Southern Glossary

How Bourbon Street Degenerated

Southern Glossary


This excerpt from Bourbon Street: A History (LSU Press, 2014) recounts the decline of New Orleans’ once-glitzy entertainment strip in the late 1960s-1970s, on the heels of District Attorney Jim Garrison’s vice raids and during an era of dramatic social change throughout the nation. A key innovation on the new Bourbon Street affected a dramatic change in the strip’s nightly human geography, and persists today. It was called “window hawking.”

Entertainment spaces do a remarkable job of separating locals and visitors. Locals enter such spaces with the awareness that social and professional peers may be present, making a night out a potential opportunity for advancement as well as a time for pleasure and relaxation. Because the evening may be “on the record,” locals tend to dress up, turn on, and behave properly. The specter of stigma is very real to them, and the importance of restraint is not to be forgotten. Encountering a peer, after all, might have long-term consequences, and meeting a stranger might mean a lasting relationship. Similarly, restaurants and clubs that cater to locals keep prices modest, standards high, and service courteous because they, too, are operating on the record. Recreating in one’s own primary social space has a remarkable way of civilizing human behavior. Don’t defecate in your own backyard.

Visitors, on the other hand, are more inclined to let their guard down, confident that their peers are unlikely to see and pass judgment on them. Liberated by anonymity, they dress down, turn off, overindulge, and behave in ways they themselves might condemn elsewhere. They are egged on by the managers of that space, in our case Bourbonites, who instruct newcomers of the special social rules in effect here by means of props such as soft-porn imagery plastered on windows, inebriation quips imprinted on T-shirts, and flirtatious strippers positioned in doorways. Visitors are also encouraged by the behavior of other visitors, which green-lights their own abandonment of restraint through a mix of peer pressure and peer permission. The most visitors could hope for in an encounter with a stranger is a one-night stand; everything else is off the record. The oft-observed aphrodisiacal power of travel and the wickedly effective slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” are predicated on the tantalizing possibilities created when one immerses oneself in a foreign social ambit in which the very notion of stigma is taken off-line.

Such antithetical interests flush locals out of entertainment spaces once a tourist tipping point is passed. The turnover becomes complete when operators raise prices and lower quality, knowing that tourists come carrying cash, generally settle for less, and will probably never return. Musicians Union president David Winstein, who played Bourbon Street starting in the 1930s for mostly local patrons, explained in a 1997 interview the economic reason for the incompatibility of locals and out-of-towners: "When the War came along, it changed everything, because [Bourbon businesses] were using the troops as a money-making deal. They didn’t want any local people there because the local people always spent just the minimum. And that’s when the whole of Bourbon Street changed."[1]

As visitor-dependent as Bourbon had become during and after World War II, The Street did not permanently tip past the threshold until the late 1960s. Jets and cars brought tourists in, and the three big new corporate hotels lodged them right on Bourbon Street. A steady stream of strangers numbering in the millions annually came to dominate a Bourbon streetscape that by now had been mostly cleared of the outrageously corrupt shenanigans of the pre-Garrison era. Their ubiquity brought an unsettling night-after-night, season-to-season regularity to Bourbon Street, despite the door-to-door, block-to-block, round-the-clock assault on the senses. So too did the ban on parking on the main commercial blocks in 1966, followed by the 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. nightly barricading of the strip to form a pedestrian mall starting in 1971, both of which made Bourbon Street that much harder for locals to reach and easier for tourists to perambulate. A study by a Chicago firm in the late 1960s found that the new megahotels and supercharged tourism industry, “designed to capitalize on the outpouring of humanity that nightly thronged Bourbon Street[,] threatened to eliminate what it came to exploit.”[2] Augmenting the tourist brigades was a vast national pool of baby boomers who by this time were gaining independence, getting wheels, breaking from college, and seeking a place to let their long hair down. The French Quarter in the late 1960s became the South’s Haight-Ashbury, and Bourbon Street, while never truly embraced by politically conscious countercultural types, nevertheless appealed to enough of their fellow travelers to make it a hippie haven.

Bourbon Street in the scruffy 1970s, at its absolute nadir, just prior to the formation of Mayor Moon Landrieu's reformist commission.  [Courtesy City of New Orleans, Vieux Carre Commission]

Bourbon Street in the scruffy 1970s, at its absolute nadir, just prior to the formation of Mayor Moon Landrieu's reformist commission. [Courtesy City of New Orleans, Vieux Carre Commission]

With jet-setting tourists and jalopy-driving hippies now convening on Bourbon Street, the last of the local tie-and-jacket dinner-date squares, whose favorite nightclubs never recovered from the Garrison raids, ended their love affair with the neon strip and never returned. Cash-strapped youth and wide-eyed tourists eschewed those few clubs that remained open, sensing that they risked a shakedown, and instead strolled up and down the street past the clubs. Whereas from the 1920s to the early 1960s the action on Bourbon occurred behind closed doors, now it shifted to the sidewalks and street. Club owners desperately tried to cajole strollers indoors by deploying their shifty-eyed barkers to offer 2-for-1 drinks specials and assure that there were no cover charges or drink minimums. But some time during 1967, one unremembered enterprise came up with a better idea: instead of convincing people outside to buy drinks inside, why not sell inside drinks to people outside? One by one, bars, clubs, and restaurants on Bourbon opened tiny retail outlets in interstitial spaces such as carriageways, windows, and unused doorways, from which they sold beer, drinks, hot dogs, corn dogs, and snacks directly to pedestrians. So many opened that they competed among themselves, some by lowering their prices and others by offering increasingly large and colorful concoctions in creative crucibles. “Window hawking,” it was called, and it led to the new phenomena of “drink-carrying,” not to mention widespread ambulatory inebriation. The go-cup was born, and in a few years, it would completely rewire the social and economic dynamics of Bourbon Street.

