The Rise of the New South

Set in New Orleans in the late 1940s, A Streetcar Named Desire unfolds in a time when the United States in general and the South in particular were poised for major economic growth and significant social change. This period gave rise to the New South, as an impoverished, largely agrarian, and homogeneous society transformed into a more prosperous, industrial, and diversified one. The transformation of New Orleans actually began during the Second World War. The city had been hit hard by the Great Depression with an unemployment rate that sometimes went over 30 percent, but during the war, New Orleans boomed. A variety of manufacturing plants arose to build military equipment and supplies, such as the locally-invented Higgins Boats, which could float in shallow waters. These factories employed thousands; many of the workers were women and Black people, who were holding full-time, well-paid jobs for the first time in their lives. The U.S. government also established a string of training camps and military bases throughout the South, including in Louisiana and Mississippi (where Blanche is from). Local companies were founded or grew in size to provide services and goods to these bases.

After the war ended, most of the military sites continued to operate, as did the factories, many of those converting to the manufacturing of consumer goods. Even more factories arose throughout the South to take advantage of the region’s raw materials, plentiful land, favorable tax laws, and cheap and abundant labor. With increased drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, the petrochemical industry grew in Louisiana, raising the overall prosperity of the state and contributing heavily to a significant increase in personal income. Although agriculture remained significant to the Southern economy, the “new money” was to be made in manufacturing. Cities tripled in population as millions of rural inhabitants left farms to take jobs in trade and industry. Immigrants arrived from the Caribbean and South and Central America (personified by Pablo, one of the poker gang), attracted by the sense of growth and opportunity. As cities grew in size and increased in diversity, they began to have more political force. Although white men remained dominant overall, the power of the land-owning “planter class,” descendants of 18th-century western European settlers, significantly diminished.