The changing face of St. Claude Avenue neighborhood in flux
The 20-something man walked into a coffee shop on St. Claude Avenue, where a mural of a reclining, three-eyed giant lined one wall. He told the woman behind the counter he wanted something soothing for the cold he was fighting.
Before she prepared his beverage, she told him to inquire about a tincture of echinacea at an herb shop on nearby Franklin Avenue. It was the key to fighting off the worst symptoms of the bug plaguing the neighborhood, she said. Her beyond-the-call-of-duty kindness seemed to clash with the confrontational, profane tattoos visible beneath her sleeveless T-shirt.
Such scenes play out daily in New Orleans’ newest bohemia, where, in the years since the 2005 flood, anti-establishment practices have become woven into the fabric of everyday life in the neighborhood. Not everyone approves of the changes.
Long before Katrina, however, artists, young professionals and others had sought out the city’s downriver neighborhoods for their reasonable rents, vintage architecture and their alluringly gritty atmosphere, as well as the entertainment options along Frenchmen Street.
But the change has gone into overdrive of late. Consider this: According to census figures provided by Tulane geographer and author Rich Campanella, in the first decade of the 21st century, the black population of Bywater – defined here as the area bounded by Press Street, the Mississippi River, and Poland and North Claiborne avenues – fell by more than half. Over the same span, the white population actually grew by more than 20 percent, though whites remain a minority in the area.
Real-estate values have also changed dramatically. According to July figures from the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of Realtors, the price for undamaged homes in the 70117 ZIP code – which includes some of Marigny, Bywater and Lower 9th Ward – had risen from $75 per square foot pre-Katrina, to $130 in 2008 , and to $138 in early 2012.
“The magnitude and velocity” of the changes “may be an extreme in the metro area,” said Campanella, who moved to Bywater 12 years ago.
Accompanying these seismic socioeconomic shifts have been post-flood developments such as the flourishing St. Claude Arts District (an association of small, adventuresome galleries), the community-focused New Orleans Healing Center (a combination specialty grocery store, fitness center, café and police substation) and the thriving Fringe Festival of experimental theater, solidifying the area’s trendy identity. A planned streetcar line, riverside park and renovated St. Roch Market promise to further speed the alteration of downtown’s landscape and lifestyle.
Some think such changes bring with them an inherent threat to authentic local culture.
On a recent night in a St. Claude cafe, folk singer Peter Orr sought to capture the disagreeable evolution of the downriver neighborhoods. “It’s their town now, it’s their town now” he sang, referring to the arty newcomers and other interlopers who – in his view -- have upset the area’s once-idyllic working-class demographics.
Orr explained that when he moved to Bywater from New York 20 years ago, he had to learn the New Orleans custom of saying hello to strangers in the street. As he wandered the electricity-deprived days after Hurricane Isaac, he said he came to realize that the recent residents didn’t say hello. To Orr, it was a symbol of a fading way of life.
A large part of the appeal of New Orleans’ downriver neighborhoods is that they are among the city’s oldest sections, and they remain largely intact, creating a “time warp” effect, said Historic New Orleans Collection curator and historian John Magill.
Originally mid-income suburbs housing a mix of black Creoles and white immigrants, Marigny and Bywater “rolled out like a carpet” as the city expanded beyond the French Quarter, along the high ground between the river and what is now St. Claude Avenue. Decades later, efficient drainage would permit development to push outward toward the lake.
But as historians might have predicted, the waters from the 2005 flood spared most of the older sections between St. Claude Avenue and the river, while lingering on the lower-lying, lower-income areas toward the lake, to devastating effect. The area’s heady post-disaster mix of blight and architectural richness, poverty and promise, creativity and crime – has proven irresistible to many young home seekers.
Prices are shooting up, said real-estate broker and Marigny resident Dorian Bennett, who noted that properties from Esplanade Avenue all the way to Poland Avenue have risen by 30 to 60 percent in recent years. Especially hot: properties near entertainment and dining establishments. Though most home hunters are searching between the river and St. Claude Avenue, Bennett said, some properties are being snapped up north of St. Claude as well.
