Glimpses of history in Storyville’s 3 remaining buildings

Iberville razing offers new historical peek

Tark Musa spends almost every day behind the cash register at the New Image Market, at Bienville and Crozat streets. Mostly, he sees the same people: construction workers who drop in to buy cigarettes and plate lunches, children who grab nickel candy from jars in the front, housekeepers picking up bottles of juice and jelly doughnuts in small paper bags on their way to work.

But often, there are tourists. “They talk about a piano player,” said Musa, whose business would be indistinguishable from hundreds of other corner stores across New Orleans except for its history — it’s one of only three buildings remaining from when the neighborhood was known as Storyville.

Most of Storyville, the red-light district that existed along Basin Street near the French Quarter between 1897 and 1917, was torn down to make way for the Iberville public housing development before World War II. However, most of Iberville’s large brick buildings are now being demolished, allowing archaeologists and other scholars to take another look at Storyville’s history.

The district of bars and brothels took its name from Alderman Sidney Story, sponsor of an 1897 ordinance that limited prostitution to the area between North Robertson and Basin streets, and from Iberville to St. Louis streets.

Six buildings from the old district remained as recently as a few decades ago, said jazz historian Jack Stewart. The three that still stand are hardly architectural gems. The best-known structure, once run by high-profile madam Lulu White, had its second story lopped off after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. All three were remodeled many times before coming under the protection of the city’s Historic District Landmarks Commission in recent years.

Musa’s corner store was once Frank Early’s Saloon. His family bought the property in 1976, when Musa was about 11, so he has grown up there. Toward the back, his father demolished a wall that once divided the store from a laundry next door. On the river side of his cash register, a door to upstairs — for red-light customers or tenants — is now hidden behind a shelf laden with spices.

Musa remembers how a former night clerk often talked about spirits who visited the store after dark.

When tourists stop, they sometimes inquire about Tony Jackson, the influential piano “professor” who performed downstairs and wrote the song “Pretty Baby” in an upstairs apartment. But most often, tourists ask about Jelly Roll Morton, Storyville’s most famous piano player, known for jazz compositions, for a diamond he’d adhered onto one front tooth and for braggadocio — he often told people he had personally invented jazz.

Morton’s fame got him only so far. Although many African-American women worked in Storyville as madams and prostitutes, black men were not allowed in bordello parlors or rooms, except as laborers or musicians. “No matter how much his diamond sparkled, (Morton) still had to eat in the kitchen,” Louis Armstrong, who came up working on Storyville’s coal-delivery wagon, wrote in his autobiography.

But the district was interracial in many ways. Most notably, mixed crowds were common on what is now Crozat Street, in front of Early’s saloon, said Storyville historian Katy Coyle. “That street is a very important area for jazz,” she said. It featured a concentration of saloons and honky-tonks and was “a place of interracial community,” she said. There, black and white people could talk, eat, dance and make music together in a way that was impossible in some other sections of the city.

Joe Victor’s saloon

Musa’s family owns another of the three remaining Storyville buildings — Joe Victor’s Saloon, at North Villere and St. Louis streets, on the other side of the Iberville development. But little is known about Victor or his business. “I’ve never run across anything about Joe’s Victor’s place,” Coyle said. “No early musicians talk about it. And it didn’t show up in arrest records.”

The building was constructed in the 1880s to house two first-floor stores with two apartments above them. By the 1910 census, Joe Victor and his two unemployed sisters lived there, Coyle said. She speculates that maybe his saloon was doing so well that they didn’t need to work. Or maybe, because the sisters were in their 20s and living in Storyville, they were employed in a way they didn’t want to describe for a census-taker. No one, she said, listed “prostitute” as an occupation on official census records, preferring instead to be recorded as, say, a seamstress or a dressmaker.

A search of newspapers of the day yields only a brief mention of Victor’s place in the files of The Times-Picayune. An article noted that a man named Joe Victor with a nearby Villere Street address was cited for leaving manure on his property in violation of the city’s anti-housefly ordinance.

There’s often no written record of who performed in a saloon, said Stewart, the music historian. “If you find out where people played, it’s almost by accident, in an oral history or a letter or something,” he said.

Until about 1910 or 1920, newspapers might mention that a band was playing at a certain place, but they wouldn’t name the specific band, Stewart said. “The only time a musician was identified in the local papers was when he got in trouble or was arrested,” he said.

Storyville has sometimes been held up as “the cradle of jazz,” but Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, said the characterization has been “blown way out of proportion.” Nonetheless, Raeburn considers the trio of remaining buildings “important in terms of jazz history.”

Musa and his family chose the two former Storyville buildings as perfect locations for grocery stores. And although Musa appreciates their history, from a practical standpoint, both buildings have been stripped down and redone countless times, he said. “Other than the ghost stories, there’s nothing historic,” he said.

Tales passed down

Even a century later, Storyville tales travel through New Orleans families. Lolet Boutte tells of her grandmother, Lolet Goins LeBlanc, an accomplished seamstress who sewed for Storyville madams until Mayor Martin Behrman shut down the district on Nov. 12, 1917. The United States had entered World War I, and Behrman was under pressure from the U.S. secretary of the Navy, who had issued an order prohibiting open prostitution within five miles of any naval installation.

But even after Storyville officially closed, a few “houses” and “cribs” — smaller, more modest operations — were still active, and Boutte said they still hired her grandmother, whom she called “Mère.” Boutte’s mother “would deliver the bloomers and camisoles through a side window of the place — good girls were never allowed in,” she said.

