“It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.”
I am not sure how many in New Orleans would feel about this statement, but after reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, I understand why that journey may be a bit difficult to make. For thirty years, the Crescent City was at war with itself: the Reformers in one corner, who wanted a New Orleans that was wholesome and representative of the “better half,” and the purveyors of vice in the other, who found nothing wrong with providing residents and visitors alike with all things pleasurable.
Empire of Sin is an absolute wealth of information regarding New Orleans’ rich history, specifically the rise and fall of Storyville, an area known for its brothels, saloons and jazz halls. I honestly knew nothing about this place or its so-called mayor Thomas C. Anderson, but Krist’s exhaustive research brought both the area and its famous leader to life, along with countless other colorful characters. From Storyville madams Josie Lobrano, Lulu White and Willie V. Piazza, to jazz greats Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, Krist included them all and their influences on the Crescent City. Storyville was ripe with sin: prostitution, gambling, drinking and jazz were the norm and Tom Anderson had his hands in them all. His reign and eventual downfall over the vice trade is described in great detail, giving readers an inside look at how far many went to create their own version of New Orleans.
Krist did not shy away from the subject of race relations in New Orleans, which would have rung hollow had it not been discussed. Louisiana is in the South, after all, but I was surprised to learn about the treatment of Italians in New Orleans. One particular event, the lynching of Antonio Bagnetto and Emmanuele Polizzi at Parish Prison and the immediate events afterwards, was shocking but also reminiscent of the picnics and photographs taken after the lynching of unarmed Black men across the South. Jim Crow played a huge part in changing the atmosphere in the city from one of tolerance and diversity to that of separation and hatred. Krist could have easily glossed over this subject, but he tackled it head on, using the words of those who lived through it as a proverbial looking glass.
Empire of Sin can sometimes read like a text book, but only because of the amount of information crammed into it. For the most part, it is informative, engaging and just plain interesting. I highly recommend it.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.