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Creating the Big Easy, a Review

Updated on August 5, 2009

Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism, 1918 – 1945 written by Anthony Stanonis, published by the University of Georgia Press, is an analysis of the transformation of the city from 19th century port with a shady reputation through the desire of progressive businessmen to create a modern city to one that lives in the past to sell that past, now its most important product. Reading the book can easily frame New Orleans in your mind as the big city equivalent of small time con artists selling holy relics. A romanticized version of New Orleans' past became a product, and the for sale sign was hung out.

The book differs from New Orleans on Parade not only in time frame but in its more subtle approach. It tends to frame societal changes and past events as contexts within which tourism could develop. New Orleans on Parade tends more to the specific – specific people and events that are directly connected to tourism and its explosion in the modern period. Sometimes in reading Creating the Big Easy, you can get the feeling that what happened in those interwar years could have happened almost anywhere. The events seemed not so specific to New Orleans but by happening in New Orleans, they lead to a path of least resistance – developing a tourism industry.

The author points out that by the end of the 19th century, New Orleans was already somewhat of myth. Yes, it was a rowdy and dangerous port city but likely not much worse than other urban centers in America. The disease epidemics of the 19th century did add to its risks. It also was known for being “French” in an Anglo-Saxon nation, and French was often synonymous with sexual and alcoholic indulgence. But these indulgences were common in 19th century urban America.

What was not common was New Orleans' famed propagandists. George Washington Cable and Lafcadio Hearn helped create the myth with their romantic images of the city written for a national audience. They helped the city attenuate its commonalities.

By 1920, New Orleans had joined mainstream America. The negative perceptions had diminished greatly, though its reputation for social liberality still attracted expatriates from more conservative America, including authors like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. They continued the early tradition of romanticizing the city which was becoming more mainstream all the time.

In 1920, New Orleans businessmen were looking for what businessmen everywhere in America wanted, industrial development. And like everywhere in America, the Great Depression quickly changed the goals and aspirations of the business class. Tourism was not ignored in the 20s. Mardi Gras and city had been attracting tourists for years, and local boosters spend time and money enhancing that attraction.

However, the Great Depression soon focused the city more closely on tourism because other plans for economic expansion dried up. The tourists had kept coming even with the Depression, and the city found tourism to be a revenue generator with taxes on amusements.

Tourism also found allies in other social forces and changes. Women ventured into public spaces more often as reformers managed to quell prostitution and alcoholic indulgence. Nightlife in New Orleans was still risqué, especially for women. The greater use automobiles made getting to the city easier. The preservation movement spread everywhere and became especially strong in the city. Mardi Gras became somewhat democratized, and the growing urban middle class joined the parade creating their own krewes.

Not missing an opportunity, promoters did what they could to make Carnival more accessible to outsiders. Carnival became more commercial.

The author ends the book with a full chapter on the marginalization of black Orleanians within the march to a tourist industry. Frankly, Jim Crow marginalized blacks in every aspect of life in the city so this was not unique to tourism. In fact, in the interwar years, the city was still a plantation, and working class whites did not benefit much from the growth of tourism as more than black Orleanians. The author laments the appropriation of black culture by the majority as a marketing tool for tourism.

This book is another entry into understanding how the city became a one industry town by the 1990s. Taken together with New Orleans on Parade, you can get a good picture of why and where the city is today.

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