The New New Orleans: On The Horizon, Even More Change

Ask anyone in New Orleans what they’d like to see happen in their city, and you’ll get a long list of suggestions. Some think crime is the top priority. Others want grocery stores. Some want top quality public schools, and others seek private schools that won’t cost an arm and a leg.

The New New Orleans has far more room to grow and evolve, and developers are already talking about opportunities beyond Freret Street and the Municipal Auditorium.

Two areas come up most often. One is O.C. Haley Boulevard, which sits in a traditionally black and Jewish neighborhood called Central City. The boulevard, named for civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley, who founded the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, is being called The Next Freret. It has attracted a boxing gym that used to be part of Freret, and it will be the home of the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

The avenue boasts grand buildings, many still empty, with plenty of space for developers to launch major projects. It is attracting some of the same supporters and investors who helped Freret come back to life.

Another area that is garnering attention is St. Claude Avenue, which runs through the Bywater, a neighborhood that sits not far from the French Quarter and adjacent to the Marigny. It’s known for an art scene, dive bars and the makings of gentrification, although it remains undeniably funky.Beyond neighborhoods, however, what will guarantee the success of the New New Orleans is the people who commit to it. One of them is Alon Shaya, fast becoming recognized as one of the city’s rising star chefs.

Shaya runs Domenica, a rustic Italian restaurant launched by veteran chef John Besh’s restaurant group. It opened in 2009, steps from Canal Street in the Roosevelt Hotel, the former Fairmont Hotel that itself underwent a post-Katrina renovation. (This month, it was named New Orleans’ restaurant of the year by Eater NOLA.)

Shaya is about as non-native as a New Orleanian can get. He’s Israeli, and has worked everywhere from Philadelphia to Las Vegas to St. Louis. He wound up in New Orleans to work in a restaurant that Besh opened in Harrah’s Casino. Before Domenica opened, Shaya spent a year in Italy on his own dime, cooking and learning various Italian cuisines, before returning to set up his own kitchen.

The city has clearly worked its way into his heart. “When I came to New Orleans, I didn’t realize it was going to be my last stop,” Shaya says. “Katrina sealed the deal for me. I really felt like I could make a difference.”

With restaurants devastated by the storm, chefs set out across the city to cook for recovery workers. Shaya was part of a team cooking for the workers who were rebuilding Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the legendary restaurant in the city’s seventh ward known for its fried chicken.

The construction, which cost $200,000 and was paid for with private funds, was spearheaded by the Southern Foodways Association, which sent volunteers from across the country, led by chef John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.

“I felt like I was needed for the first time,” Shaya says, “by somebody who didn’t know who I was.”

The restaurant business in New Orleans became part of the healing process for many residents left without power and waiting for their homes to be fixed. “What else is there to do? Absolutely nothing, except go to a restaurant,” Shaya says.

He saw a much smaller version play out this summer, when Hurricane Isaac tore through the city. On the Thursday after the storm, 850 customers poured into Domenica, which was one of the few places that had power and an ample supply of ingredients.

But as he has become part of New Orleans, Shaya is also bringing his own background to the food he serves its residents and visitors. Gradually, he’s revising some of his menu to include Middle Eastern touches, and he thinks customers are ready for the changes.

“Young chefs are going out and cooking what means something to them,” Shaya says. “People aren’t resting on their laurels any more. What would have been ambitious five years ago is now expected.”

In a sense, that describes the New New Orleans, too.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

The New New Orleans: 5 Things To Do On Freret Street

Here are community leader Greg Ensslen’s top suggestions for visitors to get the most out of a visit to Freret Street.

1) Attend a fair. The Freret Street Market takes place the first Saturday of each month at the corner of Freret and Napoleon (look for the tents in the big parking lot). There’s food, live music, vendors, and it’s easy to shop even if you don’t have cash. Vendors accept tokens that can be purchased at the market’s main table. There will be two markets in December, including Freretstivus, a holiday theme fair on Dec. 8.

