Neutral Ground Coffeehouse May Be on the Move

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Lea Gryzwacz and Rex Collins perform in 2016 at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse. (Photo by Michael Tisserand)

NEW ORLEANS — The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse — an Uptown institution for more than 40 years — may be looking for a new home.

James Naylor, co-owner of the business, said Jonathan Wallick, who owns the building in the 500 block of Danneel Street that houses the coffee shop, informed him several weeks ago that the property is for sale. Neutral Ground doesn’t have a long-term lease in place, so Naylor and his business partner Caroline “Phant” Williams have begun looking for a new permanent home for their iconic — and exceedingly laid-back — institution.

Wallick, for his part, said it may be premature to assume a new owner wouldn’t want to keep the Neutral Ground in its current spot. But it’s worth noting that he’s kept the coffee shop’s rent well below market rate for years.

The Neutral Ground is known for hosting live acoustic music Thursdays through Sundays. Performers range from Tulane and Loyola students to local singer-songwriters playing for the love of it to touring artists who need an intimate setting to show off their work. Local notables that have performed there include Theresa Andersson, Johnny Sketch and Washboard Chaz, but legend has it that noted singer-songwriter Gillian Welch was a performer back in the day. Allen Toussaint — a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and recipient of the National Medal of Arts — was known to drop in after meals at Gautreau’s around the corner. He even signed a few pianos over the years.

Neutral Ground doesn’t have a liquor license, so baristas have always served coffee, tea and hot chocolate along with what Naylor calls “snacky cakes:” a variety of chips, cookies and other munchies.

Naylor said the business relies on “saints and volunteers” to operate.

“People give money, time and sweat equity,” he said. “One day [previous owner] Phil Melancon was in there trying to install a new sink. Some kid was walking by and said, ‘Oh, are you having problems? I’ll be right back.’ He want home, got some tools and finished the job in 30 minutes when it would have taken us four hours. People have always done that sort of thing and they still do it.”

The brief history of Neutral Ground: its roots are in a hippie hangout called the Penny Post that opened in 1974 on Maple Street. After a fire later in the decade, it relocated to Danneel Street and shared space with another coffee shop called Borsodi’s. Years later, in 1992, the side-by-side operations briefly closed and then reopened under one name: the Neutral Ground. Melancon, who was a regular Penny Post performer, was instrumental in keeping things running through many iterations. In 2000, he bought the business outright and ran it for the next two decades.

In 2020, as the pandemic set in, Melancon decided to call it quits. That’s when his former colleagues Naylor and Williams — who both spent years as Neutral Ground staffers — bought the Neutral Ground and kept it running.

Naylor, whose day job is at the U.S. Navy base in Belle Chasse, said the enterprise is a labor of love. The nightly workers get by on a small hourly wage and tips. For his part, he manages the performance schedule and makes sure the place is well-stocked with food and supplies.

“The baristas get mad at me if we’re out of something,” he said. “I get a text message at midnight saying, ‘Hey, we’re out of ramen.'”

Notably, the stage at the front of the space looks much as it did decades ago A few couches, chairs and tables provide seating and hangout space. In the back of the shop, there are private areas for lounging and playing one of the beat-up old board games that are stacked all around.

No doubt there will be some tears if and when the time comes to remove the art from the walls and disconnect the small PA system, but Naylor said he and Phant already have begun looking at potential new locations.

They hope to raise enough money to put down a down payment on a space that has roughly 1,500 square feet for the business and more that could be rented out to provide income. A GoFundMe page has already raised nearly half of its $20,000 goal— and, on Feb. 2, Naylor posted a thank you message on Facebook.

“Wow. Less than 72 hours from starting this GoFundMe, people have contributed almost $8,000,” he wrote. “We are a community. There have been many souls that have found themselves here. There are many souls that have found their others here. There are many souls who have found a home here.”

It’s clear that Naylor believes the community will find the Neutral Ground no matter where it moves.

Categories: Dining/Entertainment, Real Estate, Today’s Business News