Building The Boulevard
With business booming along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Central City faces a turning point.
Photos Jeff Johnston and Cheryl Gerber
Linda Pompa and Carol Bebelle could be considered a study in contrasts. Pompa is the executive director of the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association and an expert in urban redevelopment who’s become a booster for the business boom currently underway along the boulevard. And Bebelle is the co-founder and executive director of Central City fixture, Ashé Cultural Arts Center.
Yet, in separate interviews, unprompted, when asked to expound on the importance of what on its face feels like a business renaissance in the area, they’re both quick to point out the boulevard’s motto: “Culture. Commerce. Community.”
The area, as Pompa sees it, “is an ecosystem. We want to be a neighborhood commercial district,” with emphasis on the word neighborhood.
Bebelle, a longtime champion in the fight for the authenticity of this historic neighborhood, agrees. She views this potential renaissance with guarded optimism, but optimism nonetheless, as businesses (including banks) grow alongside nonprofits, mixed-income housing developments and charter schools, while churches hold their ground and everyone hopes to retain the flavor that made Central City click in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Central City and the (Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard) corridor are a part of what is happening today in New Orleans,” Bebelle says. “When you look at what’s happening in Bywater and the Marigny, I don’t know if they had the neighborhood’s culture in their head when they planned that community after the storm. The story is yet to be told on that one. But I do know in Central City, there a lot of people who are connecting arms together to have a diverse community that’s able to support and serve a residence that is very diverse, and growing their own way.
“Part of what Ashé has done is to be a place where people can be together. We have to keep striving to be diverse, and recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats.”
It’s not always so easy.
“This isn’t Magazine Street.”
Renee Blanchard sits inside her Church Alley Coffee Bar, which is basically a loosely carved-out section of what used to serve as the lobby of Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. A few customers are scattered about the cozy spot.
Business is good, she says. It’s pretty much doubled each year since she opened in January 2013 — making her, at the ripe old age of 36, the godmother of for-profit retail on this historic stretch. But from the beginning, and up to today, she remains wary of the situation.
LEFT: Linda Pompa, executive director of the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard Merchants and Business Association. RIGHT: Carol Bebelle, co-founder and executive director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center.
“The first year, it was a struggle,” she says, having moved from her original location a few blocks closer to the New Orleans Mission. “I live two blocks away. There’s a huge difference, just two blocks off the boulevard. The neighbors still call it Dryades Street. (The boulevard was renamed in 1989 after the New Orleans civil rights leader.) It’s a huge divide.”
Blanchard wants to be of the neighborhood as much as she is in the neighborhood, and is self-conscious of being a young white woman in a historic African-American neighborhood with deep roots in the city’s jazz and Mardi Gras Indian scenes. Born in Lafayette but having lived around the country, Blanchard spent years working in the nonprofit world, most notably for the Waterkeeper Alliance and Greenpeace.
She doesn’t want to be a gentrifier, but, she doesn’t want to go broke, either.
“It’s really hard. I have this social-justice background, and that’s all about leveling the playing field for everyone,” she said. “I have to reconcile that with keeping my doors open and having an affordable menu. I had to build the menu over time. And I have different types of price points.”
“We live in a city that’s had racial and economic divides since it began,” says Blanchard, whose husband, Adam Montegut, runs the nearby New Orleans Tattoo Museum. “It’s difficult to wrap your head around. So I try to participate in all of the activities on the boulevard, and I talk to my neighbors.”
She pauses at one point, and looks toward the river. “This isn’t Magazine Street,” she says, and she doesn’t want it to be.
Welcome to life operating a business on the quickly expanding Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, which, like a handful of other stretches of New Orleans streets, has undergone a post-Katrina renaissance that has entrepreneurs and neighbors vacillating between excitement and wariness. They love the restoration of previously shuttered buildings, the promise of mixed-use residences, and the proliferation of businesses — many with a “social enterprise” vibe that befits a stretch that’s also filled with nonprofit organizations.
