A walk down Cultural Fascination Street with Richard Campanella

By Jeri Hilt

Richard Campanella’s newest book, Bourbon Street: A History, provides an impressive historiography of the street, from genesis to its present-day manifestation, and attempts to unpack the role that the “adaptive commodification of culture” has had on its longevity and success. Bourbon Street is described in the book as both a phenomenon and a globally recognized symbol that “single-handedly generates imagery and reputation about an entire metropolis.” Campanella espouses: “For some, that Bourbon Street image is a delectable mélange of historicity and hedonism; for others it’s iniquitous, crass, phony, and offensive.”

While Campanella’s text is layered, Black New Orleans should be highly suspicious of the use of the words “hedonistic” and “culture” in works such as this. The word culture is often a moniker used innocuously for people of color to denote a vagueness of difference. Even when this undefined difference is praised, as is the case in Campanella’s Bourbon Street, it is the impulse to denote a distinction—whatever follows—that makes one wary.

When this denotation of culture—insert here undefined descriptions of people of color—is used in tandem with the term hedonistic, you’ve likely decoded an essential thrust of innate hypocrisies embedded in narratives of American history. These hypocrisies and the denial of their existence do not relate directly to Campanella’s text, though culture and hedonism do appear in precisely this manner.

Throughout the book’s accounts of historical periods—steeped in the literal commodification of a particular form of human existence (enslaved Africans) and the attempted annihilation and dispersal of another form (nations of native peoples)—the “adaptive commodification of culture [emphasis added]” is credited for both Bourbon Street’s infamy and success.

In our interview, Campanella explicates his theories on Bourbon Street’s spatial development, economic resilience, and cultural fascination. He also gives voice to the trends that he feels have informed America’s longstanding cultural fascination with the city of New Orleans.

Room 220: Which disciplinary aspect of the book did you find the most intriguing? I know you’re a geographer, housed in the school of architecture.

Richard Campanella: The spatial aspect. Being a geographer, I’m intrigued about how character gets ascribed to space and place. Going back to the 1920s, one of the transformative inflection points in the change of Bourbon Street from a completely mundane, prototypical downtown New Orleans street—prior to the Civil War—to the very exceptional place that it is today was the advent of a new social innovation called the nightclub.

Nightclubs, as opposed to prior variations—such as the so-called concert saloon of the late 1800s—fostered a sense of exclusivity, that you must be privileged and empowered to be in such an exclusive place. They fostered that sense of exclusivity in part by creating a barrier between the public space of the street and the private space inside, and it was patrolled, if you would, by a doorman who controlled access. So you almost had to be of a certain caste, class, and appearance—and of course these places were strictly segregated—to get in.

Upon going inside, you partook of that sense of exclusivity—so, again, note that spatial barrier between public space and private space. Fast forward forty years later, and that barrier starts to disintegrate. There had been many, many changes on Bourbon Street coming off the 1962 – 1964 vice crackdowns of District Attorney Garrison. Coming out of this, many of these clubs and bars lost their major profit machine, which came out of illicit gambling and “B drinking.” They had to figure out how to make money a new way.

Sometime in 1968, some unremembered bar figured out that instead of trying to get a pedestrian outside to come into the private space, why not open a window and sell the drinks directly to the public space. It was called window hawking at the time, and it eventually gave birth to the “go-cup” and the transfer of Bourbon Street nightly activity from the exclusive indoor space of the clubs to the public space. So that barrier came down, and this birthed the nightly pedestrian parade, and now everyone knows on Bourbon Street—with the exception of a couple of famous places like Galatoire’s and Pat O’Brien’s, where people really do go out of their way to go and stay there—for the most part, the attraction, the spectacle, is in the street. So places retool themselves to eliminate that barrier. That’s what I mean by space and social geographies, and that intrigued me the most in deciphering where this curious artifact came from.

1870s sketch of present-day 300 block of Bourbon Street, looking downriver toward the French Opera House, Courtesy City of New Orleans, Vieux Carré Commission

Rm220: You link the term “structurally based social memory” to the reputation of Bourbon, which is described as hedonistic. What are your thoughts about structurally based social memory?

RC: Basically, if you see it, you remember it. Consider what the American understanding of New Orleans might be today had we demolished the French Quarter a hundred years ago. Americans would probably not think too much about New Orleans. It would probably be something with a storyline mixed between Houston and Mobile: there might be a sense that it was a historic city; we may or may not still have Mardi Gras. I think that, because the French Quarter was preserved, we told historical stories and we remembered the Creole population and the Francophone population. The preservation of the French Quarter later inspired the preservation of Treme, Marigny, and the Lower Garden District. Had we not had that original preservation of structures, we would not have breathed life into collective memory.

