New Orleans on Parade, a review

St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral

New Orleans on Parade, Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, by J. Mark Souther, published in 2006 by Louisiana State University Press, is an important book for anyone interested in New Orleans economics as well as the growth and development of the hospitality industry in the city. Souther focuses on tourism but he also gives space to some of the reasons other industries failed to provide for prosperity.

The book details the lack of civic interest in building a modern economy that could compete with the other cities of the New South. It shows how tourism grew to prominence as the only real alternative to a complete collapse of the local economy.

What WWII Wrought

Chep Morrison was elected in 1946 as a reform mayor. His ideas were progressive. He knew he had to do something about corruption, and he attempted to make the city the Gateway to Latin America. As hard as he worked to bring New Orleans into the 20th century, inertia seemed to work a little harder.

Souther discusses the indifference of the uptown social and economic elite. As a group, they were disinterested in change. They sought to preserve their privilege in the same way they had done as a group for a hundred years, through the social organizations, primarily Carnival clubs.

As a group, this elite valued social status over talent. They excluded ethnic Orleanians who made up the large majority of the city – Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, and, of course, blacks.

In other cities, the war became a stepping off point for economic progress. It did not do so in New Orleans, but it did introduce a generation of sailors and soldiers to the romance of the city, its ability to entertain, and to some of the less admirable aspects of the town.

The Preservationists

The French Quarter had become over a period a run down district of honky tonks and low income residents. Souther points out that New Orleans was much like other American cities in the 1940s. There was no more music on average than elsewhere. Plans were made and implemented to tear down run down neighborhoods and modernize.

As early as the 1920s, some middle class preservationists began moving into a very affordable French Quarter with an eye to renovate and preserve the distinct character of the area. Some owners of entertainment venues saw opportunities to sell New Orleans unique musical heritage as early as the 1940s and military visitors went looking for it.

In the 1950s and 1960s, those WWII military visitors returned to city as tourists. Tourism was booming across an affluent America. New Orleans saw its share of tourists wanting to enjoy the unique character of the French Quarter and the unique character of New Orleans jazz as it began its revival.

Souther points out that two different movements both began to complement each other and conflict with each other at times. The growing tourist trade proved the value of restoring the ambiance of the French Quarter, but also put pressure on new development to accommodate more visitors.

Entrepreneurs saw opportunities in tourism and they began to take advantage of those opportunities. Replica hotels, the bane of many preservationists, were built in the French Quarter. The rise of these entrepreneurs also foretold a change in the social and economic balance in the city. They were not of the old uptown social and economic elite.

The Golden Years

Souther writes that the 1960s and 1970s saw considerable change. It many ways it was a few golden years. The Superdome was built in the 70s, and the city gained the Saints in the 60s after settling the issues of segregation that had hindered obtaining the franchise.

Economists warned that the city could not prosper just on tourism and the port, but the oil boom hid basic problems with economy for some time. The Central Business District grew up with new construction. Moon Landrieu, considered a progressive mayor was elected, and in 1978 Dutch Morial became mayor of a city that had recently become majority black.

Marketing the Past

Souther goes on to write that the city was not only rediscovering its architectural heritage but its musical heritage too. Jazz became another preservationist project. Cultural preservation became not just a cause but a basis for driving the tourism economy.

The interests of preservationists and tourism entrepreneurs began to mesh closely as the uptown social and former economic elites remained disinterested. They clung to the remains of declining economic venues as tightly as they clung to Carnival tradition.

The Carnival Tradition

For almost a hundred years, the formal aspects of Carnival had been controlled by relatively small numbers of elite uptown families. Crowns and scepters were passed down from generation to generation and it took more than one generation for a new family to break into the top clubs in town.

Souther writes that the new tourism entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to make Carnival a large tourism promotional event.

These young lions created the super krewes of Bacchus and Endymion in the late 60s. They opened membership to the public in general and to non Orleanians who wished to join in the celebration. The broke the old rules by making celebrities their kings. And it worked. Carnival became both nationalized and commercialized. It was a week or two of free publicity for the city and it drew larger and larger numbers of tourists.

Gold Loses its Luster

Souther goes on to write that the city was apparently doing well by the end of the 1960s. Optimism for the future was high. Civic boosters decided the time was ripe to produce and promote the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair.

It proved to be unsuccessful Although the fair did provide the impetus for considerably more hotel space to be constructed, the rooms often sat empty. The failure of the World's Fair was quickly followed by the oil bust. The city lost tens of thousands of high paying oil economy jobs, and thus mired in recession until the national recession of the early 90s was over.

Tourism began to grow again in the early 90s, and had become just about the entire foundation of the city's economy. While the city's organic character changed greatly from 1970 on, especially with the loss of oil jobs, a new facade of character was built for the tourists.

All of the cliches were promoted heavily and new attractions sought to please visitors while residents moved out or suffered from poor government services and poverty.

Is That All There Is

So New Orleans became a one industry town. The port still provided some economic benefit but had lost it competitive edge to ports that had invested in containerization. To cater to tourists, local authorities often took New Orleans fabled tolerance to the point of vulgarization. The city became sometimes a place to do what you would not do in your own home town.

Many preservationists shook their heads over the growth of T shirt shops and tawdry souvenir stores. While residents and corner groceries moved out, mimes and tarot card readers moved in.

Selling an idealized and romanticized past took it place next to selling a little bit of sleaze.

By the 1990s, black Orleanians realized they too could take advantage of selling a culture, and many began participating in the tourist businesses. The circle was then complete with all major interests in the city settling on tourism as the only economic driver.

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