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random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and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

Bywater's McCarthy Square Arch

Bywater's McCarthy Square Arch

New Orleans        Having been on extended home-leave of almost a month before I hit the road again soon for Toronto, New York City, and DC, it’s been interesting taking the new measure of my neighborhood in New Orleans.  Bywater has morphed from what the New York Times called a “working class neighborhood” several miles east of the French Quarter to something they now describe as “bohemian.”  What to make of all of this?
Some of it is actually true.  Some of it is even a good thing.  Not all of it, but definitely some of it.
A couple of days I tagged along with my daughter and a bunch of her gal-pals to something called a “pizza speakeasy.”  Basically a couple of fellas had built a big adobe looking oven in their backyard, cleared out the first couple of rooms in an old house in the hood for benches and a band, built a campfire surrounded by plastic chairs in the backyard, flung swirling dough high into the naked branches of their one tree, sold pizzas for $12 with some simple drinks, and packed the place out.  Interestingly, the hometown paper had reported on new Mayor Mitch Landrieu eating at a similar pizza speakeasy called “Pizza Delicious” at the end of last year without qualms or hesitation.  License?  Don’t’ ask anyone about a “stinking” license in the post-Katrina young hipster magnet the greater Bywater area had become.  This was a party-scene pure and simple, not a health department concern.  A couple of guys make their rent and groceries for one night of long work over a hot fire for a night, and a 100+ twenty-somethings warded off the cold with weak drinks, a small fire, and two-hour waits for pizza that was at best “fair.”

Welcome to my Bywater, 2011 version!
Yesterday an itinerant barber was giving haircuts in the sun on my patio for $20 a pop, carrying his tools like a jornalero.  The same day a big time developer who built his house on the corner of the next block, one-hundred feet away from me, was featured in the paper’s Saturday real estate section showing off his place and its many unique features, many from Mexico and the East, as well as the two voodoo altars.  None of that was a radical as his saying that this wildly expensive Bywater mansion had been built without air-conditioning.  Now that is radical in New Orleans!  He finished the story by saying he liked looking out his window at our street sometimes and seeing something like a clown riding a high-seated bicycle up the street.  Maybe he can make it here after all?

After Katrina the hip coffee spot was the “Sound Cafe,” but it was actually across the Press Street railroad tracks in Faubourg Marigny, closer to the Quarter.   Now, it’s Satsuma Cafe on Dauphine serving eggs and sandwiches as well with a long, well behaved lines and great service but a slow kitchen that the youngish customers don’t seem to mind as part of the price of the new Bywater scene.  Even Elizabeth’s has finally gotten it right again after a couple of bad post-Katrina years, and once again, the crowd there is also a smattering of the new neighborhood and the old standbys like me enjoying a cheap hamburger steak with onions.  Add in the new barbeque place “The Joint” on Poland and the suddenly wildly popular Bachannal wine bar on the same street, and we’re what’s happening!

It’s not exactly gentrification, because hardly anyone can afford to buy in the neighborhood since Katrina proved how high and dry we are.  Property taxes and insurance have both doubled and tripled since the storm as well, and rents are still two and three times what they suddenly were after the storm.  But it is gentrification in the sense that it’s all whiter-than-rain in the Bywater now, compared to the almost statistically pure racial balance that existed here more than 30 years ago when I moved back to the city.  The younger set is willing to “camp out” in $1000 unit rentals, each pitching in their share, in a way that the usual service-sector working family just can’t afford.

Even the affordable rental housing being built from old warehouses in the neighborhood by the new neighbor developer are not straight up section 8’s, but “art lofts” for the Richard Florida crowd, and hugely white in this still majority black city.  An item in Saturday’s paper recorded a $1.2 M real estate transaction for more Art Lofts expansion across the street on Dauphine in this area that was one of the scenes in John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces and the site of a textile workers strike led by my old friend Bill Becker before he ended up in Arkansas for years as president of the state’s AFL-CIO.

The neighborhood library, a half-a-block from me, is filled with young black students early on a Saturday morning doing homework and projects but by the afternoon is hipsters, tattoos, piercings and nose rings, using the computers to check emails and surf the net.  All good!

On the other hand a warehouse fire in recent weeks was the most lethal in 40 years, killing 8 people and a couple of dogs, almost all in their 20’s, and mostly train hoppers and pan handlers at stoplights in the area.  A cold night and an open fire seem to have been the death sentence for the squatters, but this is also part of the bohemian magnet of the Bywater area now in a city desperate for new blood and new people and without the infrastructure or resources to be too prissy and delicate about any of this.
The streets are safer now in a weird way.  Dog walkers are about on Burgundy at all hours of the night and day.  Bicyclers are the same way moving up and down the street to service jobs or friends’ places or whatever all of the time.

I should have known we were knocking on Greenwich Village’s door when I stopped and listened to the lies of the bicycle tour guide at the McCarty Square Arch the first time I saw them.  The tourists ate it up and he wove fact and fantasy about the neighborhood together, hardly noticing that they had to walk around the arch to see the names of the “colored” soldiers memorialized for their service in WWI on the back side while the white soldiers occupied the front.  Now, when I’m around I will see four or five bike tours  at the Arch, the only difference is whether or not they ride with or without helmets, otherwise they give the same stories in the city of tall tales.
We’ve crossed over into a new, strange, disturbing and exciting place in the evolution of Bywater.  Better to be growing than dying, but who knows what this chapter will really end up meaning.

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