2) Have a drink. Cure, the artisanal cocktail bar credited for the revival of Freret Street, opens each day at 5 p.m. Happy hour runs from 5-7 p.m., with classic cocktails for $5 and half price bottles of wine on Thursday. The mixologists will concoct something exactly to your taste. (I brought a bag of grapefruit from the Crescent City Farmers Market and wound up with a refreshing drink.)

If you’d prefer something non-alchoholic, the High Hat Cafe makes its own tonics, lemonades and other sodas. Satsuma lemonade features real orange slices and fresh mint. Company Burger serves its own style of punch, made with iced tea, lemonade and orange juice.

%Gallery-170745%3) Eat something. Choices are expanding every day, but Ensslen considers Company Burger a don’t miss. There’s Dat Dog for gourmet hot dog lovers, and Midway Pizza, an art gallery/pizza parlor with (no surprise) a fully stocked bar. High Hat is kid friendly, as are many places along Freret.

4) Find a bargain. The Junior League of New Orleans operates the Bloomin’ Deals Thrift Shop, which has been a fixture on Freret since 1960. It has a bridal boutique, where all dresses are under $500, which is open one Saturday a month. The shop’s selection ranges from table ware to clothes and furniture.

5) Walk the neighborhood. Like Freret Street, the surrounding neighborhood is in a state of transition. Some homes are still undergoing post-Katrina renovation; others are still boarded up; some are spanking new. It’s a good example of what happened to a typical New Orleans neighborhood as a result of the storm. Just be respectful of homeowners’ privacy – although it’s likely people will be happy to chat.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credit: Micheline Maynard]

The New New Orleans: Memories Still Locked Behind Closed Doors

New Orleans is a city of festivities – conventions, Mardi Gras balls, graduation ceremonies, entertainment. And for decades, the place where New Orleanians of all races gathered for those events was the Municipal Auditorium, the centerpiece of Louis Armstrong Park.

An afternoon spent at the New Orleans Public Library brings to life a sense of what the auditorium, dedicated in May 1930, meant to this city. Page after page of records and photographs depict ice shows, diving exhibitions, boxing matches, performances by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo.

One of the two meeting halls was hung with bunting for a 1937 gathering of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, the pictures show. The auditorium hosted gatherings of morticians, shown looking over the latest double lined caskets and gleaming stainless steel morgue examining tables.

A list of events for 1953 lists Carnival balls every single night in January except New Year’s Day, often two a night. And the auditorium did not limit itself only a white audience. Joe Louis appeared that year in August with singer Ruth Brown (at an event labeled “All Colored.”) Later on, the auditorium was used as a temporary casino, and housed the New Orleans Jazz basketball team as well as hockey.

This auditorium where so many of New Orleans’ festive events took place still stands across from the French Quarter, in use as recently as 2005, when it was a center for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready To Eat).

But since the aftermath of the storm, the Municipal Auditorium has stood quiet, a looming reminder of the memories locked behind its closed doors, despite years of trying to figure out what can be done with it. It is arguably the single most important civic building in New Orleans that remains shut since Katrina, although there has been plenty of discussion about its future.

%Gallery-170748%In November, the auditorium appeared in the HBO series “Treme,” in a scene set in 2008, in which developers suggest it can become a National Jazz Center. In fact, New Orleans’ former mayor, Ray Nagin, backed a plan to turn it into a state-of-the-art production facility, but that idea fell apart amid criticism from city council members and the city’s inspector general.

There is an inkling of hope, however, that the auditorium may someday be put back into use. In May, the city announced that it planned to use $16.67 million in FEMA grants to begin a restoration, out of a total of $27.5 million that’s been allocated for repairs.

“The city has been very aggressive in working with FEMA to get our fair share of recovery dollars,” Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said in an email. “While these new funds are an encouraging step forward, there is a still a ways to go.”

