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random splotches praising Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails or wall defacings by someone calling himself, “Achoo” has been replaced by what I am going to start calling the “Mural Mile,” a colorful and sometimes deeply historic, cultural, and beautiful confluence of advertising, homage, and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

11096396_1064931363535826_3795957975232855805_oNew Orleans     Opening a new location of our social enterprise Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans was a relief even if we’re still shaking out the kinks, installing the ice machine, this and that.  How we get the word out for our soft opening and early weeks has been a constant conversation filled with many ideas.  One will say how we need to update our social media on Facebook and our website.  Ok, let’s do that.  Another will say, let’s open up for events, a baby shower here, a violin recital there, and a local meeting here and there.  Sounds good, Ok, let’s do that, too.  But, you can’t take an organizer off the streets, so what I wanted was flyers and lots of them and bigger flyers that I could put up on telephone poles, bus stops, and wherever people might gather.  Would it work?  Who knows, but it’s what I know, and what I like, so….

A week of rain finally stopped and I had a commitment from my son, Chaco, to hit the streets with me, so he could take one side, and I could take the other.  I wanted to hit the immediate neighborhood behind our offices and the coffeehouse that was still in the throes of change between a lower income – working African-American neighborhood and the first waves of urban pioneers and families grabbing something semi-affordable in one of our last slivers of a neighborhood in transition, but still close to the French Quarter and the red-hot Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods.  We had cloudy skies, bright pink flyers, and away we went.

Going block to block, door to door, and flyering is always an education, and it’s hard to get one better than street-side.  You miss things from the windshield that are uncovered walking your dogs along the sidewalks and up and down the porches.  The added benefit on a Saturday afternoon is that you also have some stoop sitters, mailbox checkers, and random walkers and workers on the street that can be engaged in conversation.

Until the rain drove us off the turf, Chaco and I managed to cover the grid for an hour.  Almost half the houses are in transition, either “fixed and fine” or under construction in one way or another.  I had not realized this corridor was going so fast.

On the street, neighbors were making the adjustment.  An African-American couple sitting on their porch yelled out at a young 20’s something white couple with the young man uncomfortably wearing a tie, that they looked good dressed up, while the youngsters tried to laugh it off as they walked down the middle of the street.

We had conversations on both sides of the line.  Old residents, some barbequing on their porches or sitting in the shade were uniformly friendly, usually asking if we served breakfast.  They knew our location as next door to the beauty supply house.  Newcomers knew us as next door to the hipster-punk bar, Sibera.

One bicycle rider reminded me that he was already a regular. Right on!  A guy working on his house asked through the window if we were connected to ACORN and then said that he had been a midnight to 2 AM DJ with a woman named May in 2008 and 2009 at KABF in Little Rock, and I told him to get his act together to do the same thing on WAMF once we were on the air in New Orleans.  A big guy bushwacking around the old, abandoned Annunciation church buildings told me it would be some years before they were returned into community service, but they were starting.  He knew about the coffeehouse and returned the flyer so we would save money.  The grandson of the Cuban tire dealer who sold us the building was on St. Rock behind the new food court that just opened, but said he would be by soon for a cup of coffee.  Chaco found outstretched hands from all of the service workers behind the building who were desperate for a place to have a cup of coffee that was away from their workplace.

Raindrops as big a dimes started falling on us as we came back towards the coffeehouse where a baby shower was in progress behind the iron gates and pink ribbons were tied above the sign saying, “closed, open at 6 am.”

We had the flyers out and were really part of the neighborhood, both old and new, now.

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