Here’s a challenge, the next time you visit New Orleans. Head to Bourbon Street where it intersects with Iberville Street and start walking downriver. Whether you find the street appealing or appalling doesn’t matter. This most prominent corridor of the most historic part of the city deserves a stroll. I’d suggest going at twilight, when it’s pleasantly garish and the neon is flickering on and the inebriety hasn’t yet become soiled and frayed, and the imbibers haven’t yet become unspooled. Now walk nine blocks until you get to St. Philip Street and see if you can do so without hearing one of three songs: “Mustang Sally,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” I’m pretty sure this cannot be done. My house is not far away, and I walk or bike the length of Bourbon Street once or twice each week. The soundtrack hasn’t really changed in the 15 years I’ve lived here.
Bourbon Street is the ancestor of Las Vegas, the place where normally inhibited people come to do things they can’t do at home. Like walk down the street drinking a Hurricane from an open container, a rite of passage for new arrivals. You can tell who the newcomers are because they have mildly culpable looks on their faces, as if they’re getting away with something, and they furtively scan the crowd, hoping others will notice them. Partial public nudity was once part of this scene, but it has declined in our age of social media. What happens on Bourbon Street no longer stays on Bourbon Street but appears on your friends’ phones milliseconds later.
With all the colorful commotion on the Bourbon Street stage, few visitors actually notice the remarkable stage setting. The street is filled with fine early-19th-century buildings, including the severely elegant Old Absinthe House, a cornerstone bar that was built around 1806. The street blossomed architecturally in the mid-19th century and has essentially been frozen in time since the 1930s, when a sweeping historic preservation law was enacted. At St. Philip Street is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a venerable bar built sometime between 1722 and 1732 that has withstood hurricanes (meteorological, not alcoholic), termites, and the depredations of local lore—that it was once owned, for example, by the pirate Jean Lafitte and was once a blacksmith shop. Along the way are ancient one- and two-story buildings, early residences that evolved into liveries and ironwork shops, and then Chinese laundries and nightclubs with stages and coat-check windows.
The late 1960s brought changes in both mores and municipal codes that led to a profusion of bars specializing in “window-hawking,” or selling drinks in go-cups. The Creole townhouses lining the street found new life, and bar owners set up drink stations in doorways unused for decades. Patrons thrilled to the sounds of trad jazz. “Al Hirt’s trumpet and Pete Fountain’s clarinet created the soundtrack of 1960s Bourbon Street,” the Times-Picayune noted in a 2017 article.
In the aftermath of the 1984 World’s Fair, Bourbon Street was reshaped again. This is when the new soundtrack, with its cover-band repertoire, became a fixture. That Bourbon Street’s buildings have endured—and provided versatile, durable shells for new enterprises—is a testament to the workmanship of those who made them. I’m most impressed that the structures have survived the sonic shaking from modern sound systems. When yet another rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” booms from one of the establishments, you feel the thrum in your sternum and have the sense that the mortar must be shaking out from between the bricks, like fillings from teeth. Yet the buildings remain defiant. The go-drinks are large, bright, and lurid. Fashion may be more up-to-date—if baggy jeans and baggy sweatshirts are considered fashion—but I’d wager that you’d see more mullets on Bourbon Street in an hour than in a month almost anywhere else. (These are not the ironic mullets that have been cropping up of late, but mullets with pedigree.) The street seems to be full of folks who found their stride in high school and stuck with what worked well into middle age. It’s a boulevard of bros and bridesmaids who flock here for the spectacle of themselves. Even as you sense the street’s heroic, immutable quality, you can sometimes detect another scent along with last night’s beer and the booze: it’s the sour smell of persistent nostalgia.
The minor miracle that is Bourbon Street was nicely captured by Tulane geographer Richard Campanella. “The dizzying, deafening artifact we see today originated organically, without an inventor or a vision or a legislative act,” he wrote in his magisterial Bourbon Street: A History. “There is no Bourbon Street logo, no headquarters, no board of directors, no visitors’ center, no brochure, not even a website. The nightlife that made the street famous—after two hundred years of utter normalcy—was created spontaneously by a cast of local characters, who, in an uncoordinated attempt to make a living individually, succeeded collectively.”
In the summer, when it’s too sweltering to take midday walks, I make a point to wake at dawn and stroll through the French Quarter before the sun’s death rays grow fatal. I wade through ankle-deep piles of detritus from the night before—plastic drink containers shaped like hand grenades and small fish aquaria, the spent lemon and lime wedges, the discarded bridesmaids’ tiaras. And I walk until I meet the cleaning crew coming the other way.
In a city famous for dysfunction, this Bourbon Street cleaning crew operates like a team of Navy SEALs. Men with brooms move ahead in a phalanx, pushing the night’s sidewalk trash into the streets. Two mechanical Elgin Pelican sweepers swoop through with whirling brushes and suction up the bulk of the litter. And then comes the pressure washer on a trailer pulled behind a pickup truck and manned on either side by guys who herd smaller debris ahead, creating a small blizzard of cup lids and plastic forks, after which they abrade the street with soapy water and strip off the crust of the previous night.
I duck into a doorway to watch them pass, and when they depart, everything positively gleams in the rising sun, like a gilded street in a television ad. It’s a complete reset, like a dream that lifts away the dross of the day before and leaves you feeling refreshed for a new day. The street is suddenly empty, as tidy as a diorama. I then notice the intricate cornices and the cast-iron balconies and the lampposts with errant strings of beads. I enjoy the quiet, cherish the repose—I am almost reluctant to move on. Soon the crowds will come thronging back to explore the wilds of what one day will be called Mustang Sally National Park, one of the great marvels of modern life.
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