"You can make it [prostitution] illegal, but you can't make it unpopular."-Tom Behrman, Mayor of New Orleans, 1917.
In 1897, the city fathers of New Orleans legalized prostitution in a small quadrant of the city bordering the northwest edge of the French Quarter. As the relevant legislation was written by alderman Sidney Story, the area became known as Storyville. Establishments ranged from squalid "cribs" to regal Victorian-style bordellos. A Louisiana politician named Tom Anderson, known as the "Mayor of Storyville," presided over the district from a cafe named after himself. The photographer E. J. Bellocq immortalized Storyville with his moving and humane portraits of the prostitutes who lived and worked there. (Louis Malle told Bellocq's story in his 1978 film Pretty Baby, with Keith Carradine, Susan Sarandon, and Brooke Shields.) Prostitution stayed legal in Storyville until 1917, when the federal government insisted that it be outlawed to protect the morals and delicate sensibilities of the thousands of servicemen flocking to the Crescent City after the United States entered World War I. Today, the bordellos are long gone, replaced by a collection of housing projects and part of Louis Armstrong Park. But during that twenty years, Storyville not only became a part of New Orleans lore, it functioned as a hothouse for the development of jazz.
A great source of Storville history, personalities, and lore is the 1978 book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, by Al Rose. It's still in print and available from amazon.com. You can even look inside.
The forgotten 1947 film New Orleans includes an imagining of Storyville's last night, in which Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong perform "Farewell To Storyville" and lead an exodus of jazz musicians, rounders, and prostitutes from the famed red-light district:
And on a completely unrelated matter, this one goes out to Sarah P.: