating’s Chicagoland is especially inspiring. I use it as the basis for a project in which students are meant to take photographs of their hometown or neighborhood and consider how a place they think of as familiar might fit into the regional patterns that Keating lays out and how they might be able to see previously unseen history in their own towns.

I also teach a senior research seminar on comparative urban history, as well as an MA-level seminar in local and public history methods. Last summer, I had the chance to try out a version of this seminar at the Bielefeld University Graduate School for History and Sociology, using historical museums and sites in that section of Westphalia. Public history draws us to the local wherever we are, but we can readily conceive of it in transnational and comparative ways as well. (This is not an original thought by any means.) And right now, I’m trying a new MA seminar on the United States in Transnational Perspective, which encourages big thinking among students about urban networks and urban environmental history. I also oversee our internship program and our small urban studies minor. Overall, my teaching these days amounts a pretty good arrangement for someone who does what we do–it runs the gamut from the most hands-on to the most interpretive.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

A short while back, I read a clear, detailed book by a University of Chicago urban studies scholar, Chad Broughton, Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). It’s a vivid account of the people swept up in both places when the Maytag plant moved in the early 2000s from Galesburg, Illinois, to Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. This book gives me ways to connect my earlier writing about South Texas to my current research on Central Illinois–he does a great job with one of the most relevant subjects one can imagine.

I love the way that Benjamin H. Johnson’s new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), draws upon all the recent work in urban environmental history to create a new general narrative of the conservation movement.

One of the next books on my to-read shelf is Daniel Czitrom, New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), about the Lexow Investigation of 1894. I feel that our current debates about abusive policing help us better to understand why contemporaries in the late 1800s saw machine politics as so unsavory and oppressive.  Understanding police racketeering should offset any romance we might still have with the image of good-hearted ward bosses.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

To stay engaged with their places and the physical and local aspect of urban history work, even through all the anxiety and uncertainty of trying to become established professionally. We’re fortunate to have a field that enables us so readily to connect with the places where we happen to be, and that helps to some degree to keep us alive intellectually through the periods when one feels so unsettled and therefore so driven to live in one’s head and in one’s CV. All those places will accumulate and will be a tremendous resource later on.

You’ve written a history of Corpus Christi, Texas. What’s a surprising fact about the city that neither urbanists nor residents likely know?

Because of its name and location, people imagine Corpus Christi to manifest the Spanish and Mexican presence in South Texas that was overwhelmed by Anglo American conquest and colonization. In reality it shares more with Houston and other Anglo American urban foundations along the Texas coast, in that it began as an Anglo American outpost and gateway into what’s now southern Texas and the Borderlands, a launching point for the extension of Anglo American commercial and political networks and environmental transformation into what had formerly been a Spanish and Mexican frontier region. Anglo American civil engineering reshaped a shallow bay on the edge of an arid plain and with a hurricane-prone coast into a practical-enough site for urbanization geared into U.S. urban systems. The Spanish heritage, Mission Revival design, and ranger and pioneer lore that still dominate regional historical and visual identity can overshadow this more modern story of regional development for commercial agriculture, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. The main theme of my book was the tense interplay between those older regional epics and lore and an urban character, layout, and culture shaped by railroad- and petrochemical-era Texas.

10 Questions for Emily Landau, author of Spectacular Wickedness

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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 OrleansIn Spectacular Wickedness, Landau provides 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!

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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 Los Angeles, 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.

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Terminal Station, New Orleans, LA” between 1910-1920; its completion in 1908 contributed to Storyville’s decline as city leaders worried about the station’s proximity to the notorious neighborhood; Detroit Free Press Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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.