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A Tale of Two Cities

St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square

If you follow my page on Facebook, you have noticed that I was recently in New Orleans for an all-too-short visit. This was the fourth time that I’ve gone to “The Big Easy,” and every time I fall more in love with it. Something about the wrought iron filigree that adorns the patios and balconies of the buildings, the smell of jasmine on nearly every street, and, of course, the music. New Orleans is also the birthplace of jazz, and it’s still one of the best things to experience in the city. I could wander up and down Frenchmen Street for hours, and I have! Under the current circumstances not every jazz club is as hopping as it used to be, but brighter days are right around the corner. The energy is definitely still there. As unlikely as you may think, New Orleans and DC have a few things in common. First, both were designed by Frenchmen. The grid layout for the French Quarter was designed in 1718 by French (Canadian) Naval Officer Jean-Baptiste Bienville, also considered the founder of New Orleans city. Pierre L’Enfant, a Parisian, designed the original plan for the nation’s capital, also based on a grid. Each laid their plans on sites near water for access to easy transportation, but chose spots along the banks that were on relatively high ground (okay, George Washington chose the spot for the city, but l'Enfant worked within the landscape). Another commonality: New Orleans was the birthplace of a unique form of music that came from its African American population: Jazz. DC was the birthplace of another unique form of music that came from its African American population: Go Go. Notably, both cities have historically high percentages of African American residents. In addition, DC had a notorious red-light district: Murder Bay/Hookers Division. New Orleans had an arguably more notorious red-light district: Storyville.

Storyville, which is now known as the "Faubourg/Treme" neighborhood, was one city councilman's attempt to contain and regulate prostitution in the city from 1897 - 1917. That man was Sidney Story, hence the eventual name of the neighborhood. He designated approximately 38 city blocks (wow!) where prostitution was essentially legal. In a hilarious coincidence for my purposes, this neighborhood was also referred to as....The District. Storyville, much like DC's Murder Bay, had its share of powerful Madams. The most famous was Lulu White, who ran Mahogany Hall.

Madam Lulu White

She was Storyville's Mary Ann Hall in that she ran the most opulent pleasure house in town, with the most employees anywhere in their respective cities (Hall had 18, White had 40!). An enterprising woman, Lulu even published brochures that featured descriptions of the services they offered, the pictures of her girls, as well as a picture of herself. She was one of the main features in a document called the "Blue Book," a tourist guide to entertainment in the city, including the pleasure houses of Storyville. I'm not sure if it was the inspiration for the blue book, but the Military Provost Guard in DC had created a similar document called the "Provost Guide", which like the blue book contained the names, addresses, number of girls, and most notably a "rating" for the quality of the establishment. The Provost Guide predates the Blue Book by about 35 years. Most of Murder Bay's brothels closed or went underground when DC made prostitution illegal in 1914. Storyville experienced the same decline soon after when Louisiana made prostitution illegal in 1917.

Speaking of Storyville, there’s another DC connection. Storyville was where two jazz greats got their start and then went on to leave their mark on the DC jazz scene: Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Armstrong had played in almost every major jazz club along U Street: The Howard Theater, Lincoln Theater, Bali Club, Crystal Caverns, etc. Jelly Roll Morton actually lived in DC for a few years. Jelly Roll's self-claim to fame was that he had invented jazz, which got him some criticism. However, to give credit where credit is due, he was one of the first to start regularly arranging and composing jazz. Jelly Roll spent approximately three years in DC, from 1935-38. His home performance venue was the Jungle Inn at 1211 U Street - which is now Ben's Next Door. I always love sharing this fact with my groups on the Harlem Renaissance in DC walking tour. Many already knew Ben's Next Door was popular because of its connection to Ben's Chili Bowl (it's owned and run by the same family), but no idea about its jazz history.

Two of my lovely guests and friends during our stop at the historic Ben's Chili Bowl and Ben's Next Door.

Is it due to these connections that I have so much love for these two cities, DC and NOLA? No, but they are fun to point out. So, my dear friends, the next time you're in either city I hope you feel compelled to learn more about their different histories. Then, come on my Madams of DC and Harlem Renaissance in DC tours if these subjects appeal to you. Tickets can be bought at As the creoles say: Laissez les bontemps rouler!!!

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