Replicating Bourbon Street


Editor’s note: following is an excerpt from Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella’s new book, “Bourbon Street: A History” (LSU Press, 2014), which traces New Orleans’ most famous and infamous space from its obscure colonial origins to its widespread reknown today. This chapter, titled “Replicating Bourbon Street: Spatial and Linguistic Diffusion” and drawn from a section called “Bourbon Street as a Social Artifact,” recounts how this brand has spread worldwide and become part of the language—to both the benefit and chagrin of New Orleans.

Perhaps the best evidence of Bourbon Street’s success is the fact that, like jazz, it has diffused worldwide. It’s a claim few other streets can make. As early as the 1950s, a nightclub named “Bourbon Street” operated in New York City, and apparently successfully, because in 1957 the Dupont family formed a corporation to purchase it with plans to bring “Mambo City” entertainment to clubs named Bourbon Street in Miami and Chicago.1 Today, at least 160 businesses throughout the United States and Canada have “Bourbon Street” in their names and themes; 77 percent are restaurants, bars, and clubs; 11 percent are retailers (mostly of party and novelty items); and the remainder are caterers, banquet halls, hotels, and casinos—more eating, drinking, and entertaining. They span coast to coast, from Key West to Edmonton and from San Diego to Montreal. Greater New York has eleven, while Calgary has six, as does San Antonio (mostly near the River Walk, “the Bourbon Street of San Antonio”). Greater Toronto has sixteen, most of them franchises of the Innovated Restaurant Group’s “Bourbon St. Grill” chain—including one on Yonge Street, which has been described as “the Bourbon Street of Toronto.” There are also Bourbon-named restaurants, bars, and clubs in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Naples, Moscow, Tokyo, Shanghai, Dubai, and many other world cities. These replicas enthusiastically embrace Bourbon Street imagery and material culture (lampposts, balconies, Mardi Gras jesters, beads) in their signage, décor, and Web sites. Menus attempt to deliver the spice and zest deemed intrinsic to this perceptual package, as does the atmospheric music. How convincingly do these meta-Bourbons replicate the original? A review of one such venue in Amsterdam (“the New Orleans of Europe”) could easily apply to the actual street:

[T]he jovial Bourbon Street Jazz and Blues Club…attracts a casual, jean-clad crowd of all ages [dancing to] cover bands with a pop flavor [or] blues rhythms. Three glass chandeliers hanging over the bar provide an incongruous dash of glamour to an otherwise low-key and comfortable scruffy décor.2

In this spatial dissemination we see a trend: while local replication of the Bourbon Street phenomenon usually takes the form of competition tinged with contempt (witness the “anti-Bourbons”), external replicas of Bourbon Street view themselves as payers of homage to the “authentic” original, and modestly present themselves as the next best thing without the airfare. No licenses are needed in replicating Bourbon Street; there are no copyrights, trademarks, or royalties due. The name, phenomenon, and imagery are all in the public domain, a valuable vernacular brand free for anyone to appropriate. Try doing that to The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell and you’d have a lawsuit on your hands.

Bourbon is also among the few streets to be replicated structurally—by the State of Louisiana, which sponsored a three-acre exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. It featured all the standard architectural tropes of the French Quarter topped off with a huge arch emblazoned LOUISIANA’S BOURBON STREET accompanied by towering Carnival royalty. In typical Louisiana fair tradition, however, the exhibit experienced construction delays and filed for bankruptcy, which caused the state to wash its hands of the fiasco and officially change the name of the exhibit to “Bourbon Street.” “The so-called Louisiana area in its present condition,” state officials solemnly proclaimed, “reflects discredit upon the State of Louisiana, its culture, heritage and people.” Wags pointed out that this was pretty much what locals thought of the original Bourbon Street. But unlike the original, a corporate entity named Pavilion Properties, Inc. took over the exhibit, and after removing all references to Louisiana and spiffing up the props, it managed the Creole food booths, Dixieland trios, sketch artists, organ grinders, street performers, and nightclubs (including the popular “Gay New Orleans”) for the remainder of the fair. Also unlike the original, Pavilion Properties’ exhibit, just like the state’s attempt, failed commercially and also filed for bankruptcy. Nevertheless, it introduced a generation of New Yorkers to the Bourbon Street brand.3

