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c. 1950s

Vintage color photos of Bourbon Street in the 1950s

At the time, more than 50 “exotic” shows vied for attention along the 13 blocks.

There is absolutely no shortage of bars lining both sides of Bourbon Street’s 13 blocks. But then there has to be, because there is also no shortage of patrons. The total number of visitors to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street each year is roughly 18 million.

Drunk history

The Street takes its name from the House of Bourbon, the ruling family of France in the early 18th century. New Orleans was founded in 1718, when Louisiana was under French rule as New France. Three years later, the streets of the city were laid out, and Bourbon Street was christened in honor of the French king.

But it was another 18th century European superpower that generated much of Bourbon Street’s historic architecture. In 1763 New Orleans was turned over to Spain, and the city would be significantly rebuilt after the great fire of 1788. Less than one-fifth of French New Orleans survived the devastation, and the city — including Bourbon Street — was reconstructed under Spanish patronage.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 incorporated Louisiana, and New Orleans, into the United States. But it remained a city apart. With little objective truth, and largely a result of exoticism projected onto Creoles — people born in Louisiana — the city grew a reputation for behavior unrestricted by conventional moral codes.

Bourbon Street was at the city’s epicenter. Travelers, traders and tourists flocked to its bars and brothels, especially the red light district of Storyville. And although Bourbon Street is not the only geographic claimant to this particular crown, it became the birthplace of a new musical sound: jazz, evolving from the music played in the Storyville bordellos.

Bourbon Street post-Katrina

Today, while still a tourism (and thus economic) powerhouse at the heart of the city, Bourbon Street has been criticized for its Disney-fication. This has been a difficult road for city authorities to walk, wishing to preserve a unique American microculture while ensuring the influx of tourists remained entertained, but not scandalized. Around 30% of New Orleans’ budget comes from those tourists.

In 2005, the calamitous impact of Hurricane Katrina — while leaving Bourbon Street largely intact — was all too evident. Around 10 million people visited New Orleans in 2004. In 2006, visitor numbers shrank to under four million. The city is still recovering.

These color photographs date from the 1950s, at a time when more than 50 “exotic” entertainment shows vied for attention along the 13 blocks.

Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
Ivan Dmitri / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

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