[New Orleans City Guide]

[Garrett County Press]

Buy Local

New Orleans City Guide (1938)
by Works Progress Administration
new introduction by Lawrence N. Powell

ISBN: 9781891053085

Excerpt from
The Introduction
by Lawrence N. Powell

Reminders of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal are hard to miss in many American cities and towns. They are visible in Georgian-style post offices, and in huge train station murals splashed with the autumnal colors of rustic America bringing in the crops. The Great Depression did more than spur the rise of the modern American regulatory state; it also saw the federal government take some ownership of the country's historical and cultural memory. After years of squabbling that its melody was beyond the register of ordinary people, for example, Congress in the 1930s finally made the Star Spangled Banner the national anthem. A few years later Washington established the National Archives as the final resting place for federal records. And from 1935 to 1941 the WPA (Works Progress Administration), that most storied of New Deal alphabet agencies, brought forth the American Guide Series. Its roughly 400 volumes encompassed every state as well as the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. There were thematic and regional volumes, too, such as The Oregon Trail. Produced by an agency of the WPA called the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), the guides were widely praised. The critic Alfred Kazin extolled them as a symbol of the "reawakened American sense of its own history." Lewis Mumford, another cultural mandarin and a historian of cities, described the collected volumes as "his generation's 'finest contribution to American patriotism.'"

New Orleans Skyline
New Orleans Skyline

And then there were the guides to major cities: New York and San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, to name but a few, which also appeared in the American Guide Series. The New Orleans City Guide, first published in 1938 and reissued in 1952 and 1983, was one of the marquee productions. A writer in a highbrow New York review described it as "perhaps the masterpiece of the whole [guide] series." You need only thumb through the New Orleans volume to understand the critical acclaim. Its pages crackle with the nervous energy of good writing. No tour guide, before or since-and there have been several good ones-has done a better job mapping the Crescent City's fabled enjoyment culture. It surveys most of the music and art scene from that period, paints vivid pictures of carnival pageantry, and evokes New Orleans' love of fun and whimsy. The city's storied restaurants, several of them still in business, get proper billing; so do legendary recipes. Even the history it serves up is entertaining, although some chapters have to be taken cum grano salis (of which, more later).

New Orleans Skyline
'Little' Communion

There have been a lot of changes in the cityscape since the New Orleans guide was first released. Upriver from the French Quarter the skyline has become mini-Manhattanized, anchored by that trademark blister on Poydras Street that Saints fans call the Superdome. Canal Street has seen its shopping emporiums shut down or decamp for the suburbs, while several Royal Street antique shops have fled to Magazine Street. Interstate highways have disfigured if not destroyed too many New Orleans neighborhoods, the bulk of them traditionally black. In the Warehouse District, where the clangor of drays and aroma of roasting coffee had once filled the air, locals and out-of-towners now stroll past art galleries, trendy eateries, and boutique hotels and condos. One change was long overdue: the uprooting of segregation (though not the racial face of poverty), with its "colored only" drinking fountains, restrooms, streetcar seating, and other vestiges of separate-but-hardly-equal affronts to dignity. Yet despite the onslaught of urban renewal; the rise of the suburbs; the collapse of the oil patch; the constant churning and turnover of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs; despite all this and more, including the decline in population and the shrinkage of New Orleans' footprint, the urban community surveyed in these pages a lifetime ago remains startlingly recognizable. Change in these latitudes has often been more of the same. Which is why this WPA guidebook deserves placement in the ranks of the permanently useful. You can still follow one of its recommended automobile tours and not feel so much as three minutes behind the times.

New Orleans Skyline
Street Maskers



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