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Connecticut River Valley, New England, United States

Thursday, July 2, 2015

New Orleans--The Empire of Sin

As one of the Northerners who have on occasion made pilgrimage to the Crescent City in search of its Jazz and Creole culture, I was drawn to the history of the reputation as a sinful open town. Notice I said the history and not the actuality of the sin and openess. The book has not disappointed. From the late years of the 19th century to the first two decades of the 20th century, Gary Krist fills the pages with descriptions of the reputable and disreputable citizens of this fascinating place. Early on, rather than trying to eradicate the brothels and their madams, taverns and their owners, jazz and its musicians, the good people of New Orleans decided that these things could continue but be confined to a designated area of the town--far away from the Uptown respectable neighborhoods. Since the Mayor at the time was a man by the name of Story the area soon became known as Storyville and since an entrepreneur of sinful activities, an Irishman from the rough Irish Channel neighborhood, rose to prominence within its boundaries, he, Tom Anderson, became known as the Mayor of Storyville. From the wide open days of unbridled sex and debauchery where white and black races not only mixed freely but where such mixture was encouraged to the pre-war determination on the part of reformists to eliminate such rowdiness the book is a page turner. How can one not wish for a politician to say of another that he'd rather be "a maggot in the suppurating carcass of an insane mule than be " his political opponent! Such passion and command of the language. How not be intrigued by the characters such as Bird Leg Nora, or Snaggle Mouf Mary, or Stack O. Dollars ? As society became more and more intolerant there is the sadness of the Jim Crow laws that suppressed the black citizens of the city along with anything associated with them, including the evolving musical scene and the dances that rose from it. These laws also caused hardship among Creoles, who though racist themselves in that they considered themselves part of the white society or at least in a strata above black society now found themselves, despite their affluence and refinement, tossed by these laws into the same restricted lifestyle of the black laborer and mill hand. Even as this change was enforced moments of levity are described, such as the fleeting passage of Carrie Nation through Storyville. Welcomed to the City by the current Mayor she was informed that he wished her to refrain from her usual saloon smashing---to which she replied that as an instrument of God's hands she could make no promises and wanted to know if the Mayor would refuse the Lord His right to smash. Calmly, he informed her that the Lord would not find any interference but his officers would certainly prevent her smashing. On she went visiting brothels and saloons, giving speeches and smashing a couple of whiskey glasses at Anderson's--where she asked him if he wanted to make something of it--but though determined as ever, she seems to have made little impact in Storyville. Something that until recent years has been swept under the rug in this country is that long before Hitler made headlines using eugenics to create a master race the idea had many followers in this country. In 1908 as part of the effort to clean up New Orleans two sisters who headed up the Milne Asylum for Destitute Girls "advocated for the forced sterilization of children who showed signs of a future of crime, prostitution or alcoholism". Something that was done, not only in the South but also in my home State of Vermont--here on the young women of the Abneki Indian tribe. Krist recounts the involvement of the Federal government in cleaning up the City as the United States entered the First World War. After all, military men could not be effective if drunk or riddled with a venereal disease. Best to eliminate the sources of such debilitating conditions. By the end of the War, thirty years of trying to establish decency and orderliness seemed to be successful. The reformists could start to relax. Alas, just as they did, ax murders that appeared to be the work of a single maniac began to spring up throughout the metropolis. In the end, despite much investigation and supposition, when they stopped as suddenly as they began, the murders faded into the archives as unsolved and at this late date, over 100 years later, too cold to ever be more than mysteries. By 1930, the city had changed. Storyville was gone and most of the characters of the time had died or moved away. But the drugs, prostitution, gambling, drinking, music have not gone. The music that once was considered immoral is now part of the draw for people like me who travel to attend Jazzfest, Quarterfest, or any of the many other " fests" that happen throughout the year. The wide open times are gone but the vices can be satisfied with a little asking around. There is the intermingling of races again though perhaps not with the same nonchalance as before the 20th century and its oppression and then '60's rebellion but it is not strained and uncomfortable. As I read the book, I kept thinking that despite all the energy expended to change the town, so much of what made New Orleans unique in the 19th century does not lie very far from the surface in these early days of the 21st and at the end the author expresses this same feeling. Besides the fun of telling and reading of this time in history, Krist adds extensive bibliography, notes, suggested readings and suggested jazz recordings. I've read some of the fictional books he mentions although one I just could not get my head around was A Confederacy of Dunces. Others I am anxious to read but as he has said, don't have an unlimited time in which to read everything I've put on my TBR list. I would suggest, however, that if you love New Orleans, its music, its people, its ambiance then you should definitely make time to read this one. You won't be disappointed. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

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