Basin Street (New Orleans)

Basin Street (Rue Bassin) is a street in New Orleans, Louisiana, close to the French Quarter. The name comes from the turning basin of the Carondelet Canal (also known as the Old Basin Canal) which was constructed in 1794 on the order of Governor Francisco Luis Hector de Carondelet and which remained in use until 1938. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century railroad tracks ran parallel to the Canal and then turned on to Basin Street to one of the city’s main railroad depots on Canal Street. The massive turning basin at the head of the Canal was the inspiration for the naming of Basin Street. The industrialization of the area in the late nineteenth century turned what had been a fine residential street into a red light district. From 1897 through World War I, the back side of Basin Street was the front of the Storyville red light district.

The name of the area was coined in reference to city alderman Sidney Story, who wrote the legislation creating the district. The ambition was to limit prostitution to one part of town where authorities could monitor and regulate the practice. In the late 1890s, the New Orleans city government studied the legalized red light districts in German and Dutch ports and set up Storyville based on such models. Between 1895 and 1915, so-called ‘blue books’ were published which were guides to prostitution for visitors to the district’s services including house descriptions, prices, particular services and the ‘stock’ each house had to offer. The blue-books were inscribed with the motto: Order of the Garter: Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense. Establishments in Storyville ranged from cheap ‘cribs’ to a row of elegant mansions along Basin Street for well-heeled customers. Black and white brothels coexisted, but black men were barred from legally purchasing services rendered in either black or white brothels. Nonetheless, brothels with black prostitutes serving blacks openly flourished with the full knowledge of the police and other local authorities a short distance uptown from Storyville proper. With a main railway station nearby, business boomed in the district. And so did music. It was tradition in the better establishments to hire a piano player and sometimes small bands.

Jazz did not originate in Storyville, but it flourished there as it did in the rest of the city. Many out-of-town visitors first heard this style of music there before the music spread north. Some people from elsewhere continue to associate Storyville with the origins of jazz. One of the finest pianists in the district was Ferdinand Joseph La Mothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton. At the age of fourteen, he began working as a piano player in a brothel (or as it was referred to then, a sporting house). He was a pivotal figure in the development of early jazz. His composition ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ was the first published jazz composition, appearing in 1915.

Storyville was closed down in 1917 after campaigns by moral crusaders and an intolerant attitude by the army. Soldiers were forbidden to enter the area and similar places. Soon after 1917 separate black and white underground dens of prostitution emerged around the city. The district continued in a more subdued state as an entertainment centre through the 1920s, with various dance halls, gambling dens, cabarets and restaurants. Brothels were also regularly found in the area despite repeated police raids. Almost all the buildings in the former district were demolished in the 1930s. While much of the area contained tired and decayed buildings, the old mansions along Basin Street, some of the finest structures in the city, were also leveled. The city government wished to blot the notorious district from memory. The history of Storyville has been recorded in the haunting photographs of John Ernest Joseph Bellocq. Born in a wealthy white Creole family in the French Quarter of New Orleans, he made a living by taking photographic records for local companies. More interestingly, he took personal photographs of the hidden side of local life, of the opium dens in Chinatown, and of the whores of Storyville. Some of the women are nude, some dressed, and others posed as if acting some exotic narrative. Many of the negatives that have survived were damaged, in part deliberately. Whether this was done by Bellocq himself, or by his Jesuit priest brother who – ironically – inherited the photographs, or by someone else, has never been established. The mystique about the photographer inspired Louis Malle’s controversial 1978 film Pretty Baby. Bellocq’s images have inspired stories and poems about the women in them, including Brooke Bergan’s Storyville: A Hidden Mirror.

‘Basin Street Blues’ is a song written by Spencer Williams, a jazz musician and singer from New Orleans. The song, published in 1926, was performed by many Dixieland jazz bands. Hundreds of recordings have been made since its creation, including a version by Miles Davis in 1963. The following famous lines were later added by Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden:

Won’tcha come along with me,
To the Mississippi?
We’ll take a boat to the lan’ of dreams,
Steam down the river down to New Orleans:
The band’s there to meet us,
Old friends to greet us.
Where all the people like to meet,
This is Basin Street.

Basin Street, is the street,
Where the Elite, always meet,
In New Orleans. Lan’ of dreams,
You’ll never know how nice it seems
Or just how much it really means,
Glad to be; yes, siree,
Where welcome’s free, dear to me,
Where I can lose, my Basin Street blues.