While the makeover of “the boulevard” has been many years in the making, the most eye-catching openings have happened over the past three years. There was Church Alley, and then Casa Borrega, and more recently the relocation of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (with its own bar and restaurant, Purloo), the New Orleans Jazz Market, the Roux Carré constellation of food vendors, and the ambitious Dryades Public Market (inside the old McDonogh #38/Myrtle Banks building), which provides a range of specialty foods, sandwiches and pastas, along with cooking demos and a bar.
This past May, Chef Adolfo Garcia (owner of La Boca, Ancora and High Hat Cafe) chose OCH to serve as home to his latest restaurant, Primitivo, whose centerpiece is a massive brick and steel grill and oven.
TOP LEFT: A look inside the Ashé Cultural Arts Center; TOP RIGHT: Mural outside the Ashé Cultural Center; BOTTOM LEFT: Church Alley Coffee Bar at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Center; BOTTOM RIGHT: Café Reconcile Photos Cheryl Gerber
“Business has been good to great, with some slow spots as expected,” Garcia says. “Foot traffic has been increasing and I think the comfort level, the perception, is on the rise. I am more than happy with where we are six months in.”
The Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard renaissance, promised and anticipated for decades, appears to be finally happening, and the rest of the nation is paying attention. Pulse-taker Thrillist recently named the boulevard one of its “12 neighborhoods across America that are about to blow up.”
Pompa is dubious about the characterization.
“We’re not about to ‘blow up,’” Pompa says. “The changes have been incremental, especially since Katrina. ‘Exploding’ doesn’t tell the story about how incremental that change has been.”
For Change, Not Just For Profit
No stranger to urban blight, Pompa spent years working in Baltimore before coming to New Orleans in 2007 on an urban redevelopment fellowship through the University of Pennsylvania and the Rockefeller Foundation, and never left. She is quick to offer a tour up and down the boulevard and note a transformation more complex and compelling than just the addition of a bunch of shops.
“The boulevard was very appealing to me, and I liked the fact that there was a strong cultural element here that’s absent in a lot of other commercial districts,” says Pompa, who’s just as excited to see the continued existence of spaces such as Zeitgest and the expansion of Ashé Cultural Arts Center as anything else.
She also emphasizes the kind of social-enterprise activity in the neighborhood that goes back to the founding of Café Reconcile in 2000 with the hope of providing job training and other help for at-risk youth. The most recent example: the opening in November 2015 of the Good Work Network’s Roux Carré. A series of multi-ethnic food vendors, Roux Carré hopes to incubate small businesses with affordable food working inside 175-square-foot “pods” surrounding a courtyard, with names like Pupusa Lady, Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, Splendid Pig and the Juice Box. The latter business, serving snowballs, is sponsored by Central City’s Youth Empowerment Project, which since 2004 has worked with young people who are seeking their high school equivalency and benefit from intense mentoring.
“I liked the fact that there was a strong cultural element here that’s absent in a lot of other commercial districts.” – Linda Pompa
Nonprofits work on a range of issues, from the venerable New Orleans Mission and the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership to more recent additions such as RIDE New Orleans. Even smaller businesses try to help out. Zaneta Flowers, who grew up Uptown before moving away for years, returned a few years ago and opened Charlie Boy, a resale fashion boutique exclusively for men.
She even ponders the idea of a nonprofit to help men who have just been released from prison and need tailored clothes for job interviews.
“We’re a community-based business,” she says. “We’re here for everybody.”
On a grander, yet nonprofit scale, the Southern Food & Beverage Museum and Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market provide a blend of cultural preservation along with food, drink and musical entertainment. In January, “SoFAB” presented “Cochon Sauvage,” in which local chefs (including Ryan Hughes from SoFAB’s Purloo) carved up and cooked a wild pig as part of an initiative by the state Department of Agriculture to curb the local porcine overpopulation.
