Printer Friendly

Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the emergence of modern tourism 1918-1945: New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City.

Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism 1918-1945. By Anthony J. Stanonis (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006. 317 pp. $22.95).

New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City. By J. Mark Souther (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. 303 pp. $34.95).

Today, we know it as "The Big Easy," a nickname that came to popularity only in the 1970s. Over the past century, however, New Orleans has changed its name more times than a secret agent. It has long been called "The Crescent City" for the shape it takes upon the Louisiana shoreline. In the 1910s, it was "The Gateway to the Mississippi Valley" and a decade later adopted the tagline "America's Most Interesting City." By the late 1930s, New Orleans was "The City that Care Forgot," referencing the spirit of relaxation for which it is famous. The city's various nicknames reflect more than monikers for attracting tourists; as illustrated through these two books, twentieth-century New Orleans has struggled to define itself. The city has wrestled with its dichotomous reputation as both a place to party and a cultural haven.

Stanonis' Creating the Big Easy and Souther's New Orleans on Parade contribute much to the history of tourism, a field that has seen significant growth in the past five years, as case studies emerge to complement literature on the nationwide rise of travel in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Together, the two books offer readers an in-depth look at the role of tourism in complicating the city's already complicated social, cultural and economic landscape. With both an apathetic white elite and a profit-focused set of entrepreneurs looking to prop up a declining port business, New Orleans was slow to embrace leisure as a source of income. Both authors argue that for decades, tourism remained a second choice to conventional industries. However, once established as a viable revenue maker, tourism defined the city's agenda, dictating race relations, urban planning and cultural endeavors.(1)

The books have much in common. Stanonis looks at how the city first turned to tourism during the interwar period; amid the ebb and flow of federal, state, and local funds, tourism became a taxable cash cow that financed municipal projects and relieved the tax burden of residents. He argues that as more Americans traveled during the 1920s, New Orleans carefully crafted its image as a culturally unique and cosmopolitan city. Its yearly celebrations of Mardi Gras and Spring Fiesta gave white visitors a toned-down taste of the city's racial diversity. Stanonis also considers the role of women as preservationists and community activists who reclaimed public space from male-oriented activities. His research is exhaustive, with sources including collections of papers from prominent citizens, government records, national periodicals, and the many literary accounts of the city during the era.

Souther picks up where Stanonis leaves off. Souther argues that following World War II, tourism defined everything from the city's public policy and economy to its social relations and spatial layout. As the city's attempts to become a national center for commerce and industry were not realized in the post-war era, New Orleans used tourism to stabilize and expand its economy. Unable to oneup thriving metropolises such as Houston or Atlanta, the city created a romanticized image of its past, complete with racial inequities and sanitized versions of the French Quarter and Mardi Gras. Ultimately, "tourism preserved cultural distinctiveness even as it simplified it into a more salable package." Race plays heavily into souther's argument; as white tourists sought out "authentic" experiences, African Americans were cast as the smiling street musician, the praline salesgirl or the voodoo priestess. With so much of its economy invested in these stereotypes, New Orleans struggled during the second half of the century to keep up with changing national standards of racial equality. (2)

On their own terms, these two books provide insight into the interplay among tourism, city policymaking and the manipulation of cultural practices to serve economic interests. Like other works on the history of tourism, both books offer something for everyone. Scholars interested in the development of Southern cities would find much here, as would those who focus on urban festivals, jazz music, neighborhood preservation or community activism. Stanonis leans more towards a cultural analysis of the growth of tourism, as Souther stresses political and economic motives for encouraging the industry. Stanonis's cast of characters is perhaps a bit more diverse than those in Souther's story. Despite these differences, the books take on pronounced meaning when viewed in tandem, as two similar themes bind their analyses together across the seventy-year period studied.

The relationship between the growth of tourism and the construction of public image is fundamental to both histories. The battle to redeem the city's respectability was fought on political, socioeconomic and cultural grounds. "Cleaning up" New Orleans was not only a physical process that called for modernizing municipal services and the relocation of prostitutes from the street corner to the hotel room. Both authors argue that the city's promoters, entrepreneurs and politicians were forever trying to strike a balance between image and reality. Via an ongoing and well-orchestrated publicity campaign spanning half a century, the city's bigwigs used the national media to sell the image of New Orleans as rehabilitated, while turning a blind eye to many of the vices that lured in visitors. Stanonis traces the efforts to the 1920s and the agendas of local businessmen and promoters to portray the city as modern, efficient and progressive. Souther argues that it was not until the wake of World War II that the city began to actively combat its unsavory image, one that was only furthered by stories of GIs living it up in New Orleans while on leave. It was when the city became truly reliant on tourism's dollars that it began to pay significant attention to its public persona. How successful New Orleans was in finding a happy medium is a question that neither book answers directly, but the answer seems to be "not very".