At the opposite end of the country two years later, another private-sector entity built a “New Orleans Square” at Disneyland. Based on field research conducted in the French Quarter by Walt Disney himself plus a staff of artists in 1965, the $13.5 million West Coast replica (nearly the cost of the Louisiana Purchase, Disney joked) eschewed the Bourbon moniker, presumably not to scare off parents, but nevertheless incorporated everything that worked on the real Bourbon Street minus the breasts and booze. Disney later replicated New Orleans Square at its Adventureland in Tokyo (1983), which may partly explain the popularity of the real New Orleans with Japanese visitors today. It did not, however, build a New Orleans Square at Disneyland Paris (Euro Disney) when it opened in 1992.4

Bourbon Street has also been thematically and structurally referenced in countless shopping malls, amusement parks, casinos, cruise ship parties, festivals, convention banquets, and wedding receptions, not to mention on film and theatrical sets and in computer animation for movies like The Princess and the Frog. “Bourbon Street” as an adjective has found its way onto menus, usually for spicy dishes, and into household décor, generally to describe old-world filigree inspired by the iron-lace balconies. It’s a case study of cultural diffusion which serves as free worldwide advertising for the original, across various media forms and demographic cohorts, all with zero encouragement and oversight from Bourbonites. Now that’s success.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it also produces competition. Once there was a time when the forbidden pleasures available on Bourbon Street were in high demand and low supply nationwide, particularly in the South. That made Bourbon Street valuable. Today the nation is a whole lot less judgmental about pleasure and much better supplied with comparable pleasure districts. A visit to Galveston’s The Strand, St. Louis’ Soulard, and Mobile’s Dauphine Street, all of which have adopted Bourbon-style Mardi Gras, may satisfy many people’s desire for the escapism that Bourbon Street once monopolized. Even just a few blocks away in downtown New Orleans, Harrah’s has quietly overseen the creation of a Bourbon alternative on the Fulton Street Mall, complete with outdoor dining, festival space, and a growing inventory of venues, all adjacent to the corporation’s hotel and casino. Might such meta-Bourbons erode the market share of the original, in the same way that regional casinos have chipped away at Las Vegas’ domination? Bourbonites would be ill-advised to rely on their fame; better to experiment with innovations, rediscover what worked in the past, and tame that which damages. That said, The Street does have certain inherent advantages: it’s bigger and longer than the competition; it’s embedded into the world-famous French Quarter and enjoys a symbiotic relationship with its tourism industry; and perhaps most importantly, it boasts that intimate historical streetscape and centuries-old civic reputation that infuses in visitors a certain credibility—shall we call it authenticity?—in a way unmatched by places like Las Vegas. On a dark note, Bourbon is also disturbingly vulnerable to accidental or intentional trauma, such as a balcony collapse, crowd stampede, or terrorist bombing, which, in addition to the human toll, could poison The Street’s allure for years. Bourbon, in short, has bright prospects and a record of widespread economic and cultural influence, but should not take its fame and success for granted.

Speaking of cultural influence, Bourbon Street has entered the language of American English, which, curiously, does not have a perfect word for the Bourbon Street phenomenon. Shall we call it an adult entertainment area? A cluster? A strip? A pedestrian mall? A tenderloin, red-light, or vice district? All are awkward, some are imprecise, and none are perfect. The linguistic lacuna is particularly perplexing because nearly every city since Sybaris has developed such spaces.