Vending drinks directly to pedestrians through windows, secondary doorways, and interstitial spaces first began in the 1960s and forever changed Bourbon Street  [Richard Campanella]

Vending drinks directly to pedestrians through windows, secondary doorways, and interstitial spaces first began in the 1960s and forever changed Bourbon Street [Richard Campanella]

Everyone seemed to come out ahead with window hawking. On the supply side, it enabled owners to tap into the outdoor money stream with a minimum of capital improvements. It put less emphasis on décor, facilities, bathrooms, air conditioning, heating, and other costly overhead. It reduced the need for labor, particularly live entertainment. On the demand side, window hawking allowed tourists to stroll noncommittally amid all the eye-candy and people-watching, while drinking and eating at a fraction of the cost had they patronized a club or restaurant. And it eliminated the unknowns of a pricey floor show or musical set, not to mention a bartender with an attitude and an expectation of a generous tip. Young people particularly loved buying booze from windows because the hawkers rarely asked for proof of age, knowing that once the youths staggered away, their purchases were all but untraceable. Gift and novelty shops benefited as well because drink-carrying pedestrians were more inclined to meander into their shops and buy souvenirs than were clubbers, and the tipsier they were, the more likely they’d make a dumb purchase. Retail stores opened left and right to tap into the new foot traffic, and their best-selling merchandise was the favored garb of the hippie generation: T-shirts. Retailers threw open all their doors to divert the passing parade inside, flooded their shelf space with blinding white light, cranked up the atmospheric music, and blasted frigid air into the hot summer night, or warmth into those rare freezing winter eves—all of which further blurred the line between indoor and outdoor space.

In fact, not everyone came out ahead with window hawking. Traditional musicians lost their audiences. Businesses that could not structurally adapt lost out, and hoteliers fielded complaints from guests kept awake by the all-night racket. The city lost tax revenue in the often off-the-books window transactions, and taxpayers got stuck with picking up the unholy mess of discarded go-cups and wrappers each morning. The pedestrian parade also attracted panhandlers, pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and con men with treacherous entrapments aimed at gullible newcomers, not to mention Hare Krishnas and adherents of The Process, a splinter group of Scientologists headquartered in New Orleans. The smell of spilled beer, formerly unknown on Bourbon, became the least offensive ingredient of a malodorous new sensory-scape. “There are [also] latrine smells and disinfectant smells and booze smells and people smells and horse smells along with kitchen odors,” the Atlanta Constitution reported, “as if everything and body on Bourbon Street were being cooked in one grotesque bouillabaisse….” Add to this what one writer described as “enough rock-and-roll to send [a tourist] back to Minerva, Ohio,” and Bourbon-haters added a new word to their lexicon of loathing: disgusting.[3] A place that was once famous, fashionable, and pertinent to local lives had become infamous, embarrassing, and irrelevant. Locals stopped calling Bourbon “The Street,” an affectionate term dating to the 1940s, because they expunged it from their daily lives and had little reason to speak of it at all….

Later in the 1970s, Bourbon Street would collaborate with city government to stabilize itself, although conflicts with neighbors and debates about its role and influence on the city remain as polemical as ever.  

Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture, is the author of seven critically acclaimed books, including Geographies of New Orleans and Bienville’s Dilemma, winners of the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities Book of the Year awards, and Lincoln in New Orleans, winner of the Williams Prize for Louisiana History. Bourbon Street: A History was published by Louisiana State University Press in 2014. You can buy it here.

[1] Interview of David Winstein (1997) by Peggy Scott Laborde, “The French Quarter That Was,” televised documentary, WYES New Orleans, 1999.

[2] Howard Jacobs, “A City of Character—In Fact, a Whole Slue of ‘Em,” manuscript condensed and published in articles entitled “Keep-‘Em Laughing Attitude Contains Bourbon Street Critics,” and “Owner of Club Provides Souvenirs for Stealing,” Times-Picayune, January 10, 1970, p. 13, and January 11, 1970, p. 19.

[3] Art Seidenbaum, “Fleshy French Quarter—Treat or Trap?,” Atlantic Constitution, May 18, 1973, p. 1; Maurice Kowalewski, “Flies in the Bourbon: A Walking Tour of Bourbon Street Without the Benefit of Rose Colored Hurricane Glasses,”New Orleans Magazine, March 1973, pp. 75-93; “The Problems of Modern Jazz in New Orleans,” New Orleans Magazine, August 1967, reprinted in Jazz in New Orleans, The Postwar Years through 1970,” by Charles Suhor (Lanham,  Maryland and London: Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2001), p. 259.