Amsterdam may be world-renowned for their red lights district, but there was one that was just as famous in the United States, at least for a short time. It was called Storyville.
From 1897 to 1917, Storyville was one of the most famous red-light districts in the United States and it could be found in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Ironically, Storyville was created in 1897 when Alderman Sidney Story pushed forth a city ordinance that limited brothels and saloons in New Orleans. Unfortunately, the ordinance did not include the area within four streets, Rue Iberville, Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and N. Robertson. Thereby, prostitution was legal within those streets and it would be named after Mr. Story himself.
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A red-light district such as Storyville was something of a wonder at the time. It was notable for brothels set in illustrious mansions that employed prostitutes and were managed by savvy businesswomen called madams. However, it was much more than that.
For one, Storyville was a place where women of interracial heritage, like madam Lulu White, rose to prominence as brothel madams, even making a name for themselves among the “respectable” citizens of New Orleans. It was also a place where famous jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Joe “King” Oliver, and Pops Foster, got their start.
Unfortunately, Storyville would not last for long. When the U.S. entered WWI, New Orleans became a major port for troops on their way to Europe, and the Secretary of War didn’t want his military exposed to such a district.
Storyville was shut down in 1917 and later demolished in the 1930s for the Iberville Housing Project. Not much remains from Storyville, though you can sometimes find artifacts such as the doorknobs from Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall at the Louisiana State Museum.
While the brothels and vice of Storyville are long gone (though perhaps slightly still present among the strip clubs and cabarets of Bourbon Street), the stories from that time haven’t been forgotten. Today, at least one tour company in New Orleans tries to keep this piece of history alive.
Two Chicks Walking Tours offers an adults-only tour called “Brothels, Bordellos, and Ladies of the Night.” This two-hour walking tour educates guests about the Storyville era on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday evenings.
“I don’t know of another company that has this particular consideration and trust me there are a lot of other companies,” said Christine Miller, founder and CEO of Two Chicks Walking Tours.
She added: “Sex work has been with us through the ages and I’ve divided these narratives based upon time periods including Colonial, Victorian, Antebellum, [Civil War] and of course Storyville…The intersection between prostitution, politics and politicians seems to be timeless. The role of race as consideration is another facet within the world of information shared.”
The tour tells tales of prostitution in the different eras of New Orleans, including during the time of Storyville. Guests on the tour will visit Gallatin Street, the French Market, and the sites of old brothel businesses such as Norma Wallace’s on Conti Street.
In speaking of the Storyville District, Miller said, “The pictures of the opulent houses along Basin street are actually pretty dreamy and their architecture is not to be dismissed even though there’s nothing physically present to share, we need to paint it with words for our guests.”
While you’ll hear plenty of juicy tidbits about the brothels, Two Chicks Walking Tours always makes it a point to showcase Storyville and the tour around what matters most: the women who worked there.
“Ultimately, I would have to say it’s the women themselves that are my favorite part [of the tour],” said Miller. “Their grit and determination to survive and thrive. It wasn’t easy for them, that’s for sure. They deserve to be remembered and given their due.”