A small, two-block stretch called Gallatin Street, now called French Market Place, was once the headquarters of vice in New Orleans. A visitor to the street in 1873 described the scene for the Times-Picayune:
Gallatin street is wet and slippery, it is dimly lighted, for rows of tall houses with battered, broken shutters, and windows unlighted, look down on the stones below. Gallatin street has a puddle here and there on the sidewalk, but these cannot be seen, as the moon has not come yet over the edge of the tall, seemingly untenanted houses by which the street passes. But the houses with the wet bricks and the dark broken windows are inhabited by hundreds of human beings. This is one of the haunts of poverty. Squalor and misery are sleeping above in chambers so dark and damp as the cold pavestones below.
We reach the doorway of a large room, whence the music proceeds. We pause, look in, and a sailor with a blue shirt and trousers and a blue flat cap on the back of his head, half grunts, half hiccoughs as he says, 'Sail in if yer after fun an' frolickin'.’
Although arguably on the decline by the time this article was published, Gallatin Street sheltered some of the most dangerous criminals, prostitutes, street gangs and con men of the mid-1800s in New Orleans. Named for Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the two-block street connected the US Mint building to the French Market. Its location next to the Mississippi River made it a spot for sailors to find housing, drink, and entertainment. The port of New Orleans during this time was never empty, keeping a constant flow of men and women through Gallatin Street's infamous boarding houses, brothels, and saloons.
Its location amid the wharves and railroad tracks made it undesirable, so many of the empty rooms in the multistoried buildings that lined Gallatin Street became the homes of recently arrived immigrant families. The area also had a substantial concentration of yellow fever cases, a particularly deadly virus in antebellum New Orleans. A study done by Edward Hall Barton published in 1857 describes the daytime scene of the area:
" . . . boarding, or rather lodging, houses, occupied, many of them, by crowds who only sleep there, eating and working out, with no privies (these being monopolized by the tenants on the ground floor). The streets and levee opposite are used for this purpose; small rooms are sometimes occupied by whole families; some use them for raising fowls and dogs, and as receptacles for vegetables for market, and the refuse of the unsaleables of the market from day to day with little regard to removing the half decayed relics."
From antebellum times until the latter part of the 1870s, Gallatin Street served as the meeting place for those who participated in New Orleans’ underworld. In the late 1890s, most brothels and barrooms moved to Storyville, and plans were developed in the 1930s to redevelop the street for the expansion of the French Market. Steadily in decline through the early 1900s, Gallatin Street buildings were demolished and the street was officially renamed French Market Place in 1935.
Much of Gallatin Street’s history is shrouded in legend. This tour will introduce you to some of the people and places that gave Gallatin Street its notorious, if now forgotten, reputation.