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random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and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.
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!
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.
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.
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.