The museum also offers free days and affordable access to its commercial kitchen for aspiring chefs and caterers.
“We feel that we are making an impact,” says SoFAB’s Liz Williams. “We want to be the Smithsonian of food, and we feel like we’re on our way.”
Similarly, the New Orleans Jazz Market, under the stewardship of musician Irvin Mayfield of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, gets a lot of notice for its performance venue and the sophisticated Bolden Bar. But it also provides a library and digital jazz archive with eight viewing stations for the community.
It remains uncertain how a pilot literacy program will be funded after news broke last year that the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra had earmarked funds from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation — which Mayfield ran along with Ronald Markham. Both have resigned their foundation titles, with NOJO promising to return some $800,000 in funds to the library foundation.
TOP LEFT: The New Orleans Jazz Market; TOP RIGHT: One of Roux Carré’s vendors, Johnny’s Jamaican Grill BOTTOM LEFT: Inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum; BOTTOM RIGHT: Dryades Public Market Photos Cheryl Gerber
Regardless, the Jazz Market represents a performance home for NOJO and a return of live jazz to the genre’s cradle, given Central City was the home of such legends as Buddy Bolden, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair.
Not interested in that particular strain of jazz? There’s always a Latin vibe going on back up the street at Casa Borrega, the funky café opened by artist Hugo Montero and his wife, Green Project founder Linda Stone. Asked how he decided to make it all happen, Montero shrugs.
“I create my own reality,” he says. “Every-body told me I was (freaking) crazy. We’re not catering to tourists. The idea was to create my own niche. Business has been totally amazing for dinner.”
The result: Positive reviews from local critics and write-ups or mentions in Forbes, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
Challenges remain, most notably in the form of affordable housing. Central City’s transformation has included the closing of the Magnolia housing development, replaced by Harmony Oaks — a mixed-income residential complex. Also new is The Muses Apartment Homes, a mixed-income project developed by the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership that caters to everyone from families to Tulane University students.
“We’ve made a lot of progress. They’ve been great additions to the neighborhood,” Pompa says, adding, “We’re still hoping to see some momentum on redevelopment of vacant housing.”
As she passes by the Friday Night Fights Gym, which among other things sponsors popular boxing shows featuring fights, dancers, rappers, drag queens and burlesque performers, she stops and points to a house a half block off O.C. Haley and says, “You see that house? A couple years ago it sold for $97,000, and the developer flipped it within a year for over $600,000.” And this is a house that faces a parking lot and is next to a vacant lot with abandoned mattresses.
LEFT: Hugo Montero, owner of Casa Borrega, a restaurant and museum he created with his wife, Linda Stone. RIGHT: Mike Tate with Friday Night Fights. Photos Cheryl Gerber
She worries that other flipping-minded developers might take advantage of older residents who might not appreciate the value of their home but might sell in the face of increased property taxes and pressure from higher-income residents. She resists comparisons to the fast development along Freret Street, and hopes for, more than anything else, balance.
“There is a lot of flipping going on,” she says. “More people with money are moving into the neighborhood. You can’t go from having one restaurant that’s reasonably priced to a whole bunch of restaurants that cost two to three times as much without having this issue of gentrification.”
As she, too, worries about displacement of these longtime residents, Bebelle comes back to that theme of culture, commerce and community to ensure that everyone thrives on the boulevard.
“Ten years from now people should be able to stay in Central City and live in decent housing, and there should be people who can pay market value for properties as well,” she said. “And we’ll work together to create an economy that can have businesses, and nonprofits, and services for everyone.
“If we don’t we’ll be living into a rehash of what’s happening everywhere else.”
Pompa says the key here is a balance between neighborhood-serving businesses and destination retail that doesn’t shut out residents.
“We don’t want to be overdeveloped and have people living right up against the French Quarter.”
Carol Bebelle echoes the worries about displacing established residents. But both women come back to that motto — “Culture. Commerce. Community” — that unifies people who love and are dedicated to the boulevard.