“Hope & New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names” by Sally Asher.
The History Press, 2014. $19.99.
“Bourbon Street: A History” by Richard Campanella. LSU Press, 2014. $35.
Place names are a fascinating slice of culture, especially in Louisiana, which has a long and storied past, and double especially in New Orleans, which gives new definitions to “long and storied.”
Sally Asher tackles New Orleans’ excessively voweled streets in an easy-to-use guidebook, “Hope & New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names.”
It is not comprehensive, but it does include the more perplexing thoroughfares (Tchoupitoulas and Goodchildren, I’m looking at you), including pronunciation guides. Bless you, Sally.
Asher takes the extra step of tracing streets back to inception and also includes biographies where appropriate. The book is arranged not by geography, but by types of names — there are chapters for explorers and founders, plantation belles and owners, politicians, pirates and military heroes, as well as for names meant to evoke a certain dream and names seemingly plucked from thin air.
Take, for example, Prytania Street. “The word Prytania does not exist anywhere except in the streets of New Orleans,” Asher writes, adding that it was inspired by the ancient Greek prytaneum, or palace of the people, which, like the Coliseum meant to be at the end of Colisuem Street, never materialized.
The most famous New Orleans street of them all, Bourbon, is included in Asher’s book but also recently got it’s own tome from Richard Campanella and the LSU Press. “Bourbon Street: A History” is a fantastically in-depth examination of what may be the most famous street in America.
He gets past the cabarets, huge ass beers, hand grenades and beads and drills down into the what The Street really is — the beating heart of American culture — and to what others wish it wasn’t — the most powerful and lasting global ambassador Louisiana has yet created.
Campanella’s Bourbon is more than just a street, and this history covers more than just Bourbon. It is, in many ways, a history of New Orleans, or, rather, a history of what New Orleans makes itself out to be. He doesn’t stop there. He delves into the polarizing nature of modern Bourbon Street and the argument over the authentic New Orleans experience.
“A hundred years ago, scholars of the Old Guard … took it upon themselves to scribe the ‘real’ history and culture of New Orleans.
They estemmed the French founders, the aristocracy, the grand edifices, and the Confederate generals, and shunted aside the poor, blacks, women, laborers, shotgun shacks, and anything else they judged to be sidebars to the fault-free, triumphant, ‘authentic’ New Orleans narrative,” Campanella writes. “Now, it’s precisely reversed: scholars today find plenty of fault in the historic inequities of wealth and power, roll their eyes at the cobwebbed icons of old, and adulate those marginalized by the musty patricians of the past. What happened? Did the inauthentic become authentic? The fake real?”
It is also a history of American travel and leisure, of popular music, and of trade and commerce. Because, as Campanella shows, Bourbon residents past and present are incredibly sensitive to what sells.
“Bourbonites really don’t give a damn; if they cry crocodile tears at all, they do so all the way to the bank. They’ll address that tastelessness thing if and only if those trips to the bank start bearing shrinking sacks of cash,” Campanella writes.
That may sound like Bourbon Street is a cold, harsh place, but Campanella manages to make the point while still eliciting feelings of fondness from his reader.
Bourbon Street is what it is, for better or for worse, a place that bends authenticity as easily as it does morality, normalcy, and day and night. And what it is, as Campanella proves, is a global phenonmenon, irrevocably married to Louisiana’s image on what may be, at this point, a galactic level.