The Mural Mile on New Orleans’ St. Claude Avenue

graffiti on former hospital on St. Claude

New Orleans   For decades the ACORN headquarters has been somewhere around the intersection of St. Claude Avenue and Elysian Fields Avenue.  We were ten blocks from the Mississippi River for many years, and we are again.  The old riddle used to be, “What street has its head in the river and its feet in the lake?”  The answer would be Elysian Fields.

Decades ago, there was no riddle that clung to St. Claude Avenue.  It was a no-man’s stretch of old furniture stores, fast food outlets, repair shops, garages, and whatever that stretched from Fauberg Marigny at the base of the historic French Quarter to the St. Bernard Parish line.  The avenue has a neutral ground, as it’s called in New Orleans, meaning a green space between the lanes of traffic on either side, and happens to be a state highway, which means that there is always an argument over whether the broke-ass city repairs it or the broke-ass state.  Need I say more?

Part of the legacy of St. Claude’s hardcore, working class history is being challenged by increasing gentrification in both Marigny and Bywater.  House prices have soared.  Hipsters are ubiquitous.  A new restaurant or bar seems to open – or close – every week.  Magazines and newspapers regularly list Bywater as one of the best or most livable or whatever the flavor of the month might be, neighborhoods in the country.  This is a city, so one of the responses somewhere between anarchistic vandalism and guerilla resistance has been a proliferation of graffiti.  Increasingly, what had been random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and street art.

Fair Grinds Coffeehouse and office mural

 

First, murals were a last-ditch effort at property defense.  Our building on St. Claude had two long fences, one a wooden fence between Beauty Plus on the corner of St. Claude and our property and the other a plain cinder block wall behind our gate leading to Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in the back of our building.  Four years ago, we recruited a young muralist named Danae, someone knew from Montreal, who painted an allegorical mural from street to building about ACORN, Fair Grinds, and the recovery of New Orleans from Katrina.  Graffiti was a constant problem at Beauty Plus.  Every few months the owner grey-washed the building, but nothing seemed to stop the vandalism.  The same problem was constant on our wooden fence.  Finally, in desperation I told the Beauty Plus owner I was going to have a mural painted on the fence.  He scoffed at my waste of time, but said “good luck” to my foolishness.  A former barista and artist, Maddie Stratton took the job on, and got it done, and damned if it didn’t work.  Graffiti continued to be a problem at Beauty Plus, but not at our building.  Problem solved!

Beauty Plus murals

Fast forward until now, and we have Mural Mile.  Beauty Plus learned the lesson and is now covered with murals.  Tourists and passersby regularly stop traffic to take pictures.  Part of our old building has a mural.  Harriet Tubman is across the street on a fence.  Down the block a Big Freedia does her thing.  Fats Domino and Aretha Franklin have their places in the mile along with second line and neighborhood bands.  Businesses from nurseries to the local food coop are part of the trend now.  Even in the midst of the neighborhood changing since Katrina from 70% nonwhite in the Bywater to 70% white under gentrification assault, the roots and reality of the city continue to be everywhere, larger than life in the Mural Mile along with catfish and pelicans.

next door to our building

Harriet Tubman

Big Freedia

Fats Domino

This is street art and still part of the resistance, since the Historic District Commission which includes these neighborhoods still wants to insist that they should be allowed to permit and license muralists and murals between $50 and $500.  Rumor has it that some group is paying muralists to spite the regulations believing free speech should be allowed on private properties.

Food Co-op

area St. Claude & Franklin

The movement creating the Mural Mile is art and civic beautification.  Even past the Mural Mile on St. Claude there are still signs that the people are everywhere in one sign past the railroad tracks that warns the police that people – and their cameras – are watching.

warning to police that cameras are watching

 

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Katrina and Maria, More Disaster Anniversaries and Lessons Unlearned

Screenshot of Gwen Adams’ interview on WWLTV https://www.wwltv.com/video/news/lower-9th-ward-13-years-after-katrina/289-8234818

Greenville        In New Zealand we were asked, “How is New Orleans?”  In California, whether Santa Rosa or Sonoma, the question arose, “How is New Orleans?”  Thirteen years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through the city, and the question is still important, “How is New Orleans?”  The answer:  better than it was, but not as good as it needs to be.

That’s not a whine, just a statement of fact.  Another new Mayor is now in charge, our first woman, an African-American again, and our first non-native born in a long, long time.  There’s hope mixed with thirteen years of cynicism.  Too many plans have been made without enough progress.

The big local television station reached out for ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, so that they could dig deep into the lingering impacts felt by one of their leaders, Gwen Adams.  They wanted to tell the story through a personal lens, but her organizational t-shirt cries out about how political this is.  Gwen lives within a spit of the levee in the lower 9th ward.  She was a union teacher in the New Orleans Public School System.  She was fired like thousands of others, and despite the fact that she was a former Teacher-of-the-Year in Orleans Parish, she was never offered a return to work.  She was also unwilling to go to work at lower pay, forfeited retirement and other benefits, and no job security or protection for a charter operator.  She is now a sometimes substitute teacher.  She is a great ACORN and ACV leader.  These are the facts.

The facts are also being reckoned with in Puerto Rico almost a year after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria.  The governor there actually apologized, which is a refreshing surprise.  He also announced that the death total is now estimated at near 3000 people compared to the earlier estimates that were hardly one-hundred.  In the same report, the news story mentioned that the death total from Katrina is still not known absolutely.  The governor noted that they had no disaster plan that assumed no power, no highway access, and no communication.  George Washington University in the District of Columbia has been doing a study for them, but it is hard to believe there will be any surprises.

A spokesperson for the Milken Institute argued that the lesson of Puerto Rico is “focus as much as possible on lower-income areas, on people who are older, who are more vulnerable.”  A survey from Kaiser Health Foundation and others in Texas in the wake of Harvey found that the same populations were still suffering there.  We all thought that was also the lesson learned from Katrina thirteen years ago.

When are we going to be willing to really act on the lessons we keep being taught after disasters?  No one seems to know – or act on – the lessons we keep being forced to learn at the price of suffering and death.

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