Spectacles of the street : performance, power, and public space in antebellum New Orleans

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2004-05

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Frink, Sandra Margaret, 1967-

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Abstract

This dissertation uses New Orleans as a lens through which to examine the multiethnic, multi-racial, and multi-national social world of the nineteenth-century urban streets. It traces the alliances and conflicts that emerged as individuals, groups and the state asserted their political, cultural and economic power in the public spaces of the city. The population of New Orleans soared during the early nineteenth century as migrants from other sections of the United States, immigrants from Europe, and slaves from Africa and the Caribbean joined the already diverse population of French, Spanish, and African Creoles. Additional groups formed based on occupation, religious affiliation or other markers whose composition crossed the lines of race, ethnicity and gender and whose public expressions remained regular features of life in the city. By examining the interaction of these groups in different spaces of the city—the levee, dance halls, churches, squares, and markets, among others—it is possible to discern how each contributed to altering the public culture of antebellum New Orleans. Drawing from insights in social history, urban studies, race and gender theory, and cultural geography, “Spectacles of the Street” both revises the historical narrative of viii New Orleans and contributes to our general understanding of identity formation in nineteenth-century urban centers. Scholars usually argue that New Orleans became “Americanized” during this period because of the growing influence of elite, white, Protestant Americans in the city. I challenge this assessment by demonstrating how different groups helped to recast the political culture of the city. In addition, the cultural admixture of free blacks, slaves, and immigrants in New Orleans offers the opportunity to explore issues of acculturation that were replicated in other antebellum cities. Rather than focus on group identity in isolation, however, I illustrate how different groups formed relationships with one another, with the changing urban landscape, and with the state. On the eve of the Civil War, no single group remained unchanged or achieved dominance in the city. Instead, the public culture of New Orleans continued to be shaped by the interconnected, and often unstable, relationships formed among the diverse residents in its urban spaces.

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