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A Fresh Look for New Orleans' Working-Class Neighborhoods

July 8, 2009

by Emilie Bahr

Just downriver from the French Quarter—New Orleans’ oldest and most famous district—the wrought iron balconies and handsome Creole townhouses give way to a scruffier set of neighborhoods that are getting lots of attention lately thanks to new development plans.

The Faubourg Marigny and Bywater districts in recent years have become the city’s new havens of bohemia—places where artists, musicians and eccentrics thrived after the French Quarter became overrun with tourists (many of them in search of 3-for-1 beer specials) and wealthy folks.

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Now, locals—and good music—are more likely to be found at one of the bars in the Marigny than along bead-laden Bourbon Street.

Hurricane Katrina—the 2005 storm that went down as one of the deadliest in U.S. history—only strengthened the two neighborhoods’ appeal. Like the French Quater, they escaped serious flooding due to their strategic location along the Mississippi River, on some of the city’s highest ground. Today, these traditionally working-class neighborhoods are also the site for an ambitious project set to break ground in the fall that will transform much of the riverfront into a park. Not surprisingly, housing values have skyrocketed and investors are busy buying up the peeling shotgun structures that can still be had at bargain prices.

Running just north of these two neighborhoods is St. Claude Avenue—a stark dividing line between areas of increasing vibrancy and those where the poverty is more heavily entrenched and the flood damage, even four years after Katrina, pronounced. St. Claude today is a patchwork of grand and ramshackle buildings, many of them boarded up and abandoned or donning signs advertising payday loan outlets and fast-food joints. Followed for a few miles, St. Claude leads into the city’s infamous Lower Ninth Ward.

But the avenue is staging a comeback. It is already home to a burgeoning arts community, with galleries and music venues cropping up with regularity alongside funky standards with names like Sweet Lorraine’s and Saturn Bar.

This spring, a group of MIT urban planning students adopted the avenue, tasked with developing a plan for revitalization. In May, they presented their findings at a former St. Claude public school that has been converted into artists’ studios and a performance space.

There is also talk of bringing the city’s iconic streetcar back to the avenue, which was once home to one of 26 streetcar lines that crisscrossed the city at the peak of service in the mid-1920s. Plans to extend the streetcar to St. Claude Ave. have been in the works since the late 1990s, but floundered after funding for the project proved elusive. Transit officials and streetcar advocates are now optimistic that the plan can be realized with the help of public transit funding included in the federal stimulus package. The proposed extension is dubbed Desire, after the streetcar line that once ran parallel to St. Claude and lent its name to Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Among the other players agitating for the St. Claude transformation is developer Pres Kabacoff, who intends to soon begin construction on a multi-million dollar “Healing Center” to be housed in a former furniture store along the avenue. The multi-purpose center will include such signature urban amenities as a yoga studio, food co-op, organic café, and meditation space. An athletic 60-something who sports a silver goatee, Kabacoff, through his firm, was responsible in the early 1980s for the redevelopment of the city’s Warehouse District, then a mishmash of discarded one-time manufacturing facilities, into the high-end condos and apartments of today.

Kabacoff’s current venture, undertaken with his voodoo priestess girlfriend, has garnered widespread praise. Still, there are those who wonder how they figure in to the grand plans being hatched in their midst. The concerns are perhaps most pronounced among the residents of the mostly poor, African-American neighborhoods on the northern side of St. Claude.

As Reggie Lawson, an African-American resident of a nearby neighborhood told me: “You can’t force evolution. They want coffee shops and antique boutiques and on and on and on. That’s not the history of the neighborhood.”

His concerns might be exaggerated, but they speak to an ongoing challenge among myriad ones confronting New Orleans as it continues to rebound from Katrina: balancing the new opportunities that stand to benefit the city as a whole with the interests of those that help make it so special in the first place.

Emilie Bahr is a guest blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. She is a staff writer at New Orleans CityBusiness.

Tags: French Quarter, New Orleans

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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