To fill the gap, some speakers convert common nouns into proper toponyms; examples include Las Vegas’ The Strip, Baltimore’s The Block, and historic New Orleans’ The Swamp or The Line. Others craft “antonamasias,” which, in rhetoric, are attempts to describe the characteristics of a new phenomenon by invoking the name of a comparable known entity, e.g., “the Paris of…,” “the Barbary Coast of…,” “the Greenwich Village of….”5 The antonamasia “the Bourbon Street of….” is among the most popular ways for Americans to refer efficiently and effectively to pedestrian-scale drinking, eating, and entertainment districts. It’s exceedingly common to hear 6th Street, for example, described as the Bourbon Street of Austin. Ybor City is routinely characterized as the Bourbon Street of Tampa, as is Carson Street of Pittsburgh, and Duval Street of Key West (or of the entire Caribbean). Beale Street was completely redeveloped by a real estate corporation in the 1980s from a boarded-up eyesore to become, inevitably, the Bourbon Street of Memphis. A review of 67 published articles since 1986, plus over 300 Internet sources, showed that at least eighty social spaces worldwide have been described as “the Bourbon Street of” their respective communities. They span from Hamburg’s Reeperbahn to Bangkok’s Patpong; from Spain’s Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls to Las Ramblas in Barcelona, from Quay Street in Galway to Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. They are not always urban; sometimes the phrase it used for frisky beaches at vacation destinations, for boating coves (most notoriously in Lake of the Ozarks, a popular rendezvous for nudity and inebriation), or the Mall of America in Minneapolis, the entire town of Hyannis (“the Bourbon Street of the Cape”) or the city of Ogden (“the Bourbon Street of Utah,” historically). Some use it as a warning (“Let’s not turn the Underground into the Bourbon Street of Atlanta”) or as an ambition (“the big goal is for the Mill Avenue District to become the Bourbon Street of the Southwest”). The phrase even found a home in its own backyard; a travel writer called “Jackson Square…the Bourbon Street of daytime New Orleans,” and the Times-Picayune dubbed the Fulton Street Mall as “the Bourbon Street of the [1984] world’s fair.” Some uses emphasize the spatial clustering over the piquant aspect (“Canyon Road [is] the Bourbon Street of Santa Fe’s art scene”); others do the exact opposite: “USA Network [is] the Bourbon Street of basic cable;” “Louisiana Fried Chicken [is] the Bourbon Street of chicken.”6

One would be hard-pressed to think of another street so richly representational. The very matriculation of a street to metaphor status is fairly rare. To be sure, we speak of Wall Street to mean corporate power, Madison Avenue to mean marketing, and Broadway for theater, but as we go further down the list, we find fewer linguistic uses and users. Bourbon Street is one of the American English language’s handiest and most evocative place metaphors, a testament to The Street’s widespread renown and iconic resonance.

Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane School of Architecture, is the author of Bienville’s Dilemma, Geographies of New Orleans, Lincoln in New Orleans, and Bourbon Street: A History (LSU Press, 2014), from which this article was excerpted. Please see the book for sources. Campanella may be reached through or ; and followed on Twitter at @nolacampanella.

1 “Dupont Dough Backs Murphy,” Billboard, December 2, 1957, p. 19.

2 Corinne LaBalme, “Night Moves of All Kinds: The Club Scene in Seven Cities—Amsterdam,” The New York Times, September 17, 2000.

3 Francis Stilley, “Visitors to World’s Fair Will ‘Ride Magic Carpet,’ Times-Picayune, April 15, 1964; “Hot Flashes,” Times-Picayune, May 31, 1964, p. 37; Charles M. Hargroder, “Governor, Firm Announce Plant,” Times-Picayune, June 17, 1964, pp. 1-16; Richard Phalon, “Bourbon Street Operator at Fair Is 11th Bankrupt Exhibitor,” New York Times, February 5, 1965, p. 32.

4 “Disneyland N.O. Replica, Aim,” Times-Picayune, April 11, 1965, p. 17.

5 I thank sociolinguist Christina Schoux Casey for informing me of this obscure but useful term.

6 Research by author using hundreds of news and online sources, 1986-present, searched throughout 2012.