Dispatch from New Orleans: Anchoring Renewal with Culture and Commerce

In New Orleans for the Loeb Fall Study Tour, journalist Randy Gragg (LF ’06) took a walk through a former no man’s land where culture and commerce are engineering a turnaround. Maurice Cox (LF ’05) led the field trip.

Just a mile from New Orleans’s Central Business District, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard was once one of the biggest contributors to the stats that made the Big Easy the murder capital of the US. Sitting on high land with real estate prices soaring, it is now poised to become another of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in New Orleans’s comeback. But for a change, the seeds for a more inclusive cultural renaissance have been sewn, as a tour by Maurice Cox revealed.

The 10-block stretch that Maurice showed had the feel of the stage set builders’ busy final hours before opening night of a big performance. Heavy equipment hauled debris from a warehouse destined to become Ervin Mayfield’s Jazz Market just across the street from the recently finished Southern Food and Beverage Museum. A carpenter was finishing the last windows for the historic remodel of the Myrtle Banks School into a new organic food market with an art gallery and flex offices for nonprofits on the upper floor. A crew polished the floors for the new Ashe Arts Center, a multi-arts showcase for African American culture housed in an affordable artists’ housing development. And in his post as associate dean for community engagement, Cox only weeks before opened a new 7000-square-foot headquarters for the Tulane City Center in the former environs of the Kauffman’s department Store.

None of this was even imagined before Hurricane Katrina.

Haley Boulevard’s rebirth, Maurice explained, began with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s 2012 moved out of City Hall into a new headquarters on the street with storefront commercial below and senior housing behind, the first new building of any kind, as he put it, “in a long time.” Along with that building, developer Kathy LaBorde and her Gulf Coast Housing Project did a series of adaptive reuses of nearby buildings. NORA injected $7.1 million in gap loans and façade improvement grants that have helped bring to life everything from Café Reconcile (the youth empowerment center that served as Loeb Fall Study Tour headquarters) to Friday Night Fights, a boxing club.

Momentum continued to build with the NY mission-driven real estate firm Alembic Development’s auction purchase of the Myrtle Banks School. Project manager Jonathan Leit led the Loebs on a tour of the soon-to-open building. A partnership with local food wholesalers Jack & Jakes will turn the former school into a food hub, allowing shoppers (including those using SNAP) to access meats, poultry, fish, and vegetables at similar farm- and ocean-direct prices to those offered to chefs at local restaurants. Jack & Jake’s rents will be “buffered in the early years,” according to Leit, as volume rises to the 1,500 retail shoppers per day needed to be profitable.

The tour ended at the new Tulane City Center, the first off-campus outpost the university has ever created. Emerging from Tulane’s post-Katrina re-creation as a university devoted to service, the five-year-old Center has partnered on numerous projects, ranging from the remodel of the flood-devastated Circle Foods Store to outdoor tables and garden for Pyramid Wellness Institute for developmentally disabled adults.  But appointed as director in 2012, Cox (with help from developer Neal Morris, LF ‘07) gave the Center a footprint in the Haley Boulevard neighborhood, first in a rented 700 square foot space but now in a freshly finished remodel of the former Kaufmann Department Store (another redevelopment by LaBorde and Gulf Coast). A gallery and community meeting area faces the street with studios and a woodshop in the rear.  Through a leaseback arrangement, Tulane will own the building in seven years.

Katrina devastated New Orleans in ways that changed the city and its people forever. Gentrification promises a nearly equal wave of change. But Maurice Cox’s tour of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard suggested that the culture can be anchored if the public-private partnerships and institutions come back first.

Photos by Barbara Epstein unless otherwise noted
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