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Letting Go of Our Obsession with Memorials

Over the past 50 years we have encountered the incentive to value every material trace of the past more and more, like we are a society with collective hoarding anxiety.

J&M Recording Studio, New Orleans, where Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and other important early R&B, rock and roll, and jazz musicians recorded, now a laundromat (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana — For fans of early jazz, New Orleans and Chicago are magical places.

It is a magic tied up with images of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman, the Barbarin family, the Brunies brothers, and so many others. Even today, it is still present in the architecture of the French Quarter, in the sounds of traditional jazz wafting from clubs and music halls, and in the very names of Basin Street and Storyville.

Orleans Parish Landmarks Commission commemorative plaque for J&M Studios (taken November 2009).

When I first had the opportunities to visit these places I was naturally excited, but it was an excitement tempered by the knowledge that most of the landmarks of early jazz history no longer exist. The house where Louis Armstrong lived in Chicago from 1925 to 1929 still stands, but not the houses in New Orleans where he was born and grew up. Almost all the ballrooms and clubs from 1920s Chicago, like the Royal Gardens, the Dreamland Café, or the Pekin Inn, and New Orleans clubs and saloons like Tom Anderson’s, are long gone.

Shocking though it may seem at first, this situation actually makes good sense. Many of these decaying buildings, and entire neighborhoods like Storyville, were torn down decades ago, before jazz was entrenched as a national, historic, and cultural treasure. But there are other reasons for this situation. The quaint name Storyville obscures the fact that it was New Orleans’s red light district. Alderman Sidney Story was so concerned about rampant prostitution in the city that in 1897 he proposed to restrict it to a 16 square block area, following the

Anti-VD poster, Army Educational Division, World War I (public domain, via the U.S. National Library of Medicine)

lead of many other cities around this time. The proposal was approved, but it backfired on Story. The restricted area became one of the largest and most notorious vice districts in the country — at one point, it included an estimated 230 brothels — and city residents mocked Story by nicknaming the district after him. Storyville lasted only until 1917, when the Navy shut it down, along with other red light districts near military camps around the country, following the nation’s entry into World War I. (The Navy was worried about the distraction to its sailors stationed there as well as the spread of venereal disease.)

But in that time New Orleans jazz emerged, in part, in Storyville. Great pianists like Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson played in its “sporting houses.” Many of the city’s leading musicians developed their skills in the dance halls and saloons of the district. Composer Spencer Williams named his jazz standard-to-be “Mahogany Hall Stomp” after his aunt Lulu White’s famous whorehouse.

Today only a handful of buildings remain from the heyday of Storyville. Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall is long gone, but the ground floor of the attached saloon still stands, now as a department store. Most of the buildings were demolished around 1940 in order to make way for a public housing project. Since Hurricane Katrina, much of it, along with the other housing projects in New Orleans, has been demolished, often replaced by privatized housing. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s birthplace and the surrounding neighborhood of small, cramped houses, in the section known as Back o’ Town, were torn down in 1964 to build the current municipal court.

Those decisions were not inevitable. Fort Smith, Arkansas decided to preserve one of its brothels, Miss Laura’s Social Club, as a museum. The website proudly proclaims it “the only former bordello on the National Register of Historic Places.” But we cannot blame the city of New Orleans for wanting to demolish its own bordellos in order to build housing for its residents.

Miss Laura’s Social Club, Fort Smith, Arkansas (taken September 2013)

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Much of the current discussion on preserving public statues has taken for granted that the main, or only, reason to rid ourselves of Confederate memorials is that they commemorate racism If they were not disturbing, so this line of thinking goes, then they would have to be preserved — because we must preserve as much of the past as possible. But should this be the case? David Lowenthal has labeled the idea that cultural heritage “deserves to be preserved in toto” one of the “sacrosanct fictions” of cultural heritage. Lowenthal is not just a random commentator: he is a highly respected historian and geographer who has spent decades studying our relationship with the past. One of Lowenthal’s most important conclusions is that how we conceive of the past is not a natural or static thing — the past is not something embalmed — but is culturally contingent and constantly in flux. Our compulsion to preserve as much of the past as possible is a development of the last few decades in particular, and primarily an American and European one. The National Register of Historic Places was established only in 1966, after most of the jazz landmarks mentioned above were already demolished. From UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites to Antiques Roadshow, over the past 50 years we have encountered the incentive to value every material trace of the past more and more, like a society with collective hoarding anxiety. Lowenthal observes that, contrary to what we generally believe, cultural heritage is not shrinking but constantly expanding. It is not a finite source gradually disappearing, piece by piece, but something that we keep discovering and reinterpreting, and keep adding to as the present continues to become past.

The implications of wholesale preservation go far beyond statues of Confederate officers or slaveholders: along with Lowenthal, much recent work on cultural heritage questions whether there is an inherent reason to preserve as much of the past as possible, regardless of its associations. The past can be very valuable, but exactly what, how, and how much we preserve is a negotiation within local communities. We need only look at how historic buildings and landmarks are treated in the United States: they are destroyed and replaced with new buildings all the time, depending on the needs of the local residents and determinations of the municipality. The federal government may aid in preservation, including the provision of funds or incentives for protection of buildings via the National Historic Landmarks Program and the National Register, but that aid is limited; even properties on these lists may be destroyed.

Sign outside the Gennett Records-Starr Piano Factory complex, Richmond, Indiana, where Louis Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, and others made their first recordings (September 2014)

Consider the variation in the treatment of jazz and other music history landmarks. In New Orleans, a few music venues from the turn of the twentieth century like the legendary Eagle Saloon still stand, though they are not well maintained. Armstrong’s birthplace has been demolished but a commemorative plaque now marks the spot. Most of the buildings of Richmond, Indiana’s classic Gennett label have been torn down, but the area has been recently developed with a walk of fame, and signs mark the exact location of the recording studio. Composer W.C. Handy’s house in Memphis is preserved — but was moved several blocks to its current location on Beale Street (itself renamed from Beale Avenue after Handy’s song “Beale Street Blues” became famous). Just as the abstract past is not static but continually changed and negotiated, so is material heritage: it is always being preserved, modified, or recontextualized. In fact, these are the precise realities reflected in the statement on dealing with Confederate memorials made by the President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation back in June.

W.C. Handy house, Memphis (July 2014) The house is now a museum; its website urges the reader to “recapture the flavor of old Beale Street by touring W.C. Handy’s turn-of-the-century home,” but the street was then Beale Avenue and the house was located several blocks south.

It may be disappointing that a historic place is no longer in existence — I certainly was disappointed that many of these jazz landmarks in Chicago and New Orleans had been demolished — but it is hard to fault cities and towns, let alone to lecture them as an outsider. If a community sees some of that heritage as disturbing, problematic, or dangerous, there is no automatic reason why those physical remains cannot be destroyed, altered, or repurposed. Certainly terms should not be dictated to by outside forces, such as white nationalists converging from around the country.

There is no need to feel enslaved to the past, especially — but not only — if that past commemorates literal slavery.

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