The cultivation of the convention trade, for example, rested heavily on New Orleans's public image, as well as the health of other aspects of the tourism industry. In the 1920s, says Stanonis, conventions provided the industry's lifeblood. In 1922, the city hosted meetings for 48 organizations, brought in nearly 60,000 visitors and more than $2.5 million. In the 1930s, efforts focused on enticing individuals rather than groups. By the late 1940s, says Souther, the convention business was dead as the city reached housing capacity due to limited available accommodations; regular tourists easily filled vacant rooms and hoteliers avoided giving group discounts. In the civil rights era, the city's racial segregation and its populace's general maltreatment of African Americans proved to be one of its biggest stumbling blocks in reviving the convention business,(3)

Both authors argue that recruitment of tourists required a creative reinterpretation of New Orleans' past. The most informative chapters in both books deal with how the city's leaders recast its history in a more palatable light in efforts to revamp its reputation. Stanonis emphases the removal of vice from public space. For example, the city's "Frenchness," which had previously stood as a symbol of its inhabitants' loose moral standards and sexual tolerance, was, by the 1930s, deemed quaint and culturally significant. Historic preservationists, many of them female, championed the sanctity of the French Quarter, which had for decades been the home of Italian immigrants, Creole families on long-held homesteads, and relocated prostitutes. As the middle-class reclaimed the French Quarter, it became the site of many debates as new residents fought an uphill and decade-enduring battle to preserve the area's historic integrity amid encroaching tourist interests. Stanonis writes, "French Quarter preservation--and tourism, for that matter--depended on the careful crafting of the neighborhood's malleable image." With the combined efforts of preservationists and tourism promoters, the French Quarter was transformed from raunchy to romantic.(4)

A second key theme to both books is how the growing tourist trade fundamentally shaped the city's social relations. Race is central to Stanonis's and, to a larger degree, Souther's analysis. Both argue that the tourist industry was created by whites and directed towards a white audience. Much like Florida's Seminole Indian villages or San Francisco's Chinatown, tourism to New Orleans was partly based on racialized images that exaggerated differences and allowed visitors to explore the exotic while maintaining a safe distance. Both authors use the example of jazz music to illustrate how decisively white tourism promoters co-opted African-American cultural practices when it served their economic purposes. Souther asserts that racial tension continually undermined the stability of the city's tourism; riots in the 1950s and 1960s threatened to call off Carnival, the city's racial climate jeopardized the attraction of a professional football team and violence towards blacks brought New Orleans public shame as it remained unfazed by the Civil Rights Movement.

Class, too, was affected by the growth of the tourist industry, say Stanonis and Souther. As a crop of progress-minded leaders emerged during the period studied to replace the old guard of white elites, many traditions, such as Mardi Gras and Spring Fiesta, were no longer about exhibiting social power; rather, they became venues for tourist participation. Souther writes, "For newer leaders, however, progress meant turning to tradition by enshrining the image of New Orleans's heritage while embracing social change." Tourists and their wallets created a new and powerful class of tourist-focused businessmen and were instrumental in redefining the class structure of New Orleans.(5)

Like most strong history books, Stanonis and Souther's accounts of tourism to New Orleans provoke as many questions as they answer. For example, how unique was New Orleans in the crafting of its public image? The authors mention other historic southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah that played up their heritage to attract travelers and discuss how their situations were both similar and different to New Orleans. Miami Beach would make a fitting comparison, as it was also becoming a popular destination around the same time. It, too, wrestled with racial tension, a somewhat seedy reputation and the non-stop demands of tourists. Of course, a multi-city comparison is beyond the scope of either book, but such as study would be a valuable addition to the historiography.

While the two books do have much in common, their drawbacks are their own. In his discussion of race, Stanonis allows for only a limited sense of agency, and the reader is left wondering how African Americans dealt with the restrictions and injustices of the developing tourist industry. Souther gives a more detailed analysis of the role of race and, hence, devotes more attention to how African Americans made attempts to reclaim control over their cultural practices. However, Souther's racial argument is limited in that it deals primarily with American Americans. The situations of other "outsiders," such as Creoles, Catholics, other races, and, most noticeably, women, are not directly addressed.

Such nuanced criticism is petty, as these detailed and thought-provoking studies are stellar examples of the new face of the history of tourism. Tourism and leisure studies are no longer simply cultural analyses of how the elite spent their downtime. As illustrated in both of these books, tourism can be used as lens through which one can gauge broader social, cultural and economic change. While other cities would indeed benefit from such careful study, there are few American cities that could prove as fascinating and fertile ground for such an inquiry as does New Orleans.

Carnegie Mellon University

Deirdre Clemente


(1.) Recent case studies on the influence of tourism on particular cities include: Chris Wilson, Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Region: Traditions (Albuquerque, 1997); Eugene P. Moehring, Resort City in the Sunbelt: Las Vegas, 1930-2000 (Reno, NV,2000); Jon Sterngass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Coney Island, Newport, and Saratoga Spring (Baltimore, 2001). Important texts on the history of tourism in America include: David Wrobel and Patirick Long eds., Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West: Tourism in the American West (Lawrence, KS, 1998); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1800-1940 (Washington, D.C., 2001); Catherine Cocks, Doing the Town: The Rise of Urban Tourism in the United States, 1850-1915 (Berkeley, 2001).

(2.) J. Mark Souther. New Orleans on Parade, 14. Souther borrows the notion of the "Devil's Bargain" as presented by Hal Rothman in his book Devil's Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence, KS, 1998). Rothman argues that cities that become dependent on tourism often do so by allowing "neonatives" or outsiders with capital to co-opt control of development.

(3.) Stanonis, Creating the Big Easy, p. 47.

(4.) Stanonis, Creating the Big Easy, p. 151.

(5.) Souther, New Orleans on Parade, p. 12.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Previous Article:Strength through joy: consumerism and mass tourism in the third reich.
Next Article:Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation.

Related Articles
Glanton's Guide to African-American New York.
Creating the Big Easy.
Creating the Big Easy; New Orleans and the emergence of modern tourism, 1918-1945.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters