Bourbon Street (French: Rue Bourbon) is a street in the heart of New Orleans' oldest neighborhood, the French Quarter, in New Orleans, Louisiana. It extends 13 blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. Known for its bars and strip clubs, Bourbon Street's history provides a rich insight into New Orleans' past.
History of Bourbon Street and environs
1700 to 1880
The French claimed Louisiana as a colony in the 1690s. Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville was appointed as Director General in charge of developing a colony in the territory. He founded New Orleans in 1718. In 1721, the royal engineer, Adrien de Pauger, designed the city's street layout. He named the streets after French royal houses and Catholic saints. Bourbon Street paid homage to France's ruling family, the House of Bourbon.
New Orleans was given to the Spanish in 1763 following the Seven Years' War. In 1788, a major fire destroyed 80% of the city's buildings. The Spanish rebuilt many of the damaged buildings, which are still standing today. For this reason, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter display more Spanish than French influence.
New Orleans in the 19th century was both similar to and different from other Southern cities. It was similar in that its economy was based on selling cash crops such as sugar and tobacco. By 1840, newcomers whose wealth came from these enterprises turned New Orleans into the third largest metropolis in the country. The city's port was the second-largest after New York City.
The main difference between New Orleans and other Southern cities was its unique cultural heritage as a result of formerly having been a French and Spanish possession. This cultural legacy in the form of its architecture, cuisine and traditions was emphasized by promoters to attract tourists.
1880 to 1960
The French Quarter was central to this image and became the best-known part of the city. Recent arrivals in New Orleans criticized the perceived loose morals of the Creoles, a perception which persisted as many travelers came to New Orleans to drink, gamble and have sexual encounters in the city’s brothels, beginning in the 1880s.
Bourbon Street was a premier residential area prior to 1900. This changed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Storyville red-light district was constructed on Basin Street adjacent to the French Quarter. The area became known for prostitution, gambling and vaudeville acts. Jazz is said to have developed here, with artists such as King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton providing musical entertainment at the brothels.
This was also the era when some of New Orleans' most eminent restaurants were founded, including Galatoire's, located at 209 Bourbon Street. It was established by Jean Galatoire in 1905. Known for years by its characteristic line snaking down Bourbon Street, patrons waited for hours just to get a table — especially on Fridays.
Before World War II, the French Quarter was emerging as a major asset to the city’s economy. While there was an interest in historic districts at the time, developers pressured to modernize the city. Simultaneously, with the wartime influx of people, property owners opened adult-centered nightclubs to capitalize on the city’s risqué image. This led to Bourbon Street becoming the new Storyville in terms of reputation. By the 1940s and 1950s, nightclubs lined Bourbon Street. Over 50 different burlesque shows, striptease acts and exotic dancers could be found.
1960 to 2000
There was a move in the 1960s under District Attorney Jim Garrison to clean up Bourbon Street. In August 1962, two months after he was elected, Garrison began raiding adult entertainment establishments on Bourbon. His efforts mirrored those of his predecessors, which had been largely unsuccessful, but he had more success. He forced closure on a dozen nightclubs convicted of prostitution and selling overpriced alcohol. Following this campaign, Bourbon Street was populated by peep shows and sidewalk beer stands.
When Mayor Moon Landrieu came into office in 1970, he focused his efforts on stimulating tourism. He did so by making Bourbon Street a pedestrian mall, making it more inviting. The 1980s and 1990s were characterized by a Disneyfication of Bourbon Street. Critics of the proliferation of souvenir shops and corporate ventures said that Bourbon Street had become Creole Disneyland. They also argued that the street’s authenticity had been lost in this process.
Impact of Hurricane Katrina
Given Bourbon Street's high-ground location in the French Quarter, it was mostly intact following 2005's Hurricane Katrina. A major tourist attraction, Bourbon Street renovation was given high priority after the storm. However, New Orleans was still experiencing a dearth of visitors. In 2004, the year before Katrina, the city had 10.1 million visitors. The year after the storm, that number was 3.7 million.
Efforts to draw visitors back to the city were initiated by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, featuring celebrities such as Emeril Lagasse and Patricia Clarkson with the slogan, "Come fall In love with Louisiana all over again." (One third of the city's operating budget, approximately $6 billion, came from visitors and conventions; officials saw the tourist draw as vital for post-disaster economic recovery.) Travelers heard mixed messages in the media. Advertising campaigns gave the impression that New Orleans was thriving, while city leaders asked for increased Federal financial assistance and National Guard troops to help control municipal crime waves.
Entertainment, bars, and restaurants
Largely quiet during the day, Bourbon Street comes alive at night, particularly during the French Quarter's many festivals. Most famous of these is the annual Mardi Gras celebration, when the streets teem with thousands of people. Local open container laws allow drinking alcoholic beverages on the Quarter's streets. Popular drinks include the hurricane cocktail, the resurrection cocktail, the hand grenade and the profanely named huge-ass beers – a large plastic cup of draft beer marketed to tourists at a low price.
The most heavily visited section of Bourbon Street is "upper Bourbon Street" toward Canal Street, an eight-block section of visitor attractions. Among the attractions are bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and strip clubs. There are also a number of gay bars. The strip clubs include Rick's Cabaret, Temptations and Larry Flynt's Barely Legal Club.
Most of the bars are located in the central section of Bourbon. Popular spots include Pat O'Brien's, Johnny White's, the Famous Door, Spirits on Bourbon, Channing Tatum's Saints and Sinners, Razzoo and The Cat's Meow. Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo is located on the corner of St. Ann Street.
The most renowned restaurant on Bourbon Street is Galatoire's; it represents traditional New Orleans dining and has a dress code. Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop and the Old Absinthe House are two of the many casual eateries.
"Lower Bourbon Street" (lower being a reference to downriver, or downstream Mississippi River), from the intersection of St. Ann Street, caters to New Orleans' thriving gay community, featuring such establishments as Oz and the city's largest gay nightclub, the Bourbon Pub. St. Ann Street has been referred to as "the Velvet Line" or "the Lavender Line," the edge or approximate boundary of the French Quarter's gay community. Cafe-Lafitte-in-Exile is the oldest gay bar in the nation. The intersection of Bourbon and St. Ann Streets is also the center of the Labor Day weekend event Southern Decadence, commonly referred to as the Gay Mardi Gras, which attracts upwards of 100,000 participants.
Historically, noise violations were the responsibility of the individual making the noise. This changed in 1996 with Yokum v. 615 Bourbon Street. The case ruled that the property owner, not the noise-maker is responsible for noise violations. A 2010 city ordinance stipulates that no music may be played in the French Quarter between 8 pm and 9 am. Enforcement has been inconsistent, and critics claim its goals are vague. Some even state that the local law is unconstitutional. Besides being difficult to enforce, music aficionados claim that noise ordinances threaten the city's music culture. Local jazz bands, such as the To Be Continued Brass Band, who play in the streets, would be prohibited from doing so under such ordinances.
Aggressive-solicitation bans are a more recent issue on Bourbon Street. In 2011, an ordinance was passed which prohibited individuals and groups from "disseminating any social, political or religious message" at night. The ordinance did not explain the justification for the rule. On September 21, 2012, the ACLU of Louisiana won a temporary restraining order against the ban, on behalf of Kelsey McCauley (Bohn), a woman who converted to Christianity through a religious group's activities on Bourbon Street. The group had several of its members arrested, some of whom were cited on September 14, 2012, for violating the anti-solicitation ordinance. A hearing was set for October 1, 2012.
On July 25, 2013, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-0 to amend the law and exempt Bourbon Street from the ban, with legal language found acceptable by the participating attorneys.
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