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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, in his history of the sordid side of New Orleans, uses the following epigraph: "It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans." Krist then shows us why the reverend who said believed the way he did, and by gum, he's right.

Empire of Sin covers the years from the 1880s to the end of Prohibition. To start with, one has to understand that New Orleans is, in terms of American cities, a horse of a different color. "Thanks to its unique history, in fact, New Orleans scarcely seemed American at all. Founded as a French outpost in the early 1700s, the city had come of age under Spanish rule in the latter half of the eighteenth century, giving the place a distinctive Franco-Latin character that still manifested itself in everything from its architecture to its municipal administration."

New Orleans also had a different way of looking at race. "In the Louisiana of the early 1870s, black citizens could vote and serve on juries. Schools were desegregated, and interracial marriage was legal. Blacks and whites rode on the same streetcars, frequented the same parks and lakeside beaches, and often lived side by side in he same neighborhoods." But, of course, there was still racism. New Orleans was the epicenter of the Plessy v Ferguson case, which codified Jim Crow laws, and the first crime Krist writes about, the murder of a a chief of police by the "Black Hand," an Italian crime group, resulted in the mass lynching of many Italians, simply because they were Italians.

Krist nimbly intertwines stories of sensational crimes like that one, a history of the demimonde of the city (most notably a district called Storyville) and the creation of jazz, all of which connected to the other. I liked all of these parts, so leaving one for a while was not a letdown, and I'm hard pressed to decide which part is best.

Since Krist subtitles his book Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, I'll start with sex. Storyville, which was set aside for vice, was basically a Disneyland of sex. Brothels operated freely, hundreds of them, with white, octoroon (a woman who was one-eighth black) or entirely black. "In the seven or eight years that the District had been open, it had developed into a vast, well-functioning factory of sin, as lucrative and efficient as any lumber mill or city gasworks in the country. Its 230 brothels, 60 assignation houses, and scores of one-room cribs could by now process the raw materials of male sexual desire at an astonishing rate of speed." Five minutes, apparently, was a long time to spend in one of those places.

Tom Anderson was the "mayor" of Storyville, who had legitimate oil industry ties but also a major crook who ran many of the dens of iniquity himself. Josie Arlington was one of the major madams, as was Lulu White, and they became quite rich. Over time, though, reformers began efforts to root the sin out of the area, and by World War I the era was pretty much over.

As for jazz, Krist writes about its origins, which are murky (the word jazz, or jass, especially). "What exactly were they all playing? Critics would argue for decades about what the new music actually was. They traced its lineage to African, Caribbean, French, and/or Spanish roots, to ragtime, to various religious forms, and to secular traditions like the blues. But in a way, it was utterly new--music created largely by untrained musicians without much experience in any formal tradition." It was also completely American, one of the first true American art forms.

Krist chronicles the development of jazz through it's innovators, all from New Orleans, such as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, Kid Ory, all the way up to Louis Armstrong. But it's kind of sad story. Whites, of course, condemned the music, at least until they could see that it was a tourist interest in the 1920s (and, as Ken Burns' film showed, whites were then credited with creating the form). Most of the New Orleans musicians left the city behind, heading to Chicago or other cities where they weren't harassed. Some never returned. Armstrong returned to get the key to the city, but had to stay in a blacks-only hotel.

As for murder, there's plenty of it. In addition to the police chief killing, Krist writes about Robert Charles, a black man who held police at bay, killing a few, for several days. The Black Hand (which Krist maintains its distinct from the Mafia) were active over the period, including a sensational kidnapping and murdering of a child. Then there was the Axeman, a possible serial killer who dispatched his victims with an ax while they lay asleep. The true identity of this killer, if indeed it was one person who perpetrated all the crimes, is still unknown.

This was a fun book to read. I've never been to New Orleans, but of course it's not like that anymore. As mentioned, city fathers realized that the allure of this seedy side of the city brought in tourists, so the French Quarter was Disneyfied. But prostitution is not legal (as one wag said, you can make it illegal, but you can't make it unpopular) so it's strip clubs that line Bourbon Street now. Corruption was rampant, and life was pretty cheap, but there's something about the excitement of these years, when you could hear jazz in its infancy, and where going to a brothel was like going to a bar, that is incredibly alluring. It seems like a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

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