For one thing, the repairs will have to take place in phases – first, the removal of asbestos and lead from the interior, the replacement of the roof, the stabilization of the roof, and removal of mold which is said to cover much of the walls inside.

But there are no schematics of what the restored auditorium will look like, no architects’ renderings, no visions of how the building could be brought back to life. That’s because more money for the project will be needed, and it simply isn’t there yet, says the mayor’s spokesman.

Its only use, for now, is as the backdrop to events that take place in Armstrong Park, like the Treme Gumbo Festival held in November, and the summer concert series sponsored by People United for Armstrong Park, which had its inaugural season in 2012.

Even though the park has been cleaned up, and is starting to attract a regular stream of visitors, that wasn’t the original goal for Emanuel Lain, one of PUFAP’s founders.

He was actually more interested in the restoration of the auditorium than in fixing up the park when he started canvassing homes in Treme, the neighborhood that backs up to the park. He wanted to know whether neighbors thought it was important to bring the building back to life, and what they might like to see it be used for.

“I saw amazing acts. This was like the center of the universe,” Lain said. “Wrestling matches. Carnival balls. Amazing things happened here.”

It’s surely important to Lain, who attended his high school graduation in the auditorium, which has the indestructible aura of those solidly built 1920s buildings that dot the American landscape. All visitors can see now is its exterior, remarkably unscathed given the damage that Emanuel says has taken place inside.

The words “ART,” “DRAMA,” “ATHLETICS” and “POETRY” are carved in the facade above one entrance, echoing photographs that show the names of famous writers such as “SHAKESPEARE,” “VIRGIL,” “MILLET” and “DANTE” carved on the cornice above the two auditoriums inside. Other words have now joined them. “DO NOT OPEN,” reads a door on the building’s east side.

For now, those photographs, tucked away in the city archives on the library’s third floor, are the only inkling that visitors have to what lies inside. But if Lain gets his way, perhaps those memories can become realities once more. “We did something special,” Lain says of the work that’s taken place to restore the surrounding park. “Now, we want to build on that.”

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

The New New Orleans: Finally, Louis Armstrong Plays Again

North Rampart Street forms the western border of New Orleans‘ French Quarter. On one side, streets named St. Louis, St. Peter and Dumaine lead to picturesque homes, elegant restaurants and rowdy bars. On the other side of Rampart sits a park that’s been both feared and beloved by residents and visitors, avoided by some, a lifeline for others.

Louis Armstrong Park has been through a series of trials in the years since Hurricane Katrina. Named for one of the city’s most famous musical sons, the park that was supposed to be a tribute instead became something to avoid.

Although it houses a historic landmark, Congo Square, where slaves came to socialize and share African rhythms, many tourists never saw it, or were told not to set foot inside. Fences kept many out, including residents of the Treme neighborhood nearby.

The worst insult came in summer 2010, when a botched facelift went awry and a contractor cracked the toe of the Louis Armstrong statue. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered work to stop and the park was closed. The city discovered newly poured sidewalks were cracked, curbs and manholes damaged, and a sprinkler system was improperly installed. Even one of the park’s soaring palm trees was knocked down.

A new contractor was found, work began anew, and finally, last year, Louis Armstrong Park came back to life, a symbol of the New New Orleans that’s evolved since the storm.

%Gallery-170746%Although the 32-acre space is rarely crowded on weekdays, it’s become a stop for visiting tour groups, like a bunch of French teenagers who posed for pictures and generally ignored a guide trying to explain the site’s historic importance.

McKenzie Coco, a new resident of the French Quarter, came to the park with her husband recently to walk their three dogs. “I always felt sad that it wasn’t being utilized,” Coco said. Now, “it’s well-lit, and safe, and it’s a real positive place for the neighborhood.”

Nobody was happier to see the park return than Ben Harwood and Emanuel Lain, the co-founders of People United For Armstrong Park.