Now, the flip side of that is what happens when places are completely demolished. As you know, the South Rampart Street corridor, maybe 5 percent of it is still standing now—visitors to this day are disappointed when they learn that maybe the city is the birthplace of jazz, but you can’t visit the cradle.

Another one is cityscapes of slavery and the slave trade. This was the major slave trading city in the nation for the better part of forty or fifty years, but there are very few structural remnants—the auction blocks where public auctions happened are mostly gone, so you could visit New Orleans today and not see an explicit structural reminder of that.

Rm220: Do you see any parallels between the influx of Anglo-Americans flooding into the city after the Louisiana Purchase and post-Katrina gentrifiers?

RC: Yes, I see historical parallels between the tension of 170 – 200 years ago and today. One has to be careful about drawing parallels, but there are rough equivalents.

Rm220: I saw similarities.

A plaque marking the designation of Bourbon Street during Spanish rule, shortly after which the city’s incorporation into the United States and the resulting influx of Anglo-Americans spawned similar tension between locals and transplants as one finds today. (photo by Richard Campanella)

RC: There are definitely parallels of a resident, native-born population suddenly experiencing an influx of—oftentimes more empowered, better educated, and wealthier—outsiders. The language barrier is gone now, but there are, of course, linguistic differences. In no small amount of time the original group starts to feel threatened and increasingly resistant. So much of the history of 19th-century New Orleans is this one of working out this tension between this 80-year-old, rather provincial, conservative city that is suddenly being enveloped into this much larger expanding nation.

Fast-forward 200 years, and one could see parallels there. This was a city that had not participated in the boom of the rest of the Sun Belt. It had not participated in the industrialization seen in other parts of the country. It was something of a backwater. It had the highest nativity rate in the nation, and then suddenly—or, not quite suddenly, because there was a steady stream of transplants coming down restoring old houses since the 1920s into the 2000s—there’s no question it up-ticked right after the storm.

Then, more significantly, in a larger, second wave in 2008 – 2011—when the rest of the nation went into a recession and when we were still flush with recovery and insurance dollars here—a generation of young educated people “starved for authenticity” thought they found it here. They are coming for very different reasons, make no mistake: The Anglophones who came 180 years ago were here to make money, but today they’re here for a sense of honest-to-goodness cultural fascination. Now that’s beginning to change a little bit because of the tech boom here, the digital media boom, the tax credits for the film industry, but there’s a fair number of these educated outsiders who are arriving here because of those opportunities.

Rm220: Very much so…

RC: …maybe not very much so. I still feel that they are first and foremost here for the culture and the cultural environment of the cityscape, and are doing the best they can to get a job and make a living here. I’m not entirely convinced that the people moving to New Orleans right now are just here for their jobs and then fall in love with the city. I think it’s the reverse.

Rm220: So you think that most of the people who have recently moved here are because they are culturally fascinated?

RC: They’re self-selected for Orleanophilia, a fascination with this place and the sense that it’s undiscovered—Brooklyn and San Francisco are just crawling with people like this, whereas New Orleans is not. That’s why there’s a boom on, because there’s a sense that it’s this ‘undiscovered Caribbean Bohemia.’

Rm220: Can you really make the argument that New Orleans is virtually undiscovered?

RC: I’m not arguing that. I’m giving voice to the perception that I believe informs this trend. Living here, we’re up close to this, and so the notion that New Orleans might be perceived as undiscovered by other Americans might seem preposterous, but that’s because we’re so close to it.

Rm220: I was intrigued by this line in the book, “New Orleans is the active producer, molder, and exporter of culture.” What do you think the cultural image is in the context of the book?

RC: A large part of the cultural image that gets construed locally and exported is exactly the one that Bourbon Street commodifies and sells. The city presents itself as a place to do things you wouldn’t normally do, and it has a historical reason to do this. It’s not just hedonism in one sense—it’s nocturnal entertainment, it’s escapism, it’s indulgence. The city has produced and exported these mystiques in various advertisement campaigns, and Bourbon Street is the space where it’s commodification got zoned into its existence. So, when we hold our nose over Bourbon Street, we should realize it is very much a product of local, cultural, organic—bubbled up from the bottom—and it invented itself. It’s genuinely local.