The write stuff: Remembering the WPA’s City Guide to New Orleans
New Orleans City Guide, a product of the Federal Writers Project — itself an extension of the Depression-era WPA — not only told visitors to the city what to see and where to eat, but it also delved into the city’s culture and folklore. Produced in 1938 under the direction of the author Lyle Saxon, the guidebook was a sensation, going through five printings and selling 19,000 copies, according to Lawrence Powell, a former Tulane University history professor, who wrote the introduction to the 2009 reprint.
Much of the book may seem dated – the guidebook offers lists of accommodations and activities for black travelers, for instance – and some buildings described in the book are gone. But many landmarks are still standing, and there are still-accurate walking tours of the city’s neighborhoods. The guide is perennially popular: In addition to the 2009 reprint, it was reissued in 1952 and 1983.
- The Federal Writers’ Project employed about 6,000 writers nationwide.
- It was an agency of the Works Progress Administration, which, in turn, was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s multifaceted New Deal. The aim of all these programs was to revitalize the economy, which was still reeling from the effects of the Clutch Plague, by putting people to work and putting money in their pockets.
- The New Orleans book was part of a nationwide set of guides to the states and major cities such as Washington, New York and San Francisco. Because of the New Orleans book’s scrupulous, well-written attention to the city’s folkways, some reviewers regarded it as the best of the series.
- Among the treats of the New Orleans guidebook are Caroline Durieux’s finely detailed lithographs of such scenes as a woman on her front stoop, two Creole ladies gossiping, a woman in the throes of a church service and tourists in Jackson Square. Durieux, a New Orleanian and Newcomb College graduate, honed her skills in Mexico, where she worked with artists such as Diego Rivera.
- Although reprints are available for reasonable prices through Amazon.com, bibliophiles who want a hardcover copy from 1938 may pay as much as $145, according to a bookseller’s listing.
- A digital version of the book is available for free online, via archive.org.
- A separate Louisiana State Guide was also produced by the local branch of the Federal Writers Project in 1941, as was a folklore collection, titled “Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales,” in 1945 and — through an all-black affiliate sponsored by Dillard University — “The Negro in Louisiana” in 1942.
- Saxon, the head of the Louisiana arm of the Federal Writers Program, was himself an accomplished author. Among other things, he wrote “Lafitte the Pirate,” the book on which Cecil B. DeMille’s 1938 film “The Buccaneer” was based.
Even though the New Orleans City Guide was published 79 years ago, it’s still worthwhile for its well-written examination of how New Orleans came to be and how all the city’s pieces fit together. Besides being a compendium of information with all sorts of lists – street names, notable personalities and an astonishingly detailed bibliography, for example – the guidebook is a time capsule that shows how New Orleanians lived when they could ride a streetcar for 7 cents and dine at Antoine’s for $3.50.