Over the past few years, Harwood and Lain have spearheaded community efforts to bring the park back up to life. With almost no corporate backing, and using volunteers, the pair put together a summer concert series that drew 50,000 people to Armstrong Park. They just held a benefit for the concert series, and plan to expand it by more than double for 2013.

Harwood, a native of Detroit who lives in Treme, and Lain, who grew up in New Orlean’s ninth ward but who attended church near the park, met when Lain knocked on Harwood’s door to ask what should be done with the Municipal Auditorium, which sits within the park.

Quickly, the conversation turned to the closed park, and what might be done to help it. Although they were bent on seeing it come back to life, they say their efforts to rehabilitate the park were not always greeted with warmth by its neighbors.

Although they surveyed several thousand residents, and held two public meetings, “some people told us to stop doing it. This was their park,” Harwood recalls. “We had to be bullheaded, and do what had to be done.”

Disaster funds, which are less restrictive than federal block grants, were available, but it seemed like other projects in New Orleans had a much higher priority, and the park was not listed on city officials’ priority list. “Basically, it seemed like the city was just going to keep the park locked, and that was it.”

The organizers gathered 2,000 signatures demanding that the park be reopened, put together a second line parade that stretched from Congo Square to City Hall, and essentially drove home their point that the park was important to the people who lived in New Orleans. “We did a lot of knife-twisting, using the media, to get the city to admit that this park existed,” he said.

Once work got underway, the PULAP group got an unexpected surge of support when contractors cracked the Armstrong statue. “People were really pissed,” Harwood recalls. There was lingering frustration over the fact that a portion of the park remained fenced in, despite all the renovation work that’s taken place.

Although the park now gleams under streetlights in the evening, Lain says there is more to be done to bring the park back to the way it was when he was young. “Those lagoons used to be clean enough to swim in,” he says, gesturing to the ponds on the north side of the park. He and Harwood have numerous ideas, beyond the concert series, to attract more visitors, whether locals or tourists.

Wireless Internet, like the service available in New York’s Bryant Park, could guarantee users all day long, and help people in the neighborhood who don’t have Web access. Food trucks and coffee stands might attract city workers who have few affordable choices. The organizers would like to see the park used by school bands and other young musicians, who could earn their performance stripes by playing traditional New Orleans jazz.

But, for now, says Lain, the improvements will come one step at a time. “This park needed a champion and our organization is just that,” Lain said.

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]

The New New Orleans: A Stroll Down Freret Street

Everyone who visits New Orleans has strolled through the French Quarter at least once (whether they remember or not). Many shoppers have walked some of the three miles of Magazine Street’s commercial zone, while football fans have made their way through the Central Business District en route to the Superdome.

But Hurricane Katrina created an opportunity for other parts of New Orleans to come into their own. One place that many visitors have yet to find is Freret Street, in Uptown New Orleans. And even some locals stay away, because of Freret’s checkered history – which merchants and restaurant owners are doing their best to obliterate.

Freret began as a commercial area for people who were left out of New Orleans’ most powerful social groups: the French Creoles, who governed old society, and the wealthy “English” traders and business owners, who dominated the CBD and built their homes in the Garden District. Instead, the neighborhood, named for brothers William and James Freret, became a refuge for Italian and Jewish residents, who shared the commercial district.

But population shifts took place in the 1950s, driving middle class residents to the suburbs, and by the 1980s, when bakery owner Bill Long was shot and killed in the doorway of his store, Freret was disintegrating.

Help came in 2001 when the National Trust for Historic Preservation adopted Freret Street under its Main Street program. Yet, the neighborhood took a body blow from Katrina, whose damage can still be seen, and its comeback never seemed farther away.

But seven years after the storm, Freret is a symbol of the New New Orleans, where a handful of business pioneers and long time stall warts provided the nucleus for its growth to take place. Bars, restaurants, businesses, and a monthly fair have popped up in a few short years, and the sounds of construction resonate as cars and pedestrians ply the bumpy street between Tulane and Loyola Universities.

