New Orleans on Parade: a summary

New Orleans on Parade: a summary
June 30, 2009
Gregory Wood

New Orleans on Parade, Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City, by J. Mark Souther, published in 2006 by Louisiana State University Press, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how the New Orleans economy got to where it is today. While it details the birth, growth, and maturity of tourism, it touches on the reasons why other industries did not develop and why the port and the oil businesses failed to provide for prosperity and abundance.

It is part of the story of how the Queen City of the South first lost its place as the largest and most prosperous city in a relatively poor region to its regional competitors, like Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, and then declined to become a party destination for the rest of America – with little else to offer.

As Blanche Dubois might say, New Orleans became a city that now depends on the kindness of strangers, and sometimes they are not as kind to it as they might be in their more socially restrictive environment at home.

New Orleans immediately after WWII

With the election of Chep Morrison as mayor in 1946, many in the city hoped for a new beginning. Morrison believed in the future. He was a progressive, though not particularly about race. He sought to clean up the city's reputation for corruption and capitalize on its connections to Latin America. He was a modernist, and the City Hall that the current mayor is anxious to leave was part of a modern complex of government buildings that Morrison hoped would become a metaphor for the future of his city.

Morrison was, however, up against the same social and political elite of which he was a part. The “lords of misrule”, uptown members of the most prestigious carnival clubs, controlled the city's economic life through social exclusivity, and they were not about to join a bandwagon for change. They continued much of this control until the 1970s.

As Souther points out, while business leaders in Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston were bent on growth and business development, similar leaders in New Orleans just wanted to keep in in the family. That family did not include ethnic Orleanians, the Irish, Italians, Germans, and Jews, who ran the shops and provided labor for the patricians since the early 19th century. Of course, it did not include black Orleanians.

World War II brought little change to city's economy. While industrial production soared, the war created no real and lasting economic change, but it did do one very important thing. It introduced a generation of soldiers and sailors from all over America to charms of the city and to both the romance and evils of the French Quarter.


Until the 1960s, New Orleans had gradually been become more like other American cities. There was no more music in the city in the 1940s than in any other city of similar size in America. Plans were made to tear down old neighborhoods and modernize.
Even the French Quarter was often looked at as a dreadful slum with run down houses and hard pressed, low income residents. It was a place to be “renewed” not preserved.

That was slowly changing. Handfuls of preservation minded middle-class residents had been moving into the French Quarter since the 1920s, and that movement accelerated after WWII, so by 1960 the preservation movement was getting its legs.

The French Quarter was also becoming a profit center. As tourism boomed across America with the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, veterans returned to the city to once again enjoy the Quarter. There was little else in the city they cared to see and use.

Tourism commercialization began to work in favor of the preservationists. You don't want to destroy the goose laying the golden eggs. At the same time, it also worked against them as entrepreneurs saw opportunity for profit in the Vieux Carre that required, in their eyes, the destruction of some of the past.

These entrepreneurs were not of the anointed social and business elite of the past. The rise of these new business leaders was a strong indication of things to come.

It was at this time that the large and smaller replica hotels in the French Quarter were built on the backs of older buildings to the dismay of the growing preservation movement.

The Wonder Years

The 1960s and 1970s could be considered a golden era in New Orleans. While black Orleanians were still largely left out of the city's civic and economic life in the early part of this period, the racial environment began to change in the 70s. The public accommodation laws finally were obeyed.

The city gained the Saints franchise after a promise of true integration in public. The Superdome was built. The oil boom of the 70s and early 80s papered over fundamental problems with the city's economy but provided an encouraging building program in the Central Business District.

Moon Landrieu, a progressive mayor, was elected. In 1978, Dutch Morial was elected as the city became majority black.

Selling the past

With the city full of sailors and soldiers during WWII yearning for a New Orleans experience, traditional New Orleans jazz began to make a small comeback. The architectural preservationists evolved into cultural preservationists and were joined by an even larger group by the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While the social and economic elites of the city were largely indifferent to cultural preservation at that time, ethnic whites began to see the potential for economic benefit in New Orleans unique historical culture. Many embraced it as an economic benefit to the city.

By the early 70s, there were also those warning that the port and tourism could not sustain a solid economic base for the city and grow jobs desperately needed by large numbers of lower income residents.

You Gotta Go See the Mardi Gras

With a few exceptions like the Zulu parade and club and some middle class carnival krewes, Carnival had been the domain of an uptown social and economic elite for a hundred years. All that was about to change.

Young entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to use Carnival as a way to promote hospitality based businesses. They also saw holes in the parade schedule during the weekend before Mardi Gras.

Grasping le boeuf by the horns, these young businessmen created the super krewes, Bacchus and Endymion, and it changed Carnival forever. These krewes helped make Carnival the anchor of the city hospitality industry. They created a perfect four day weekend for visitors to enjoy a long weekend stay in the city culminating in the greatest free show on earth.

While the city had always been lax in funding tourism marketing, Mardi Gras offered significant free advertising.

With the commercialization and nationalization of Carnival, New Orleans was becoming a significant national tourist destination.

And then the Bust

The city was on a roll by the end of the 1970s, and civic promoters decided to take advantage of it. Their new creation was the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair.

Unfortunately, it did not work. It did provide the city with considerably more hotel space. Then the whammy of the oil bust pounded the city's economy. The new hotels sat with low occupancy levels until the recession of the early 1990s turned around.

With the national boom of the 90s, the city built a tourism boom. With oil gone and the port requiring unavailable public financing to modernize, tourism was all that was left.

Tourism marketing helped create a cultural facade to please visitors but the city's organic character began to change rapidly and fade. Residents moved out of the French Quarter, and white flight had taken a toll of the former working class neighborhoods throughout the city.

Many thought the city was being Disneyfied, hotels, the Moonwalk, the Aquarium, the Jax brewery shops, the Riverwalk and the Convention Center were developed. All added to the city's hospitality inventory but all changed the character of the city of preservation.

One Trick Pony

With the oil bust, hospitality became the city's “one trick pony”. It was the only business growing jobs in the city, even if those jobs were relatively low paying compared to the oil jobs that left for Houston.

The city's reliance on tourism jobs probably promoted the vulgarization of the city beyond the sleaziness of Bourbon Street. New Orleans became a place to do things you would not do in your hometown, though this never reached the level of actually promoting “what happens in New Orleans stays in New Orleans” over the airwaves.

New Orleans famed social tolerance and laissez faire social mores were often taken to a new low and winked at much of the time by city government, though early in the 50s and 60s there were some attempts to “clean up” Bourbon Street.

Many preservationists and residents bemoaned their belief that the FQ had become a low class Potemkin village of T shirt shops and tawdry souvenir vendors. It had become profitable for the city to sell sleaze.

At no time did hospitality provide prosperity. It was just all the city had to sell.

At the same time, since there was little else besides preservation to market, preservation often took precedence over any type of development.

By the 1990s, black Orleanians had finally been able to participate in the benefits of hospitality, and blacks saw it as a way to promote their own cultural heritage. So, by default the vested interests in the city, except for the mostly now powerless Uptown social elite, joined to make tourism the city's only real product.

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