Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street, 2012. Richard Campanella
Hundreds of millions. That’s how many people, over the past two generations, have crammed themselves into a minor and rather middling artery in a secondary city on America’s Third Coast. They made it into one of the most famous streets in the nation, a brand that has diffused worldwide. People by the thousands beeline for this narrow space, and parade up and down it nightly, because a crusty cohort of shrewd locals figured out what pleasured them and delivered it with panache, while constantly battling police, patricians, preservationists and pontificators. The street is named Bourbon, the city is New Orleans, and the story is fundamentally American.
Bourbon Street emerged from an inward shift in the urban geography of “sin” in the late 19th century. It gained momentum with the rise of leisure tourism in the early 20th century, and catapulted into national fame during World War II. It has hummed ever since, round the clock, 365 days a year — all without the benefit of a corporate structure, a team of experts, a board of directors or a marketing branch. Formed by working-class characters toiling individually but prospering collectively through the clever use of space and the adaptive commodification of culture, Bourbon Street today is at once “the biggest disorganized street in the whole country”  and a well-honed economic engine that pumps millions of outside dollars into the city’s economy and generates imagery and reputation about an entire metropolis.
For some, the Bourbon Street image is a delectable mélange of historicity and hedonism; for others it’s iniquitous, crass, phony and offensive. Americans on either side of the culture wars hate Bourbon Street, but they hate it for entirely different reasons. The Right hates it for its commercialization of sin; the Left, for its commercialization of culture. The Right hates it because it is dangerous pretending to be safe; the Left, because it is safe pretending to be dangerous. The Right, because it’s funky and honkytonk; the Left, because it’s neither. Hating Bourbon Street is one of the few things traditionalists and progressives agree on, so long as they don’t compare notes.