“You could see the revolution happening with just a few places, and just a few pieces finally falling into place,” says Greg Ensslen, a property developer and New Jersey transplant who has lived in the neighborhood since 1984.

%Gallery-170747%The growth has happened primarily with support from locals, and some help from out of towners like Chip Apperson, a veteran restaurateur who came down from Memphis with his wife after the storm to restore a home in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood.

Eventually, he bought Long’s bakery and turned it into the family friendly High Hat Cafe. The menu is divided between Louisiana and Mississippi Delta specialties, with home made pies and heavenly fried chicken, and a bar that invites people to settle in for hours.

Still, Apperson says, “It took a while for people to think about coming to this part of town.”

He and other business owners credit one of New Orleans’ trendiest drinking establishments, Cure, for leading Freret Street’s resurgence. Housed in a century old fire station, Cure has become a destination bar that has landed on many of the country’s top-10 lists for its individually crafted artisan cocktails and breathtakingly romantic atmosphere.

Its owner, Neil Bodenheimer, and his business partners envisioned a place that would pay homage to the drinks that made New Orleans’ reputation and create new cocktails tailored to individual tastes.

Ensslen, who can tell you the history of every building in the commercial district, thought Bodenheimer was way ahead of himself when they first discussed the ambitious project in 2008. “I said, ‘Freret isn’t mature enough. Come back in five or six years,'” Ensslen recalls.

Bodenheimer didn’t listen, and Cure began a comeback for Freret that seems to have picked up even more steam in just the past year. “We are farther along in our evolution than we ever thought we’d be,” Ensslen says.

Now, post-Katrina businesses serving everything from pizza to po’boys vie for locations amid places like Freret Hardware and Freret Paint that were already neighborhood fixtures.

One place drawing nearly as much buzz as Cure is The Company Burger, which opened in August 2011, and has already drawn high profile visitors including food television host and writer Anthony Bourdain.

Its menu is deceptively simple: burgers, from beef to turkey and lamb, fries, and a few desserts including brownies made from owner Adam Biderman’s mother’s recipe. But the food is restaurant quality, turned out by highly skilled chefs pulled from other New Orleans establishments.

Biderman, who grew up in New Orleans, decided in 2010 that he wanted to sell burgers and wanted to do so on Freret. “The burger thing was here, and I knew I had to get open,” he said. He found his spot: a 6,400-square-foot day care center in a strip mall with 40 parking spaces, and a week later signed a deal.

His parents were taken aback, not least because the street’s reputation. “I wasn’t allowed to come to Freret Street,” he recalls. And, despite Cure’s presence, his parents and business partners asked, “Are you sure about Freret Street?”

Biderman was. In his original business plan, he estimated the burger joint would attract 200 customers a day. “Now we do 200 a day at lunch on a weekday,” he says. He sold out on his first three days in business, and there are often customers waiting to get in each day when The Company Burger opens.

But despite drawing chefs and locals, Biderman says The Company Burger and Freret, in general, are still not a destination for many visitors. Without a car, Freret isn’t all that easy to reach. The business district is several blocks from the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, with infrequent bus service. You may wait a few minutes or more for your taxi to arrive, although everyone says cab drivers are getting savvy to the activity.

Despite burgers and the hot dogs served at Dat Dog, some local business owners think the street is in danger of becoming overpriced, especially for the contractors who swing by the paint and hardware stores early in the day for supplies. There isn’t much retail, although there have been rumors a Trader Joe’s might open up nearby.

Biderman, though, sees “nothing but potential” for Freret, which he thinks is becoming its own brand. Even if tourists don’t find their way to the street, the New New Orleans will thrive regardless.

“People are aggressively taking back their own neighborhoods,” he says. “There’s a young, exciting energy among people who have decided to make their lives here.”

For more on the New New Orleans, click here.

[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]