If you’re driving down Broad Street in the evening, you might notice some new bright neon signs. They're a collaboration between the Arts Council of New Orleans, local designers and a local community development non-profit.
As more businesses boast neon signs along this historic corridor, The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the most recent organization to partner with Broad Community Connections and the Iconic Signage Project.
Broad Community Connections is the organization in charge of developing the old Schwegmann’s grocery store on Broad St. It’ll house a Whole Foods and several community based organizations. But that’s not all they’ve been working on: Executive Director Jeff Schwartz says wants longstanding businesses on Broad St. to shine, too.
"We had been brainstorming how a very eclectic corridor like Broad St., how we could really try and start to unify the corridor. So what we decided to do was create a signage project that harkened back to the heyday of Broad St., and the very specific inspiration was Crescent City Steaks and their very iconic sign that reflected what the business actually did — sell steaks."
Last month, the project helped out a Broad St. icon that’s not exactly a business, unless you count serving drinks and throwing coconuts: The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Newly elected Zulu President Naaman Stewart says that his 600 members were open to a new look, which is notable considering how long the organization has been around, and the importance placed on preserving certain traditions.
Stewart explained that although Zulu welcomed the neon sign, there was still some concern from the group. "For the longest this organization has been defined by, you know, the black and gold checkerboard door — which is still there — but also the arcing of the 'Social Aid & Pleasure Club', and obviously the '732' N. Broad below that. So there’s a huge identity to that sign, so much that it created a certain anxiety about how it would look and how it would feel — how it would be received."
But there were other concerns, because Zulu and Broad Community Connections experienced some tension last year. Zulu also had eyes on the Schwegmann’s building, as a way to expand its headquarters. The current club sits just a few blocks away at the corner of Broad St. and St. Ann.
The owners of the Schwegmann's building approached Zulu, and the club got excited, even sending out a premature tweet about the potential purchase. Naaman Stewart was not yet in office, but remembers this time. "Well, there had been some talk in the media that we were going to acquire or purchase that property; that turned out not to be the case."
It turns out that the building was already spoken for. Broad Community Connections had a long-standing contract to buy the building, but it had stalled, explains Jeff Schwartz. "We had invested, at that point, over two years of our time and energy into that refresh project, so we were excited to move forward and didn’t want anything to mess that up."
When President Stewart took over Zulu in June of 2012, he made peace over the issue.
"I just felt the need to cut straight to the chase and talk about how we could work together, and talk about how we could make the community better," he says. "I mean, my vision is about bringing people together, it’s about unifying, it’s about kumbaya."
Jeff Schwartz agrees, and sees the silver lining in this recent history between the two organizations.
"I mean, it wasn’t even that we were ever at odds with them," Schwartz says. "I think it was really just that everybody really wants to see something big happen on Broad, and so it was one of those unintended situations where it really brought our two organizations closer together."
So, what could have been a major point of contention resulted in an introduction, and Zulu and Broad Community Connections came together for the new neon sign. Neon letters now spell out "Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club", and the Zulu Crest — a purple shield with a big Z — shines on the wrought iron balcony above. Stewart says his members are pleased with the finished product. Plus, he says it’s great advertising.
"You can ride down the street at night now and look across the street and know that this is the home of the Zulu Social Aid And Pleasure Club," he says. "So this is a good feeling right now, a real warm and fuzzy feeling about Zulu."
And that makes Zulus proud — like Frank Richard, a Zulu member for over 25 years who shared his particularly significant point of view, given he knows a thing or two about signage.
"I am by trade in the sign business," Richard says. "I was a sign painter for years, and I really appreciate a good sign, and that’s a beautiful sign there."
The new sign also speaks to Zulu’s future on the Broad Street Corridor. Developer Jeff Schwartz envisions a mix of old and new storefronts, and signs. He’s hopes new tenants, like Whole Foods, will work with local sign designers and embrace a retro look. That way they’ll shine along with their neighbors, like Zulu, not overshadow them.