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Interview: Richard Campanella

Will Coviello talks with the Tulane University geographer about his book Bourbon Street



If anyone, local or visitor, has ever told you he or she was going to Bourbon Street for academic or research purposes, there was good reason to be skeptical. No serious, in-depth book or scholarly paper on the strip has ever been published. Until now.

  Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella's Bourbon Street: A History (LSU Press) explores the history and life of New Orleans' most famous street. And yes, he did plenty of primary research.

  "Every 10 days for a year, from 2010 to 2011, I would go up and down Bourbon Street with counters in each hand," Campanella says. "For two minutes, I'd measure pedestrian flows — by gender; I'd count the number of people on balconies. There's order and structure to how people move. Once you analyze it as social artifact, you realize how fascinating it is."

  His detailed portrait of Bourbon Street is far from being just a cold look at numbers. As Campanella notes in his preface and explores in chapters focusing on the last 70 years, the loudest opinions about Bourbon Street are from people who love it or hate it, but mostly hate it. The street makes strange bedfellows of fundamentalist Christians, who denounce its debauchery, and liberals and hipsters who dismiss it or ridicule its lack of "authenticity."

  "I am fascinated that people hate it," he says. "I am not missioned to make people not hate it. Phenomena that's popular with the masses gets less emphasis until the passage of time intervenes and we see it in a different light."

  As a frontier and port city, New Orleans has always had rough and tumble districts known for drinking and vice, he notes, and there's no reason to ignore them.

  "People used to condemn Storyville as being something offensive and deviant from the New Orleans story," Campanella says. "Now we look at it as essential to the New Orleans story. There's all sorts of scholarship about it."

  But it isn't vice that drew him to Bourbon Street. It's simply unavoidable that the strip has drawn many millions of visitors and is inextricably associated with the city.

  "Whenever tens of millions of people come together, complexity ensues," he says. "That's in addition to 18th- and 19th-century buildings, the municipal history, the social and ethnic history, the craftsmen who worked on the street."

  The book leaves no stone unturned, from the layout of the French Quarter streets by early colonists to the writings of recent restaurant reviewers, the Rev. Grant Storms' protests at Southern Decadence and local business owners that have staked space and claims of providing alternatives to Bourbon Street's attractions. In his research, Campanella pored through ledgers recording the first concert hall licenses, looked at the rise of nightclubs in the 1920s and examined vice records from the 1950s and District Attorney Jim Garrison's targeted crackdowns.

  Campanella has published six books about New Orleans, including Geographies of New Orleans, but he only became interested in Bourbon Street following Hurricane Katrina, when he noticed how the strip jumped back to life.

  "I myself went through an obligatory phase where if one is a serious student of the city, you have to hate Bourbon Street." he says. "Katrina helped me realize how arrogant and silly that was. Once I stopped hating, I started learning."

  Campanella is quick to stress that he is not defending the street or taking a position on its virtues or vices.

  "It's not about what I think of the music or the food there," he says. "It's about me as a geographer tying to explain this fundamentally historical, geographical phenomenon. ... If people hate Bourbon Street, that's fine with me. If they love it, that's fine with me too."

  Many of the people who enjoy the street, for whatever reason, aren't as outspoken about it as those on the polarized extremes. Who are they?

  "Most working-to-middle class people in the metro area see Bourbon Street as harmless, naughty fun," Campanella says. "They go there after [New Orleans] Saints games. They don't regularly go there. They generally like it and roll their eyes and say, 'Oh, that Bourbon Street.'"

  Denunciations of the strip don't change that. Nor do the throngs of party-hearty tourists.

  "Culturally savvy newcomers have learned that heaping disdain on Bourbon Street as soon as possible exhibits your cultural bona fides and showcases your sophistication," Campanella says, providing an example: "'If I hate that which is not real, then I must be real.' People use Bourbon to illustrate to others that they are a savvy insider, they have taste and they know what's culturally 'authentic.'"

  Instead, Campanella invites people to explore the space.

  "What's fascinated me about it is that this phenomenon has no inventor, it has no board of directors, it has no head," Campanella says. "It bubbled up from New Orleans society by New Orleanians, disproportionately immigrants. It emerged to become what it is today locally. Here we are relishing localism and dismissing one of the most economically successful fruits of localism."

  But there's plenty of opportunity for more research, Campanella says. "My book just scratches the surface."

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