Exchange Alley, or Passage de la Bourse as the Creoles called it, began life in 1831. In its early days it housed the offices of numerous solicitors and attorneys, and the block between Canal and Customhouse Street (now Iberville) became home to a number of cafés, saloons, and clubhouses. It was the original home of the Sazerac cocktail and the Pickwick club. It was also one time home for the Louisiana club. Further along the alley a number of famous fencing instructors, Don Jose “Pepe” Llulla, Armant Robert Severin, and Basile Croquere, schooled their Creole pupils. Soundings of historical newspapers before the Civil War give the impression of Exchange Alley as being a Creole male bolthole.
It retained something of this character after the war but with the gradual transfer of status and power in New Orleans from the Creole to the American, and thus across the neutral ground of Canal Street, Exchange Alley also began to change. A few solicitors could still be found trading in Exchange as late as the early 1900s but they now nestled alongside tradesman such as watch repairers and silversmiths as well as cheap hotels or lodging houses. Staub’s newstand and Goldthwaite’s bookstore made the alley popular with book-hunters and newsmen. The saloons and cafés, and those on close side streets, were now the haunts of longshoremen, roustabouts, itinerant workers and hobos. The headquarters of the Sheet Metal Workers Union was located at 136 Exchange Place and Longshoremen’s Hall was on the corner of Exchange and Iberville. Alice Dunbar Nelson found Exchange Alley of the 1890s to be a suburb of true Bohemianism and perfectly captures this character in her short piece, Anarchy Alley.
By the early 1900s City Hall had long considered the French Quarter to be a hot bed of crime, anarchy and labor unrest and so it was decided to demolish the block between Conti and St. Louis and build a courthouse there. It was said at the time that it was only fair that the old Creole city got the new courthouse as the Garden District had got the new post office. The courthouse was built and operating by 1909. Exchange Alley was truncated, however its character did not immediately improve. Meetings and demonstrations of union men occurred frequently on Exchange near Canal, much to the irritation of local businesses like Odenwald and Gros. Illegal poolrooms and handbook operators continued to ply their trade there as they had since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was also the place during the 1910s, according to Harry Brunn, where jazz musicians hung around to pick up jobs. The alley deteriorated further in reputation in 1919 when Marion W. Swords drug clinic was opened on the corner of Exchange and Conti. The police complained that the clinic, well intentioned as it was, had done nothing but draw thousands upon thousands more addicts to the city.
Prohibition closed the saloons on Jan 16th 1920 and the city closed Swords’ clinic later the same year. But Exchange Alley still had life in it and rumor has it that the alley superabounded with fusel oil cafés and backroom speakeasies throughout the prohibition years. But that’s another story.