Lois Nelson, mother of musicians James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, said her grandfather, guitarist Walter Nelson, played at Lulu White’s and other Storyville venues with clarinetist Alphonse Picou and other band leaders. “He told us that they used to make $1.50 a night, which was a lot at the time, enough for him to buy food and pay rent,” Nelson said.

The music heard in dance halls and saloons, along with a steady stream of visiting gamblers and boxers, helped create a unique environment in New Orleans, Raeburn said. “The whole sporting-life scene associated with Storyville was a form of bohemianism that was happening in New Orleans before it happened elsewhere, during the ‘age of the flapper’ post-World War I,” he said.

However, Raeburn said, Storyville’s reputation as nothing more than “a playground for adults” runs contrary to more recent research about Storyville women done by three female scholars: Alecia Long, a professor at Louisiana State University, who wrote the 2004 book, “The Great Southern Babylon;” Emily Epstein Landau, whose book “Spectacular Wickedness” was published this year; and Xavier University Professor Kim Marie Vaz, whose book “The Baby Dolls” examines interplay between black and white denizens of Storyville. (Nelson dresses each year on Mardi Gras as a “baby doll” in homage to the black prostitutes who began the costuming tradition as part of a rivalry between so-called “white Storyville” and “black Storyville.”)

Making history

Storyville was also the setting for some history-making struggles. Long’s book describes how mixed-race madams Lulu White and Willie Piazza and 20 other prostitutes sued to prevent the city from enforcing an order to segregate Storyville by race, one of the first official attempts to segregate New Orleans during the Jim Crow era. The courts ruled in their favor and against residential segregation, citing the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. “That became the key to overturning the ordinance, that you cannot separate them from their lawfully purchased property,” said Coyle, who views the women as “early civil-rights pioneers.”

Vaz would like to know more about a subgroup she discovered in researching “Baby Dolls:” devout Catholic mothers of large families who “engaged in prostitution to make ends meet,” renting cribs by the hour and then returning to their communities to tend their families. “There is much left to know about Storyville,” she wrote.

As Landau researched her book, she discovered that a year after Storyville officially was closed, White was sentenced by a federal judge to a year and a day in prison for continuing to operate Mahogany Hall, her elegant house of prostitution, within five miles of a military institution. She found that President Woodrow Wilson commuted White’s sentence, releasing her from prison after three months.

But Landau said much still is unknown. She now knows that White died destitute, but she knows little about why.

One window into the “everyday life” of Storyville is through ongoing archaeology on the Storyville-Iberville site, said D. Ryan Gray, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of New Orleans, who has been excavating one site with his students as part of several detailed excavations planned for the area.

Gray said the cache of artifacts his class has found both reflects and supplements the written historic record. “It provides us with something tangible, something material, to read against documents,” he said.

For instance, a building on North Liberty appears to have housed a lunch counter — because of the deposits of animal bones found there along with a “quartee,” a token that served as informal currency with a value of 2 1/2 cents. Lunch counters often had two-for-5-cents specials. “It’s a reminder that the district employed many other people besides prostitutes and musicians,” Gray said.

A century of food

In the 1980s, Ngoan Vu began cooking seafood, gumbo and Vietnamese-New Orleans specialties inside the Basin Supermarket, a one-story building at Basin and Bienville streets, where Lulu White once ran a busy saloon. In 2005, Vu bought the building. She now rents it to another family, which sells corner-store staples such as gum and soda pop but is best known for steam tables heaped with gumbo and catfish.

Vu’s nephew, Andrew Le, spoke for his aunt, who speaks little English. He said Vu is fond of the building’s history and likes to talk about it, but the biggest draw for her was its door onto busy Basin Street, which has drawn in thousands of hungry customers over the years. “She liked it because of the location,” he said.

The saloon itself came into being because another shrewd businesswoman, Lulu White, needed to cook and sell food there, Katy Coyle said.

In 1908, the Legislature had recently passed the Gay-Shattuck law, which banned women from places where liquor was sold and consumed. It also forbade bar owners to serve black and white patrons in the same establishment and banned live music in places that served liquor. The only exceptions were for hotels and restaurants that also served food with liquor.

White’s “high-class” establishment, called Mahogany Hall, sat next door. There, in the front room, attractive young women served champagne while piano “professors” played music and the prostitutes sang and danced. The Gay-Shattuck law threatened that routine. Even worse, it cut into profits. “The sale of liquor was no less important than the sale of flesh,” said Raeburn.

“Liquor was marked up about 400 percent; the madams made way more money on liquor than prostitution,” said Coyle, explaining how madams reacted after Gay-Shattuck passed. “That’s almost certainly when Lulu White created her saloon as a ‘restaurant,’” Coyle said, noting that White likely used the restaurant as a cover to send liquor to Mahogany Hall, where business seemed to continue as usual.

Buildings like these are important because of what happened within their walls, Stewart said. “You can feel something,” he said.

Stewart experienced that feeling years ago when he entered the old Karnofsky tailor shop in the 400 block of South Rampart Street, run by the family that hired Armstrong to deliver coal as a child. “It’s really, really small, and you realize that the scale and extent of their existence was not that big,” he said.

“You step back into time if there’s a building,” Stewart said. “If not, you just step into air.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated Nov. 6, to reflect that Lolet Boutte called her grandmother, Lolet Goins LeBlanc, “Mère.” not “Mama,” and that it was LeBlanc’s mother who delivered bloomers and camisoles through bordellos’ side windows because she was not allowed to enter.