There have been several ribbon-cutting ceremonies lately on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, and more are on the way. The community-based revitalization plan for the commercial corridor, driven by non-profits, is now looking to private business to keep it moving.
The 10 blocks between Jackson Avenue and Calliope Street are crammed with construction crews. Workers are fixing building facades. A jazz center spearheaded by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield is taking shape. So is a grocery store.
But there’s a component to the Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard development that involves carefully placed occupants for the historic neighborhood.
Carol Bebelle is president of the Oretha Castle Haley Merchants and Business Association. She says her group should not be confused with a Chamber of Commerce.
“Central City is about a lot of history, a lot of culture and a lot of commerce. And there was no need to have to sacrifice one for the other,” Bebelle says. “The vitality is being developed by the fact that we are integrating all of these things.”
What she’s looking for can been seen a few doors down from her office in the Ashé Cultural Arts Center
Inside the lobby of the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center is the Church Alley Coffee Bar. Owner Renee Blanchard partitioned out the space using reclaimed doors mounted on wheels. Furniture was donated from family and friends.
Blanchard opened in January last year, after teaching herself — through online videos — how to be a barrista. Now 35, she was looking for a change from the community organizing she did after the BP oil spill.
“It really hasn’t been a big change at all,” she says. “It’s a nice sharing of information, understanding what issues are important to us right now, learning about new issues that I hadn’t heard about before. And trying to, like, put people together.”
Blanchard says there is a strong synergy along the boulevard that restoration is a team effort.
“I can’t be successful if Café Reconcile isn’t successful, or Ashé isn’t booming over there, you know, or the kids that go to the high school aren’t succeeding in their classes,” she says.
Blanchard says she’s concerned that businesses that do come in remain tied closely to the community. Despite what some say about the neighborhood being dangerous, that has not been her experience.
“When I told friends — good friends of mine — that I was going to open a coffee shop in Central City, they were like, ‘You are crazy.’ And people didn’t come because people were still scared of this neighborhood and of this area. And that’s not true. People are bringing their grandparents, their mons here. They’re coming in regularly. And the tide is definitely turning on this boulevard for how comfortable people feel.”
Chef Adolfo Garcia has had success opening restaurants in up-and-coming areas. He’s noted for the well-received High Hat Café on Freret Street.
About a year ago, Garcia opened the Casa Borrega restaurant on the boulevard. He liked what he saw on the street.
“I looked around and I said ‘Wow. This is really kind of something that looks good. It looks like it’s got some great potential.’ And I think my wife kind of looked at me like I was kind of crazy,” he says. “Because I feel like I have the ability to see beyond what’s just on the front, and I look down the line.”
Garcia is now renovating a vacant childcare center into a restaurant he hopes to open in the spring.
“It’s definitely going to reflect kind of where we are,” he says. “It’s gotta be, you know, well-priced and casual enough to where it’s very inclusive to anybody that wants to come down here. Everybody loves to eat, so people go, like, ‘Well. I normally wouldn’t go in that restaurant but, you know what, I heard the food’s really good.’ And they’ll come.”
On the Calliope Street entrance to the neighborhood is the New Orleans Mission. It’s a homeless shelter where dozens of men line up nightly along the boulevard — but that is going to change.
Executive Director David Bottner knew when he started his job two years ago that the Mission, located in a run-down former store, needed fixing. A $6 million renovation plan is in the works and should start construction by the end of this year. It will include the shelter entrance being moved off the boulevard.
“We wanted to make it a unique Mission that was not like anything else in the United States — that it was very attractive to not only the homeless, where it was clean and beautiful on the inside, but that it was attractive to the business community as well,” he says. “And even the neighbors, so that it didn’t take away from people’s values of their homes, but it actually adds value to the community.”
Bebelle says the neighborhood’s relationship with the Mission is an example of a unique partnership.
“Many places would have made it their business to get the Mission off their street,” says Bebelle. “That never was the effort that we undertook. We undertook the effort to make sure that our homeless neighbors were being well taken care of, and to push for the Mission to cooperate with the vision for the boulevard.”
She says she hopes the way the neighborhood develops can someday be used across the country. “We’re a prophetic city for the country,” she says. “And we’re certainly a part of the prophetic city: New Orleans.”