Campanella notes that the area’s demographics have been changing for decades, with newcomers in the 1980s starting to convert double houses into singles, diminishing the rental market. But the shift has sped up in the past seven years, Campanella said.
Two factors drive the gentrification, Campanella said: the availability of historic housing stock and proximity to other gentrified areas. Also, in Campanella’s view, many young people across America are starved for what they consider “authentic” experiences that they perceive are available in neighborhoods like Bywater – and perhaps hard to find in newer, more polished places. It’s a term he uses reluctantly: “I believe everything is authentic, and therefore the notion of declaring something to be inauthentic is problematic,” he said.
Gentrification is also a loaded word, of course, and Campanella cautions that income isn’t the only factor in the change from a working-class area to a gentrified one. Some of Bywater’s new residents are quite young and may have low incomes, for instance, but many come from middle-class backgrounds and have higher educational levels.
While gentrification has a negative connotation, Campanella added, those who own their homes can benefit from rising property values. Renters, however, can be priced out; regrettably, the process “uproots older families,” he said.
Magill, too, is ambivalent about gentrification’s effects. He finds it unfair when residents – especially older residents -- are displaced by new home-seekers. On the other hand, gentrification is generally an agent of preservation, which he supports. It may ensure the survival of Bywater’s housing stock.
“The people moving in are attracted to the area the way it is – they want to maintain the buildings the way they look,” Magill said.
Without widespread gentrification beginning in the 1920s, Magill noted, the then-deteriorating French Quarter might have been lost to the wrecking ball.
“There were city boosters,” he said, “who wanted to tear the whole kit and caboodle down and build high-rise buildings.”
Ironically, he noted, the French Quarter has gone so far beyond gentrification that it no longer has the character it once had.
“There’s a fine line” between the benefit and disadvantages of gentrification, he said “and I’ve never personally been able to determine what that fine line is.”
The changes that have remade New Orleans’ downriver neighborhoods during the last decade or two show no sign of slowing down – and, in fact, may speed up.
Later this year, the Regional Transit Authority will bring the Loyola Avenue streetcar tracks down Rampart Street all the way to Elysian Fields Avenue – and perhaps eventually to Poland Avenue.
“Just having that streetcar in the street gives people the feeling that this is an old great community,” says Pres Kabacoff, who lent a guiding hand to the development of the Healing Center on St. Claude. “It’s a powerful magnet.”
Kabacoff, who also developed the Bywater Art Lofts – a 75-unit affordable housing apartment complex for artists in the neighborhood -- thinks the renaissance taking hold along the St. Claude corridor is just the beginning. Thousands of people are choosing to move to the city, both from the surrounding region and across the country, he said. The downtown area offers the best of what New Orleans has to offer, he said: culture, arts, history and architecture. He expects St. Claude Avenue to become a downtown version of Magazine Street.
Campanella disagrees somewhat, saying that St. Claude Avenue, with its four lanes of traffic, is a bit too large and busy to achieve the intimate, outdoor-café ambience of the Uptown business corridor.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “if you want to envision Bywater in 25 years, Marigny and the lower French Quarter are good precedents.”
Campanella tends to avoid value judgments in his observations, noting that cities are organic, constantly evolving ecosystems. Take, for instance, the stretch of Chartres Street that faces the river near Piety Street. Three hundred years ago, he said, it was a hardwood forest that was eventually replaced by sugar cane plantations; those were eventually replaced by industries such as cotton pickeries, breweries and barrel coopers, as well as schools, markets and orphanages.
By the 1920s, he said, the working-class suburb crowded with Italianate shotgun houses physically looked more or less as it does now. What has changed is the commercial uses – such as the New York-style pizzeria, the pro bono law offices, the oilfield-services office in an industrial-chic renovated molasses cannery, the vinyl record store and the retro-chic neighborhood diner – that could be seen from where he stood.
“It’s a neighborhood in flux,’ Campanella said. “Is this a good or a bad thing? Well, really, change has defined most of New Orleans through most of its history.”
Staff writer Doug MacCash can be reached at email@example.com.
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